“I’m a data person,” says Pamela Mills, a brisk Hunter College professor with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry. Back in 2000, test-score data led Mills and her wife, Eda Kapsis, to buy a two-bedroom co-op in the P.S. 321 zone in Park Slope. More recently, as Owen Kapsis reached fifth grade, the data drove the family somewhere else—into the general panic over competitive middle-school options in District 15, which stretches from the Slope and Cobble Hill to Sunset Park and Red Hook. On paper the district is more mixed than most: 40 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, 16 percent black, and 16 percent Asian. But as Mills could readily see, the balance failed to translate to individual schools.
By the late 1990s, District 15 had replaced neighborhood middle schools with “choice,” a process with deep roots in New York City. It’s a yearlong gauntlet that kicks off in fourth grade with the state’s make-or-break standardized tests. Fifth grade is swallowed by tours, open houses, forums, and fairs in autumn; applications, more tests, and interviews in winter; assignments and appeals in late spring. Children and schools are aligned by algorithm via the city’s Department of Education. It’s like the matching program for medical residents, but for 10-year-olds.
As Mills began crunching her numbers in 2012, they just didn’t add up. A growing population within the district targeted three high performers: M.S. 51, the Slope’s traditional mainstream choice; Math & Science Exploratory, a younger, smaller, hotter entry; and New Voices, an audition-based school. In aggregate, they enrolled one child for every seven applications. (To make the squeeze even tighter, students could apply to only two of the three; it’s unheard of to get an interview unless you rank them first or second.) Based on Mills’s calculations, there were almost 1,500 proficient readers in Owen’s cohort in the district, but only about 900 desired seats. Even after the perennial exodus to private schools, one in five P.S. 321 families could be without a spot they wanted.
Marge Keiser, the parent coordinator at P.S. 321, has guided ten classes of parents through the middle-school process, “and it’s more agonizing every year.” But most Park Slope parents lived in “an elementary-school bubble,” she says. Surely their child was too bright and well behaved to get passed over.
Mills, however, was trained to weigh contingencies. She began hunting for a plan B.
If the city’s narrative du jour is the race and class divide, it is nowhere more pointed than on Seventh Avenue in the heart of Park Slope. Here you will find Owen’s alma mater, ultrahigh-performing P.S. 321, a bland, tan, boxy brick building that lifts real-estate values in its zone. A powerhouse PTA budgeted close to a million dollars last year to fund enviable programs in the arts and keep class size manageable. Three of four students are white; barely one in ten gets free or reduced-priced lunch.
Three blocks down the street sits a century-old, five-story French Renaissance monument: dark brick, gray sandstone, terra-cotta trimmings. It’s the building that once housed John Jay High School, a.k.a. “Thug School,” a.k.a.—in the casual racism of the day—“Jungle Jay.” In the 1970s, as the Slope’s more prosperous residents flew from it en masse, the school began to gain a reputation as a crime-ridden dumping ground for high-needs, underserved children. In 2001, as John Jay was phased out, District 15 merged three existing schools onto its campus. Bill de Blasio was a member of the district’s school board; Carmen Fariña, the superintendent tasked with making the hybrid work. Board president Mark Peters promised “a world-class high school, a local high school that we can all send our children to.”
The reality was chaos in the corridors and paralysis at the top. By 2004, the three schools were split again. Few high-performing students of any color were assigned to them. Two principals say the DOE failed to disburse the start-up money they had coming. (The DOE disputes this.) The aging edifice continued to decay; the middle-class-retrieval campaign was aborted. The biggest obstacle, Peters says, was “to get a community that’s fearful of John Jay into John Jay.”
Today the campus remains notorious as a land of low test scores and high police presence. The top-floor occupant, Park Slope Collegiate, serves grades 6 through 12 and is 79 percent black and Hispanic. Four of five Collegiate students get a subsidized lunch; the great majority live outside Park Slope, in more affordable precincts.
As the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education nears this May, the dichotomy on Seventh Avenue mirrors a national trend. After three decades of high-stakes testing and market-driven federal education policies, according to Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, classrooms in the United States are less integrated today than they were in 1968. Last month, Orfield’s think tank found that public schools in New York State are the most segregated in the country. In New York City, more than half the school districts are categorized as “intensely segregated,” with a white enrollment of less than 10 percent. Thanks in part to the expansion of charters—most of them classed as “apartheid schools” (less than 1 percent white)—black elementary and middle-school students in the city are more racially isolated today than they were in 2001, the year before Michael Bloomberg took office.
At the other pole are the specialized high schools where admittance rests on a single test, a policy assailed for racial bias by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Hispanic and black students total more than two thirds of the city’s public-school enrollment, but only 9 percent at Bronx Science. Of the 952 students offered seats at Stuyvesant next fall, 21 are Hispanic. Seven are black.
Another new and comprehensive study, this one by the U.S. Department of Education, showed that black students are expelled and suspended at three times the rate of white students. In high school, they are less likely to have access to advanced science and math courses. “The most disadvantaged kids are in the most poorly functioning schools, and the most privileged kids are in the most highly functioning schools,” Orfield says. The racial achievement gap becomes self-perpetuating.
The city’s segregated schools are the product of longtime housing discrimination, the growing concentration of both affluence and poverty, and the DOE’s steady expansion of schools of choice throughout the system. In the South, after Brown, “freedom of choice” was a fig leaf to keep separate-and-unequal systems intact; in New York, in 1964, State Education commissioner James Allen dismissed the city’s open-enrollment and free-choice transfer policies as failures. Today, in places like Brooklyn, choice still confers an edge to families able to pay tutors for the standardized tests or get seven-figure mortgages in coveted school zones. An outsize number of these advantaged children are white.
“Individuals tend to choose to be in association with people who are a lot like them—not always, but often,” says Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor who has written widely about schools and inequality. “We live in a very fragmented society, and New Yorkers reflect that fragmentation, and our schools even more so.” In a fiercely competitive culture, people with certain advantages strive to pass them to their progeny. Next to inherited wealth, the “right” schools are essential vessels for privilege. As Orfield has observed, “People who have the most power and information get the best choices.”
In theory, public education is supposed to level the playing field and narrow the opportunity gap. But in practice, according to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the DOE funnels “over-the-counter” students—including new immigrants, the transient and the homeless, the recently incarcerated, and the overaged—into high-poverty high schools, the places least equipped to serve them.
As she headed into the middle-school process, racial diversity wasn’t Pam Mills’s top priority. By her reckoning, Owen was “a typical, smart, disorganized 10-year-old boy” who liked math, science, swimming, and Minecraft. At P.S. 321, she’d observed, her son seemed more willing to take risks in math when working with children with a range of skills—when he was less afraid to make a mistake. He needed to “learn how to learn” and get ready for a good high school.
Through the autumn of 2012, as Mills toured most of District 15’s 11 middle schools, she found the data more and more disturbing. Of the district’s sixth-graders who’d tested as proficient readers the previous spring, 64 percent were swept up by the Big Three middle schools. Meanwhile, the six lowest-achieving schools on average enrolled barely a dozen. (Park Slope Collegiate had about five.) In general, these were also schools with more special-education students and English-language learners, and significantly higher poverty rates.
In 1966, sociologist James Coleman documented the peer effect in his seminal and controversial report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” The socioeconomic status of a student’s classmates, Coleman found, had more impact on individual achievement than funding, curriculum, or even teacher quality. In Montgomery County, Maryland, low-income families were randomly assigned to public housing in both rich and poor school zones; a subsequent study found that those who’d landed in the most affluent neighborhoods narrowed the achievement gap by up to one half.
Mills bridled at the sheer illogic of isolating the most disadvantaged children from higher-skilled peer models, not to mention middle-class money, attention, and political capital. The deck seemed to be stacked against these struggling learners. “When you have 50 percent of your kids really able to do the work, you can start pulling the other kids along,” she says. “But when you’ve got 80 percent proficient in one school and 10 percent in another—that’s immoral. You’re asking people to be Sisyphus. It makes no sense. You’ve got to mix the kids.”
As the December application deadline approached, Mills shared her findings and frustrations with other parents from Owen’s class. She asked them to think about designating a common third choice, outside the Big Three, just in case—a path that would lead to an under-the-radar school where white children were a small minority. A handful responded. Like Mills, they were primarily concerned about their own child’s spot. Integration was more bonus than necessity, though a seductive one for people like Cassie Schwerner. “Race was an everyday conversation in my family,” she says. Her uncle, Michael Schwerner, was one of the three core activists killed in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi; she has a framed photo of civil-rights leader Bob Moses in her office. Schwerner had long bemoaned the city’s dearth of good choices for middle school. “Why doesn’t every Brooklyn neighborhood have a school like Math & Science?” she says. “They shouldn’t be isolated gems.”
In the end, Mills ranked Math & Science first and M.S. 51 second, leaving the third line blank; despite her research, she had yet to find an option she was comfortable with outside the Big Three. Bumping up against the limits of her data, she could only hope for the best. As another District 15 parent told her, “You just light the incense and pray to the gods.”
In the summer of 2004, Jill Bloomberg arrived at Collegiate—then known as the Secondary School for Research—with a rookie principal’s ambition. (Full disclosure: Bloomberg is a friend of mine.) She took the elevator to the top floor—and almost cried. Classroom lockers were filled with garbage and mice. Mold crumbled from the walls, and a leaking roof showered paint chips on the desks when it rained. Toilets barely flushed in the dingy bathrooms. One day early in her tenure, she opened an ancient classroom door … and it came away in her hand, doorjamb and all.
The new principal set to work. She asked the custodians to remove the lockers and made sure students had class schedules on day one of school. She hired more black and Hispanic teachers to diversify her staff; she bolstered the curriculum with calculus and physics and an elective in Spanish-language film. And just days into her new job, in a move that gave her credibility among students and staff alike, she came out against the building’s metal detectors.
Shortly after coming on the job, eight years before Pam Mills entered the picture, Bloomberg received a delegation of white parents from P.S. 321. They came with a quid pro quo: They would send her their sixth-graders that fall, but only if she gave them a gifted-and-talented track. A graduate of a suburban St. Louis high school where AP classes had next to no black students, Bloomberg viewed tracking as de facto segregation. The parents’ overture was a nonstarter. None of their children enrolled.
There is little argument that integrated schools help low-income students through high school and college and beyond. (A Berkeley economist found that five years in a desegregated school resulted in a 25 percent boost in black male students’ future income.) The issue, says Noguera, is the flip side: “What’s in it for white people? Why should white people support integration?” In many cases their reluctance stems from a fear that non-tracked classes will hold back higher-skilled children. After four decades of work in the field, however, Orfield finds no real basis for these concerns: “The wonderful thing about integration is that it’s a positive-sum game. It doesn’t subtract from the privileged kids, because they’re more determined by their home background, and it adds to the disadvantaged kids, who rely more on schools if they’re going to have any chance at all.”
In fact, studies show that integrated classrooms offer qualitative benefits to the cloistered middle class. White high-schoolers with black or Hispanic partners in chemistry lab are more apt to have cross-racial friendships as adults and to settle in integrated neighborhoods. Their whole lives are enriched.
Over Bloomberg’s first nine years in Brooklyn, a total of 12 students from P.S. 321 enrolled in her school. None of them was white, and all were below grade level. “The community put nothing into that school,” says Marge Keiser, whose son graduated from eighth grade there in 2002. “No consideration, no money, no nothing.” Kathy Pelles, a DOE official who works closely with Bloomberg, urged her to reach out to P.S. 321, among other Park Slope schools—have the principal in for a tour, get to know the guidance counselor. Bloomberg responded much as she had when a DOE bureaucrat advised some modest test prep to improve her school’s numbers. She ignored her.
“The truth is, I wasn’t thinking about integration as a goal,” Bloomberg says. “I just accepted that the schools are wildly separate and wildly unequal and I will fight to make them equal. It was beyond my ability, but there was a part of me that wanted the school to succeed in spite of Park Slope.” She knew how smart her students were, how hard they worked to succeed with half the resources of their better-off peers. She rejected the notion that “to be a good school, we needed the kids from 321, but they didn’t need us. That rubbed me the wrong way.”
Her conversion experience came in the fall of 2010, courtesy of the DOE. “They said, ‘We have great news for you. There’s money for the building,’ ” Bloomberg recalls. But there was a catch. The capital improvements hinged on a fourth school’s co-locating on the campus: Millennium Brooklyn, an offshoot of the elite Millennium High School in the Financial District. The founding principal would be Lisa Gioe, from Math & Science. In addition to new classrooms carved out of the ground floor, Millennium would receive more than $100,000 in first-year start-up money, plus $500,000 in corporate funding from the Selective Schools Initiative.
“That was the epiphany,” Bloomberg says. “There was money for the building, but only if Millennium moves in. They were saying, ‘You’re not going to get the resources you need if you predominantly serve black and Latin kids. They don’t come with resources.’ ” It reminded her of the truism in the literature: Green follows white.
According to the DOE’s educational-impact statement, Millennium was to be a “high-quality educational option” for “high-achieving students” in “underserved communities.” Here is how that sounded to the students at Collegiate: You’re not good enough. You don’t count. “It felt like our kids were being kicked to the curb while the Millennium kids were given preference,” says Robina Taliaferrow, Bloomberg’s PTA president at the time. “It just wasn’t fair.”
By that point Collegiate had grown into a modest success story. It garnered a “well developed,” the highest rating, in the DOE’s quality review, and sent alumni to Columbia and Williams. Which prompted a question, or two: What did Brooklyn Millennium offer that Collegiate lacked, save for exclusivity? Why not invest in the community already there? During the weeks before the new school was rubber-stamped by the mayor’s Panel for Educational Policy, there were demonstrations and picket lines. In a ringing j’accuse before the final vote, Bloomberg blasted the “two-tiered, separate-and-unequal world of the DOE.” When her mike was cut off, she led the crowd in a chant of “Integration, yes! Segregation, no!”
The losing struggle demoralized Park Slope Collegiate, but it also unified teachers and students and clarified what they were up against. The notion that “separate” could approximate “equal” was dashed once and for all. As Bloomberg says, “Millennium shook that idea in me, it shook it in my staff, it shook it in my parent body. That changed us.” And it put her on a new track: “Our society tends toward segregation. If you want integration, you have to choose it.”
In January 2013, as Owen prepared for his middle-school interviews, Pam Mills was still seeking a backup plan. From her work with a program funded by the National Science Foundation, Mills knew there were two species of low-performing public schools: one where leadership was weak and the teachers complacent, the other where all hands worked overtime in a game rigged against them. From what she could glean, Collegiate fell into the second camp. They were still trying, people told her. They had not given up.
In February, she met Bloomberg on Flatbush Avenue for dinner and a no-holds-barred talk on pedagogy and race. A few days later, on a private tour of Collegiate, Mills was impressed by Amer Zaffar’s sixth-grade math class, the subject she considered most critical. “I thought he was really good, and the kids were all sweet,” she says. “I’m thinking about my child in a small class with an engaging teacher, with kids speaking different languages—he could thrive.” For her part, Bloomberg appreciated that Mills and her friends weren’t after some gifted-and-talented enclave. “There was this sense of mutual need,” the principal says, “the sense we had something to offer.”
Early on, before actively recruiting the white families, Bloomberg polled her staff. For the most part they responded favorably. “My first reaction was,” says Veronica Vega, a phys-ed teacher at the school since 2001, “Finally, somebody came in and actually saw us and what we were about.” There were questions about mixed-group classrooms, and at least one teacher put words to a general apprehension: “We want it to be integrated, but we don’t want it to be flipped.” Elsewhere in brownstone Brooklyn, in swiftly gentrifying elementary-school zones in Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill, black and Hispanic families were being displaced at an alarming rate. Though Collegiate was chronically underenrolled, relieving pressure in the near term, the staff stood committed to serving the community that had built the school. A white-majority, middle-class preserve would defeat the whole point of integration.
The principal went to her PTA leader-ship; she needed their blessing as well. All were in favor. The one cautionary note was sounded by Casey Robinson, who lives with her 14-year-old son, Jalen, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Jalen had initially attended a Catholic school, where he thrived. But when the tuition became prohibitive, Robinson ultimately moved him to a low-performing, heavily segregated school in Fort Greene—she had no choice. Jalen wanted to go to high school in Manhattan but found himself shut out by in-borough preferences and other criteria. When his mother discovered Collegiate on the second round, she was delighted by the multiethnic student body—from Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia—even before the white people came knocking. “The diversity it showed on that website, it pulled me in,” she says.
At the meeting with Bloomberg, she wondered aloud at the P.S. 321 families’ special treatment and the assumption that they could breeze into a school they hadn’t ranked on their applications. She was irked by the air of middle-class entitlement, the group’s insouciance toward process, the hard fact that some had more choices than others: “We were saying they should come in and get accepted just like everyone else.”
But Robinson joined the rest of the PTA in wanting to throw open their school’s doors—not just to P.S. 321, but to P.S. 107 and other schools in Park Slope. As she says, “Whatever needs to be done for us to be integrated in a way where everyone’s on the same level, I’m all for it.”
In April, Mills’s core group sent an email to the parents of the 200 fifth-graders at P.S. 321, inviting them to consider Collegiate. And Mills kept talking to Bloomberg. “Everybody’s interested, and everybody’s scared,” she told her.
In early May, P.S. 321 principal Elizabeth Phillips reserved her school’s auditorium for a presentation by Bloomberg and her PTA president, Nikiesha London. Forty curious parents turned out, among them Katie Mosher-Smith, a 42-year-old graduate student. She’d gone to a high school in Vermont with only one black student, and she drew some hard looks when she dated him. By the time she reached Syracuse University, she realized she’d “missed a lot of things.”
Mosher-Smith hadn’t previously considered Collegiate for Hayden, her then-10-year-old son, but she warmed to Bloomberg’s presentation. The clincher came when London, the only nonwhite person in the room, stood up and said, “I want to assure you that the Collegiate community is very much in favor of diversity and will be welcoming you to our school.” It was just what Mosher-Smith hoped to hear: “I needed to know it was a community that was open to us as well.”
On May 15, Bloomberg ushered 20 or so nervous parents past a metal detector and X-ray machine, still stubbornly in place. (The scanners’ removal requires the consent of all four principals in the building.) But the tour perked up from there. Every-day gym plus art or guitar, class size in the low 20s, a weekly “circle” for social and emotional learning—there was a lot to like.
Schwerner’s husband, Matthew Goodman, asked, “Is this the first time you’ve reached out to 321 parents?”
“This is the first time 321 parents have reached out to me,” Bloomberg said.
The placement letters arrived the following day. By the time Cassie Schwerner collected her son Ezra from after-school, he knew that most of his close buddies were headed to Math & Science or M.S. 51. Ezra was eager to see which of his choices had chosen him. “When he read his letter,” his mother says, “he was stunned.” The computer had assigned him to Park Slope Collegiate, three blocks from home and as foreign as Mars—he had never heard of it before.
As Mills had projected, two dozen or more children from P.S. 321 missed out on their top two picks. Another was Hayden Mosher-Smith. “At first I was sad,” he told me, “because I thought I wasn’t smart. But it was actually because there were so many kids who wanted to go to 51.”
The families had ten days to submit their appeals. Bloomberg fielded call after call, bracing people up, telling them again that Collegiate was high reward, low risk. For a time it seemed no one was willing to be the first to commit—what if others failed to follow? “I don’t think people want their kid to be a minority of one,” Mills says. Schwerner called it “the penguin syndrome,” people’s reluctance to dive solo into uncharted waters. Given the risks others have taken for school desegregation, from Little Rock to South Boston, this fear might have seemed inflated when coming from the white middle class. But London, a project manager in the less-than-diverse financial-services industry, understood: “I would be reluctant to see my child be the token, the only one. It’s a natural reaction.”
On Tuesday, May 21, Bloomberg opened her school once again. In math class, Zaffar jotted a basic equation on the SMART Board, something like 12x = 24, “and he said, ‘This is what sixth-grade students are supposed to know,’ ” as Ezra tells it. “And then he put this really crazy expression on the board”—full of exponents and polynomials—“and he said, ‘This is what our sixth-graders know. And it’s not just that they know it, but they have fun doing it.’ That was really cool.”
Thursday evening, with the appeals deadline looming over Memorial Day weekend, Mosher-Smith and her husband, Sean, hosted 15 families still on the fence. The parents tentatively vented their hopes and fears. Some still questioned the Collegiate staff’s ability to handle a broad spectrum of skill levels. Would it be fair to the more advanced children—and would the less proficient get the attention they needed? Much of this reflected their lingering doubt: Could a good school have poor test scores? There were no pat answers. They’d have to take Bloomberg’s assurances on faith.
Then someone asked about the scanners and how people felt about them. As Mills says, “That’s the fear leap—is it safe in the school?” In Park Slope, the question was a loaded one. For years, a pizzeria down the street from the campus banned students from the premises during the week. At nearby M.S. 51, according to a parent whose daughter recently went there, children were released early and encouraged to go straight home on Halloween to avoid trouble from students in Collegiate’s building. The families from 321 found this story appalling, though a few admitted to a similar twinge before they’d met the students face to face. The discussion “came and went,” Mills says.
Over the next few days, three or four families publicly committed to Collegiate. They would grow to a group of ten, roughly 20 percent of the school’s entering sixth-grade class—enough to keep their children from feeling out of place, they thought, but not so many as to tip the demographic scales. Mosher-Smith later sketched her thinking—the ambivalence yielding to conviction—in an email: “I believe that most people in Park Slope highly value diversity and community, but not at the expense of their own child’s academic opportunities … Parents want to protect their children from the damaging effects of a system that fails the poor and working class … What convinced me, and probably more than a few others, was a gentle reminder from Jill that … choosing PSC was a choice to embrace a community that looks a little more like the whole city we live in, not just the neighborhood we buy our homes in.”
As the process played out, nine families accepted their assignments to Collegiate or appealed their way out of schools they hadn’t wanted. The anomaly was Owen Kapsis. Mills told Bloomberg all along she wasn’t sure what she’d do in the unlikely event Owen got his first choice. Then their placement letter came and inside was the golden ticket—he was in. And Mills thought, Oh my God, this is going to be a tough decision. Math & Science had wonderful field trips and high-performing children, but it somehow felt like “business as usual,” Mills says. She had bonded with the families she’d recruited to Collegiate. How could she turn back now?
With her spouse’s agreement, Mills took the plunge. After spending the tour with Bloomberg’s volleyball coach, Owen was an easy sell. The family appealed out of Math & Science, and then there were ten.
Seven months into Collegiate’s school year, the new families are still there. A predominantly white group led a PTA effort to net $150,000 from the City Council’s participatory budget for a green plaza by the school’s front entrance. And thanks to increased pressure on the School Construction Authority, a gut-renovated boys’ bathroom opened in March—six months late and nearly three years after the Millennium Brooklyn makeover, but still. “They got the ball rolling,” Casey Robinson says of the parents from P.S. 321. Her main concern—that they “would reshape the school into what they wanted but lose sight of what we wanted it to be”—has been allayed. The new parents have been careful not to steamroll their way into leadership; London had to coax Mosher-Smith to be her vice-president. “It’s a very who-can-help atmosphere,” Robinson says. The PTA motto London coined last summer has proved real: “Unity through diversity.”
Zaffar calls his highly mixed classroom “an ideal situation, because the kids who’ve mastered a skill are becoming more expert by teaching other kids. And the kids who are having difficulties are getting different points of view and more strategies. It helps everyone.”
After winter break, you could see something happening in the cafeteria—the table cliques were gradually dissolving. The kids from 321, led by the outgoing Ezra, were hanging out more with everybody else. “I’ve been doing that since I was 2, in my pre-K,” he says.
The students have had their conflicts, some involving racial or ethnic epithets. The incidents led to tears and a candid huddle with the principal, who told the white students: “What you said was a racist word, but you are not a racist. You get to decide who you want to be. And at Park Slope Collegiate, this is the choice we’ve made; this is the side we’re on. We don’t use those words.”
During the most recent fifth-grade tour season, Bloomberg’s numbers were up substantially, and more than 90 percent of her visitors were white. Sixty-one families from P.S. 321 ultimately ranked Collegiate as a top choice for middle school. Fifteen picked it first or second, at the expense of the Big Three. With the penguin syndrome gathering momentum, gentrification is “certainly a concern,” says Guy Mompremier, another PTA leader, though he doesn’t see it as an imminent problem.
Upperclassmen at Collegiate know something about gentrification; they study it in their college-prep Brooklyn-history class. But when they first spied “the little white kids” last fall, they guided them to their classrooms. They volunteered to help out in sixth-grade gym and art. The new students gave the older ones a sense of validation. “From freshman year, you never saw a Caucasian person walk in the hallways with us,” says Breia Boynton, a 17-year-old senior. “Now it’s like—okay, we’re doing something good, people aren’t so scared to let their kids come into our school.”
In some ways, the adults are moving more slowly than the children. On March 21, more than 200 people attended an evening forum on “Integration Matters” in the Collegiate auditorium. The turnout was tremendously diverse. But when 30 or so people got together afterward at the Cocoa Bar across the street, virtually all of them were white. It is one thing to integrate a classroom, another to integrate your life.
Casey Robinson and Katie Mosher-Smith stand on an equal footing inside the school building. But out on Seventh Avenue, their sons are not received the same way. In a predominantly white Zip Code with a resident black population of 5 percent, darker faces stand out. As they browse at Barnes & Noble or get herded by safety agents to the subways at dismissal, the children of Collegiate are still treated like an unwanted horde. Matthew Pitt-Flynn, another senior, feels claustrophobic, “like I’m being watched.” According to Breia, “We’re not allowed to stand on the corner by Rite Aid, even if we’re waiting for parents to pick us up. It’s not our neighborhood to hang out. Get away as far as you can—that’s how they make you feel.”
Integration is hard work, uphill and against the grain. For all of the positive returns at Collegiate this past year, Bloomberg’s model won’t easily be replicated. “This school is the exception,” Noguera told the forum audience. “Who’s going to integrate a school in Brownsville or East New York?” Broader progress would require “some very deliberative efforts” on the part of the DOE, he says, including a renewed commitment to diverse magnet schools: “If we rely on neighborhood residents alone, we’re doomed. Integration is not going to happen by itself.”