School diversity plan gets mixed reviews

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The Department of Education issues remedy for changing the racial balance of students


  • Mayor Bill de Blasio with Chancellor Carmen Fariña at an event last Thursday announcing new Advanced Placement courses. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Students, parents, educators and politicians were less than impressed with the Department of Education’s plan to diversify New York City schools, which was released last week in response to a 2014 study that found the city’s schools to be one of the most segregated in the country. “Despite the fact that the overall metro share of enrollment is 35 percent white and 22 percent black, the typical black student attended a school in 2010 with 12 percent white and 51 percent black classmates,” the study, conducted by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, reported.

The education department’s plan to remedy this starts with its goals to increase the number of children in a school with 50 to 90 percent black and Hispanic students by 50,000, lower the number of schools that are more than 10 percentage points above or below the city’s average on the Economic Need Index, and make more schools inclusive by serving English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Critics say these goals aren’t enough. “[This plan] doesn’t deal at all with K to eighth grade, which is where the inequities begin,” said New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones on NY1 last week. “Ninety-percent black and Latino is considered intensely segregated school, and most black kids in the system are already attending schools that are 90 percent black and Latino. So this is basically a non-plan.” Others say the broad inclusion of issues detracts from race as the heart of the city’s problem.

The education department announced in the plan several new steps it will take to accomplish its goals, including setting up a School Diversity Advisory Group to “tackle citywide policies and practices such as admissions and program planning,” eliminating “limited unscreened” high school admission policies that prioritize students who visit schools they’re interested in and improving school climates by reforming discipline methods. The city also expand preparation for and availability of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, but a report by Chalkbeat this past March found that there was “virtually no change in the number of black or Hispanic students offered admission to schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.”

Despite the UCLA study’s blunt analysis of schools in terms of integration and segregation, the DOE plan avoids using either word. So has Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked about the plan at various points over the last week. “I know if I start to use certain terminologies, people will miss the forest for the trees,” he said on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” last Friday. “I’m not going down that rabbit hole. We have to get to the core of the problem. The core of the problem is we have to break down racism and other bias in our society. We have to increase economic opportunity. We have to increase diversity in housing.” In the segment, the mayor cites the rezoning of Upper West Side schools that revealed deep divisions in the community as an example of success.

Kim Watkins, who led the rezoning process for the Upper West Side’s Community Education Council, credited the city with making a first step given the scope of the challenge facing the school system. “I would like to see a little bit more about how some of the finer points will be implemented,” she said. “I found it striking that though there was a working group that had some parents and advocates involved … I wish we could’ve seen a little more come forward to the community at large. I think we could do a lot better in terms of transparency.” She did not hesitate to describe the city’s school as segregated.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the term “diversity” is used because it’s broader and enables administrators to speak to more than one type of diversity at once. The spokesperson said the plan is based on numerous conversations the agency had with schools, elected officials, parents and researchers over the past year, and encouraged those interested in improving schools to contribute their own feedback.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who was heavily criticized for her support of plans to integrate schools on the Upper West Side, said she was glad to see an effort being made to address issues with the school system but emphasized that this is just the beginning. The rezoning conversations that took place in Rosenthal’s district were often heated and tearful, with parents who did not want to be moved for the sake of integration saying it wasn’t because of racism but because they wanted to keep their communities together. Even so, Rosenthal has hope that progress can be made. “Among the parents that had a vote, nine to one said [the rezoning] was great,” she said. “Yes it was hard, but it was nearly unanimous.”

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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