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

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.”