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

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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.


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