making plans

New York City inches towards a diversity plan for middle schools in a segregated Brooklyn district

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 51 in Park Slope is one of the most selective middle schools in District 15.

After sustained pressure from advocates and elected officials, the New York City education department is taking steps towards a plan to promote diversity in middle schools across an entire district — which would make it one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio to date.

In the coming months, the department will launch a community-input process to gather ideas about how to create such a system in Brooklyn’s District 15, where the middle schools are sharply segregated by race and class.

But in a show of how difficult the work could be, at least one well-connected community organizer has already declined to join the city’s efforts, saying communities of color haven’t been included in a meaningful way before now.

“It’s a cold-call,” said Javier Salamanca, who has led efforts to fight overcrowding in the district, but turned down the offer to join the unfolding diversity work. “There’s no relationship.”

District 15 has unique potential to integrate its middle schools. While segregation is often blamed on residential patterns, the district uses a choice-based enrollment system that lets families apply to any middle school in the district — even ones far beyond the neighborhoods where they live. The district also enrolls a diverse mix of students from the affluent neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, as well as the heavily immigrant communities of Red Hook and Sunset Park.

However, 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s middle schools, according to an analysis by parents pushing for changes to the admissions system.

“It’s clear that some of our middle schools do not reflect the diversity of our district,” said District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop. “We want to make sure there is equity of access for all children.”

The city awarded a $120,000 contract earlier this year to WXY Studio, an urban planning and design firm, to create a public-input process in District 15, where parents have lobbied for years for changes to the middle school admissions process. Experts said the process could become a blueprint for other districts interested in pursuing their own integration plans.

The firm — which, among other high-profile projects, helped the city create a development plan for East Harlem — has already started to assemble a working group of parents, educators and local advocates. The group of about 15 members will host a series of public meetings to gather feedback and develop a proposal to change student enrollment in the district.

The city hopes to have a plan by the end of the current school year. Earlier this year, the department announced a district-wide diversity plan for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

Councilman Brad Lander, who represents part of District 15 and has been an outspoken advocate for school integration, called the process a “big opportunity.”

“That the department of education has wanted to commit to this is encouraging,” he said. “Taking district-wide steps to combat school segregation and achieve more integrated schools is a fundamentally important next step.”

Advocates are paying close attention to the makeup of the working group, which has already been the source of friction.

Salamanca, the co-founder of Make Space for Quality Schools in Sunset Park, who declined to join the working group, said that integration is not a top concern for parents in his community — which includes many Mexican and Chinese immigrants. They are more worried about severe school overcrowding, which leads to packed classrooms and limited space for things like science labs, he said.

The working-group invitation felt more like an effort to create the appearance of diversity than a real attempt to listen to the parents in his community, Salamanca added.

“As one of the few grassroots groups organizing parent voices in Sunset Park,” he wrote in a statement posted on Facebook, “we choose not to be tokenized for the purposes of this initiative.”

His reservations reflect a deeper criticism of the city’s budding integration movement: that it’s dominated by white middle-class parents and needs to draw on a wider range of perspectives.

“This issue can have the effect of alienating communities of color,” said Matt Gonzales, who promotes integration policies through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. The tension over the District 15 working group “is one of the clearest indications of that.”

Skop, the district superintendent, said the education department is open to feedback about how the input process should proceed. And she emphasized that the city wants to involve parents from across the district.

“I think as people see we really want to hear their voices, people will be much more eager to work with us,” she said. “We very much want to hear from all areas of the district.”

Brown v. Board

In her own words: Remembering Linda Brown, who was at the center of America’s school segregation battles

Linda Brown (center) and her sister Terry Lynn (far right) sit on a bus as they ride to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Linda Brown, whose name became part of American history through the Brown v. Board of Education case, died Sunday.

She became the center of the legal and political battle to integrate U.S. schools after she was denied access to an all-white school down the street in Topeka, Kansas in 1950. Her father and several other parents sued with the help of the NAACP, and their case made it to the Supreme Court.

When they won, it set a lasting legal precedent. Brown was attending an integrated junior high school by then, and she later recalled the initial desegregation of local elementary schools going smoothly. But over the course of her life, she saw the reality of school integration fall short, locally and nationally.

In Topeka, where Brown would send her own children to public school, some elementary schools remained disproportionately black. In 1979, Brown was part of a lawsuit to re-open the case, which eventually resulted in a 1993 desegregation order for the city’s school district. Across the country, schools remain highly stratified by class and race; in many districts, court orders have ended and schools have quickly resegregated.

Brown seemed ambivalent about the spotlight that came with her name, and some news articles recount failed attempts to reach her. But she often spoke at anniversaries of the 1954 ruling — and while she called it a victory, she wasn’t shy about expressing disappointment at just how much the Brown case itself didn’t achieve.

Here she is, telling her own story over the course of a lifetime.

“I was kind of afraid at first. I didn’t talk about it very much, I guess, because I was afraid it would get back to someone who would make trouble.”

“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions, and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in the history books!’”

— 1961 interview with the New York Times, when Brown was 17

 

“It was not the quick fix we thought it would be.”

— 1984 New York Times interview marking the 30th anniversary of the ruling

“Brown was a very necessary victory. It opened up doors to entertainment, housing, education, employment. All facets of black life was affected by Brown. After 30 years, yes, you do feel that Brown is still not fulfilled. Which is very disheartening to me. I find that after 30 years, desegregation of schools is still very much the issue of today.”

— May 1984 interview with ABC News, marking the 30th anniversary

 

“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all black school. Being a young child, when I first started the walk it was very frightening to me um, and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

— 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years

 

“It is very disheartening. We are still going through the old arguments.”

— 1989 interview, again in the New York Times, at age 46

 

“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”

— 1994 Washington Post story, “Ruling’s Promise Unkept In Topeka,” on the ruling’s 40th anniversary

 

“It’s disheartening that we are still fighting. But we are dealing with human beings. As long as we are, there will always be those who feel the races should be separate.”

— 1994 New York Times story, “Aftermath of ’54 Ruling Disheartens the Browns”

“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”

“I ran across a quote, in a new book by one of our black women authors — her name is Mildred Pitts Walter — that I believe says it all. ‘It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.’”

— 2004 speech at the Chautauqua Institution, near the ruling’s 50th anniversary

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.