November 30, 2016

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Five Steps to Integrate New York City Elementary Schools

By Clara Hemphill, Lydie Raschka, and Nicole Mader

In the past year, New York City officials have taken small steps to ease racial and economic integration of enrollment in several dozen of the city’s 955 public elementary schools. In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a “bigger vision” focused on such efforts. To date, however, his administration has yet to come up with a plan for larger-scale efforts to diversify enrollment among the city’s notoriously segregated schools.

We believe city leaders can do much more to foster economic and ethnic integration of elementary schools than the small-scale efforts thus far. That’s the conclusion of our new report, “Five Steps to Integrate New York City Elementary Schools.” (See here for a presentation and public forum on the report.) Our report is based on visits to 150 schools across the city over the past two years by the staff of the Center for New York City Affairs InsideSchools project, and on analysis of school enrollment statistics.

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that integrating New York City’s elementary schools presents difficult but not insurmountable barriers. We believe that it’s not useful to regard the challenge as harder than it actually ought to be.

The mayor has, for example, suggested that school segregation is intractable because it is largely a result of housing patterns – that is, that schools are segregated because housing is.  And Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said she favors “organic” or voluntary school integration efforts in lieu of orders handed down from on high.

There’s no question that persistent housing segregation makes school integration difficult in many neighborhoods; however, as a report we released earlier this year shows (“Segregated Schools in Integrated Neighborhoods”), the city has segregated, high-poverty schools even in many integrated, mixed-income neighborhoods.

It’s also true that top-down mandates have often backfired. (Exhibit A: The discouraging record of Boston’s highly contentious court-ordered school integration busing plan 40 years ago.) Nonetheless, through targeted funding, creative school enrollment policies, and more effective leadership at the district and school level the City can create the conditions in which more parents voluntarily choose integrated schools.

Along those lines, here are five feasible steps we believe the City can take:  

Require the city’s 32 school district superintendents to articulate plans to engage parents of diverse races, ethnicities, and income levels.  The evidence is clear: Such district-level leadership makes a discernible difference in sustaining school integration–and, conversely, the lack of such leadership can unfortunately impede such efforts.

Target funding, including magnet school grants, to foster integration.  City leaders need to do a better job of directing such funds to schools, and principals, committed to and capable of fostering diversity in their student enrollments.  

Remove barriers to economic integration in pre-kindergarten. The Century Foundation found 74 pre-k programs where children are divided according to how much money their parents earn. Children in subsidized child care programs should instead be able to sit in what are known as economically integrated “blended classes.”

Ensure that the neediest children, including homeless kids, aren’t concentrated in any one school. Administrative actions can relieve schools now over-burdened with such students and assign them more equitably to well-regarded schools capable of absorbing them.

Experiment with “controlled choice” on the Lower East Side. A program that assigns students to elementary schools that takes into account both parent preferences and family income holds out promise for increasing integration across an entire demographically diverse school district.

In addition to these practical steps, we believe that City leaders, who have until now promoted integration with measures at the individual school level, need to make the case for system-wide school integration more forcefully and with greater conviction.  Because the research evidence is clear. The classroom education benefits of integrated schools are pronounced, especially for children from low-income households.  The life lessons gained from going to school with students from diverse social and economic backgrounds can also be significant for every student. And at a moment when our nation often seems to be coming apart along class and racial lines, New Yorkers have an opportunity to show how, when it comes to our children’s futures, we can productively come together.  

Clara Hemphill is director of education policy at the Center for New York City Affairs. She is also the founder and director of InsideSchools, a project of the Center that since 2002 has been a respected independent source of information on New York City public schools. Lydie Raschka, a graduate of Bank Street College of Education and a former public school teacher, is on the InsideSchools staff. Nicole Mader is a data analyst at the Center and a PhD candidate at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy.

Photo: P.S. 151 Yorkville Community School