U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Juan A. Cubano/Released.

April 16, 2019; New York Times

Earlier this year, NPQ looked at the recommendations that emerged from the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) appointed by New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. Because integration has proven so difficult to achieve, we wondered if the report would be “presented with great fanfare [but] never to be heard about again? Or will it become the spark for real and sustained change?”

At the time, we said we’d look back in a year and see the results, but according to a recent New York Times report, signs of significant change may be evident much sooner: “Several schools in districts in Manhattan and Brooklyn will be more racially and socioeconomically diverse on the first day of school this fall than they are today as a result of these new measures.”

Unlike other efforts, these changes did not come from top-down, citywide processes. In fact, the mayor and the school board played a limited role. According to the Times, “Parents who were frustrated with the segregated state of their local schools—and with the city’s reluctance to adopt measures to integrate the system as a whole—took matters into their own hands last year by drafting proposals that City Hall eventually approved.” These proposals included “setting new enrollment rules and eliminating using academic screens to sort students for admission.”

For years, the district used a competitive admissions process that ranked students based on test scores and attendance rates, giving rise to segregated schools even in a racially and socioeconomically mixed district.

The new rules for school assignment have been projected to offer significant results.

  • “Some local middle schools that have consistently shouldered the largest number of vulnerable students will have more diverse student populations starting this fall: 91 percent of students admitted to I.S. 136 in Sunset Park last year were poor, homeless or learning English. This year, that number will drop to 67 percent.”
  • “At M.S. 51 in Park Slope, the popular middle school where Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his two children, the percentage of students who are poor, learning English or homeless will jump from 33 percent to 57 percent this fall.”

The success of the plan beyond this fall will rest on the ability of the newly integrated schools to fulfill families’ educational aspirations and overcome the fears of white affluent parents that their children will suffer. As one parent put it at a meeting discussing the new enrollment system, “You’re talking about telling an 11-year-old, ‘You worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed and wanted.’ You’re telling them ‘You’re going to go to a school that is not going to educate you in the same way that you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’ Is that what the [Department of Education] wants to say?”

Research suggests that better integrated schools will benefit all students. A Century Foundation review of the research literature found that “on average, students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools—regardless of a student’s own economic status—have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty.”

  • “Students in integrated schools have higher average test scores.”
  • “Students in integrated schools are more likely to enroll in college.”
  • “Students in integrated schools are less likely to drop out.”
  • “Integrated schools help to reduce racial achievement gaps.”

One of the parents involved in developing the plan, recognizing the need to bear out these research findings, told the Times, “The work is not done. We know it’s not just about admissions, it’s about the students’ experience in the schools.”

The secret ingredients for this plan’s promise to be fulfilled are time and courage. The city’s political leadership will need the bravery to endure the growing pains and resist responding to squeaky wheels.—Martin Levine