NYC students are taking the lead in the fight to end legally segregated schools


Three days after the death of integration pioneer Linda Brown, whose father was listed as a plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, students from the most segregated school system in the United States gathered to discuss solutions to one of the country’s most fundamental racial divides.

Their meeting didn’t take place in Little Rock, Arkansas, the southern city where a white mob harassed black students like 14-year-old Carlotta Walls and others who were escorted by National Guardsmen to class, more than 60 years ago. It happened in the basement auditorium of Brooklyn’s Central Library. New York City, one of America’s most diverse cities and home to the country’s largest school district, is also the most segregated system in all 50 states. Much of that reality stems from historically discriminatory housing and zoning practices designed to redline black and Latino New Yorkers into lower-income neighborhoods.

But several New York City teens want to fix that. Sabrina DuQuesnay is one of several members of the education reform initiative Teens Take Charge, a student-led, grade-school effort to achieve “educational equity” by desegregating New York’s perpetually segregated school system. The initiative was started with the help of Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri, co-founders of The Bell, an education podcast.

“Many [parents] continuously strive, hoping that their children will get the best quality education possible only to find out that their location and socioeconomic status deprives their children of that right,” DuQuesnay, a student at Brooklyn College Academy in the borough’s Prospect Park South neighborhood, told the estimated 200 people in attendance during her speech on Thursday. “Many of them will slip and fall through the cracks of this system and become part of the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty.”

Chauncey Alcorn/Mic

At their meeting, Teens Take Charge suggested “minimum academic diversity” standards for New York nonspecialized high schools, which would place students from the 62 lower-performing kindergarten through eighth-grade programs in the same high schools with students from the 14 top-performing kindergarten through eighth-grade programs. As a result, the participating schools would focus more on equity than on rewarding and punishing high and low achievers.

“That’ll be a way to achieve academic diversity,” Beacon High School student Coco Rhum said Thursday. Her school ranked first in standardized test scores among the city’s high schools in the 2016-2017 academic school year, according to SchoolDigger. “Through increasing academic diversity in these schools, we’d also be working to integrate these schools racially and in terms of socioeconomics.”

Two days before the Teens Take Charge meeting, the city held a diversity advisory group town hall in Brooklyn, as part of the Department of Education school diversity plan unveiled by Mayor de Blasio in 2017. Rather than put mandates on the city’s most elite schools, which tend to be overwhelmingly Asian and white, the DOE’s diversity plan set a goal to enroll 50,000 additional students to city schools “with student bodies that reflect the system’s overall racial makeup,” to support “learning environments that reflect the diversity of the New York City,” according to the New York Daily News.

Currently, there are about 300,000 kids enrolled in schools representative of the city’s population, Education Department officials said, of 1.1 million students systemwide. The Education Department is clarifying the city’s mission to support “learning environments that reflect the diversity of New York City” and establishing an advisory board to issue recommendations on additional ways to desegregate the schools.

“Judged by the outcome, we have not made very much progress,” city council member Brad Lander said of the plan on March 29 before noting that the diversity plan is only a year old. “Our schools will still be segregated a year from now, but we could have a lot more steps taken between now and then.”

Christophe Ena; Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Since former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg first took office in 2002, however, McGraw, Lander and other experts say the school choice and selective admissions education reform models Bloomberg championed as solutions to the city’s history of underperforming public schools have exacerbated the problem.

Bloomberg believed in applying the free market principle of competition in city schools, rewarding high-performing institutions by letting them selectively choose from higher-performing students and giving them accompanying increased government funding, while effectively punishing less accomplished schools that admit lower-achieving students and receive less funding.

Charter school programs surged in the city while he was in office. Closures became inevitable among the worst-performing schools. Between 1999 and 2016, the number of charter schools grew from just one to 205, according to the city’s Charter School Center advocacy group. Charter school enrollment exploded from just a few hundred students to an estimated 95,000 over the same period.

Bloomberg’s philosophy has since been widely adopted by conservative education reformers across the nation thanks to its chief architects Joel Klein and Harlem Success Academy leader Eva Moskowitz. Since 1996, 44 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted similar charter school laws. While their overall academic performance varies greatly, charter schools are among the most segregated schools in the nation, according to a December analysis conducted by the Associated Press.

That study’s results showed charters schools to be “vastly overrepresented among schools where minorities study in the most extreme racial isolation,” with more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools boasting minority enrollment of at least 99% in the 2014-2015 school year. That number has been increasing since then.

Getting into specialized public high schools

In New York City, 1.1 million K-12 students have to apply to get into the city’s top-performing schools and the results have had striking racial ramifications. Just take a look at the disparity between the number of black and Hispanic people who live in the city and their enrollment rates at top schools.

The Big Apple’s population of about 8.5 million people is about 26% black and 29% Hispanic, according to the latest data from the United States Census Bureau, and 70% of the city’s K-12 students are black or Hispanic, according to the city Department of Education’s 2017 diversity plan.

Yet in March, the DOE reported just 4.1% and 6.3% of admission offers to its top specialized high schools went to black and Hispanic students, respectively, according to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news organization.

The same top schools sent acceptance offers to 51.7% of their Asian applicants and 26.5% of their white applicants. Asian and white individuals make up a respective 13.7% and 41.3% of the city’s population. The latest admissions data showed a slight increase for black students and a slight decrease for Hispanics from 2017 when only 3.8% of offers went to African-Americans and 6.5% went to Latinos, Chalkbeat reported.

For example, Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, the most selective school in the city, sent acceptance offers to just 10 black students in a 2018 cohort of 902.

“The admissions playing field is far from level,” DuQuesnay said on Thursday.

How are New York City schools performing?

Mark Lennihan/AP

New York City schools have performed better on average since 2002.

Fifty-seven percent of 2016 city school graduates enrolled in post-secondary education, the highest rate ever, according to the DOE. The city’s graduation rate was less than 50% in 2002, according to WNYC. The latest DOE stats released in February show the rate reached 74.3% in 2017.

Black and Hispanic educational achievement has risen over the last 16 years, but the vast majority of black and Hispanic students are still screened out of the city’s highest achieving schools and consequently are less likely to receive the same high quality education as their white and Asian counterparts who attend those schools.

Most of the former group is forced to attend lower-performing schools that receive less funding without the benefit of having many of their higher-achieving socioeconomic peers, those selected by top schools, among their ranks.

“When we talk about school segregation, there hasn’t been enough attention placed on the factors that are within our control,” McGraw told Mic during a recent phone interview. “We could, overnight, change the enrollment at almost every school in the city to maximize integration, but instead Mayor de Blasio allows schools to make their own selection criteria and screen out kids they don’t want. This is what people don’t understand.”

The city’s racial achievement gap has continued to widen at the elementary school level, even existing among students at high-achieving elementary schools. Standard deviation for third-grade English language arts and math test-score gaps between white and black students, for example, increased from .53 and .54 respectively to .73 and .85 over five years, according to the latest city Independent Budget Office data reported by the education reform nonprofit group 74 Million.

Chauncey Alcorn/Mic

For white and Hispanic third-grade students, the test score gap grew from .62 in English and .50 in math to .69 and .73 respectively, the same study found.

The Bloomberg-era education reform model applied free market principles to education. The Teens Take Charge students are advocating for a system more like Finland’s, which has outperformed the U.S. and almost all nations most of the last 20 years in international scholastic achievement measures. Finland has virtually no private schools and all its schools are designed to be of equal quality. The DOE appears to be introducing similar uniform measures with its 2017 expansion of its universal pre-K program.

New York DOE deputy chancellor Josh Wallack said input from parents and families as well as students is critical to the ongoing rollout of the district’s diversity plan.

“We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive schools, and we know there’s a lot of work ahead to make our schools more reflective of our communities,” he said in an emailed statement. “The DOE and School Diversity Advisory Group are actively engaging our communities and soliciting feedback on this issue.”