Can a new DOE initiative fight gentrification-influenced segregation in the schools?

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Brooklyn touts itself as “Home to Everyone from Everywhere,” a motto seen on road signs when entering the borough, but now a number of its elementary schools are struggling with a problem that runs counter to that spirit of inclusion: Significant drops in the enrollment of students of color, as neighborhoods undergo rapid gentrification. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2000 to 2010, several historically black Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods—like Harlem and Fort Greene—saw a major decline in their African-American populations, and in some areas the drop was as high as 40 percent. Other areas, like Williamsburg, experienced an out-migration of Hispanics in similar numbers. Many of these Brooklynites moved to the suburbs, or to parts of the borough further flung from Manhattan. 

Meanwhile, the amount of white non-Hispanic residents skyrocketed in many of the same areas during this time frame, particularly in Washington Heights, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. And in late 2014, a DNAinfo analysis revealed that city schools are severely segregated, with 50 percent of white students attending a mere 7 percent of schools, while half of the public schools in the five boroughs are 90 percent black or Latino. 

As schools in places like Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, and Bed-Stuy increasingly draw children from white, more affluent families, the city is stepping in to ensure that student bodies remain racially and economically diverse. The New York Times reports that the Department of Education has approved an unprecedented initiative to let principals of six elementary schools reserve a portion of slots for children who are English Language Learners (ELLs) or from lower-income families.

The schools mentioned in the Times article use lotteries, not local zoning, to enroll students. Typically, children will attend such schools if there is overcrowding in the ones they are zoned for, or if their families are seeking magnet or specialized programs, such as gifted and talented programs.  The Academy of Arts and Letters, for instance, was founded ten years ago with the goal of educating a diverse community. But as demographics change, the school has swiftly lost the children it traditionally served for those from middle- and upper-class white families who are drawn to its specialized humanities and science curricula—which is why its principal says he hopes to restore balance through the new initiative.

A former teacher who wished to remain anonymous says that when she worked in a public school in Greenwood Heights, a micro-neighborhood between Park Slope and Sunset Park, she saw the predominantly low-income, Asian and Latino populations shrink while the number of white, high-income families in the area swelled.

Though the school’s principal valued diversity, and aimed to welcome the wealthier families without neglecting the other students, the teacher says that one complicating factor was that the affluent parents were more involved.

“The more moneyed parents also tended to be more vocal about their kids' needs than the parents of color, many of whom didn't speak much English and so didn't have as much opportunity to advocate for their children,” she says. “I don't want to reach to say the school was more responsive to white and wealthy parents, because I can't say what the difference would've been if the existing population hadn't been primarily made up of ELLs.”

The initiative to reserve seats for such children is raising some hackles among newer, wealthier residents, who worry about fewer spots for their own kids. Lela Nargi, a parent in Cobble Hill, says, "Setting aside seats is bound to get some parents up in arms—will this mean that there won't be a seat, which they believe they're entitled to, for their own son or daughter?" 

But the former teacher points out that NYC’s public schools have long had incentives to enroll poor and high-need students: “Schools have always held seats for documented ELLs and kids with disabilities because those kids bring in more money,” she says. “The same with low-income families. Schools make more money from the state per kid who qualifies for free or reduced lunch.”

And just as there is evidence that low-income students benefit academically from attending classes with wealthier peers, according to a 2010 study, all students in diverse schools seem to perform better. Plus, they gain the less-tangible advantage of experiencing multicultural classroom environments.

That said, the Greenwood Heights teacher expresses some doubts about the efficacy of the new initiative. “Do we need to make sure there are enough services for kids who need help, either because they qualify for ENL or Special Ed services? Absolutely, but I'm not sure balancing numbers guarantees services,” she says. “I've seen a million changes in policy that don't actually change practice. Or, when they do, they shackle it.” 


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