New York City and the Challenge of Integrating Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — August 23, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Richard Carranza, now a year into leading the New York schools, said that desegrating the nation’s largest school district was one of his top priorities.

According to a new article in the New York Times, however, Carranza appears to be dialing back expectations:

At an event for student activists this spring, [Carranza] slapped the side of a podium and shouted: "No, we will not wait to integrate our schools, we will not wait to dismantle the segregated systems we have!" He repeated the message in speeches, television appearances and national magazine profiles. But now, as he enters his second year, he seems to be trying to reset expectations. In an interview, Mr. Carranza described himself as a "realist." "If I integrated the system, the next thing I'm going to do is I'm going to walk on water," he said.

The story goes on to catalogue Carranza’s efforts in the million-student district, which is also one of the nation’s most segregated, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. About 41 percent of New York’s students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 16 percent are Asian and 15 percent are white.

The city has set aside funds to help desegregate schools in some of the city’s most racially mixed neighborhoods. And in some neighborhoods, parents have created their own grassroots integration plans that were ultimately approved by city leaders.

But other efforts by Carranza, such as throwing his support behind a plan to change the entrance requirement for the system’s prestigious specialized high schools, ran into deep opposition. Asian students make up the bulk of the student body in those elite schools, and those families led the opposition to a proposal by the mayor to create a multifaceted admissions process. Plans to change the single-test admission standard appear dead, for now.

Few School Districts Take on Socioeconomic Diversity

New York is fairly unusual among school districts in that it is voluntarily trying to address school segregation at all, however modestly. Most school district draw attendance boundaries based on neighborhoods, which results in schools that replicate their underlying racial makeup. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that an individual student’s race cannot be used in determining where he or she attends school. Since then, the districts that have tried to diversify their have generally relied on the wealth of a student’s family or neighborhood, rather than race.

The Century Foundation, a Washington think tank estimated in 2016 that about 100 districts and charter schools nationwide were using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment Researchers at the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University used their own method to evaluate districts’ assignment policies. They came up with 59 school systems across the country that are voluntarily undertaking such work. There are about 13,600 school districts in the United States.

(One of those school districts is Wake County, N.C., which was profiled by Education Week earlier this month.)

A number of studies have shown that with integrated schools comes better academic performance for black students, without diminishing academics for white students. For example, a recent analysis of the achievement gap between rich and poor students noted, as a side matter, that during the 1970s and 80s—the high-water mark for school integration—the gap between white and black scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was as narrow as it’s ever been. Once desegregation substantively ended in 1980, the study mentions, the closing of the black-white test score gap stopped closing, too.

Studies have also shown students attending diverse schools are more comfortable with those of other racial and ethnic backgrounds from their own.

Erica Frankenberg, the director of the civil rights center at Penn State, also says there’s there’s a moral component to the argument in favor of integrating schools that can be overlooked.

“We have necessarily switched to talking about integration efforts as diversity efforts,” Frankenberg said. “But the purpose behind [Brown v Board of Education] was to remedy centuries of discrimination.”

Without talking about the need ro remedy centuries of discrimination, “you lose a piece of the rationale,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.