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New York State Has the Most-Segregated Schools in the Nation

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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.”


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