A Segregated School System Undermines NY’s Future

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Segregation in the New York City School system is one of the most important problems facing our city, and one that our elected leaders must do a better job of handling.

Segregation in the city’s schools has produced shocking racial inequities in which poor black and Latino students are often consigned to failing, racially isolated schools starved for essential resources. These schools leave students ill-prepared to excel at a time when global, national and local economies are demanding significantly better prepared students if they are to compete for well-paying jobs and careers.

I was appointed this month to the New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) School Diversity Advisory Group which is charged with helping guide the city’s strategy to expand racial and economic diversity in the schools.  Some of the dozen goals of the plan are laudable. However, these goals aim too low and the key benchmarks, focused on a demographic numbers game, are too easy to achieve and don’t address the overarching issues of racial justice, fairness in admissions and equal access to resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Panel for Educational Policy must be served notice that, once and for all, this issue requires serious engagement.  The mayor once suggested that school segregation is “the basic reality of housing in New York City.”  To imply that school segregation is unsolvable is preposterous and unsupported by any reputable analysis.  What’s been lacking is investment in educational opportunities in poor neighborhoods so schools located in these communities have something to offer students. 

The fact of the matter is school segregation has increased on Mayor de Blasio’s watch.  The mayor and Schools Superintendent Carmen Farina, who announced this month she is retiring, missed a chance to send a message proving that they view this issue seriously.  They skipped the kickoff of the Diversity Advisory Group and their absence spoke volumes.  It suggested that this may devolve into an exercise in appeasement.  In all my years, I cannot recall top leadership skipping the launch of a group like this designed to address a problem that’s so politically explosive.

As someone who claims credit as the nation’s leading progressive, the mayor needs to confront the problem head-on. He can begin by using the term “segregation” instead of safer-sounding “diversity.”  Call it what it is.  Second, the mayor must demand that the new superintendent have smarts, moral ballast, empathy and an aggressive stance on desegregation.  Lastly, the NYCDOE’s diversity goals must be more forceful in order to disrupt the historic status quo and seek solutions to uncomfortable questions.

As it stands, the diversity plan proposes to increase equity by easing barriers to high school admissions, reinstituting summer programs for students on the borderline of meeting high school admission standards and revving up prep courses for the Specialized High Schools. It also wants to decrease the concentration of economically disadvantaged students crowded into low-income schools.  The central theme of the 12-goal diversity plan over the next five years is a numbers game.

About half of all schools in the city — 869 schools serving over 400,000 students — have higher than 90 percent black and Latino students, according to NYDOE figures.  The Department wants all schools closer to the citywide average of about 70 percent black and Latino.  Currently, 502 of the city’s 1,757 schools, attended by slightly less than one-third of students citywide, already meet the “representativeness” criteria, school figures show.   On the other hand, the plan doesn’t say if the 386 schools, or 22 percent, dominated by white and Asian students are equally problematic because they have fewer than 50 percent black and Latino students.

Perhaps the most glaring example of worsening segregation in NYC are the appalling statistics for the Specialized High Schools. For instance, black and Latino students routinely represent no more than 10 percent of those offered admission to the eight specialized high schools. This year, of the 5,000 students offered Specialized High School admission, only 524 were black and Latino.

Perhaps it’s time to consider a new admission process that looks at factors such as consistently excellent grades, critical analysis skills, leadership and performance on state mandated exams. And eliminating the 2.5-hour multiple choice Specialized High School Admission Test as the sole admissions criterion for elite high schools. In a 2015 report my organization recommended giving automatic admission to the top three percent of middle schoolers which would double the number of talented blacks and Latinos at Specialized High Schools.  So, too, stop the aptitude test for four-year-olds for admission to gifted and talented kindergarten classes.  This would not only provide an opportunity for the brightest young people of color, it would also allow for working poor white and Asian children who can’t afford the outrageous costs of Prep Programs a shot for admissions as well.

If the mayor wants to leave a true legacy of dismantling inequities in our city, he will use the powers of his office and his bully pulpit to force the State Legislature and the public at large to face up to the reality of segregation in the New York City Schools –– and then seize the moment to become the truly visionary progressive leader that both this city and country deserve.


Issues Covered

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