Where segregation and gentrification meet

June 30, 2016

Don Lash reports on the controversy over a plan to rezone two Brooklyn schools in response to gentrification--and the city's sordid history of educational apartheid.

A PLAN by the New York City Department of Education to redraw the zoning maps for two schools in Brooklyn has ignited a controversy over how seriously the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio takes equal access to quality public education--and contributed to the growing national debate about school segregation in 21st century America.

New York City has always had segregated public schools, and city officials have always catered to parents with money and options, ensuring that their children receive what should be the entitlement of every child--a quality education in a rich, stimulating environment.

In recent years, Brooklyn has been the most rapidly gentrifying borough in the city, with developers converting disused industrial and commercial space into luxury condominiums, and renovating decaying housing into luxury apartments. The amount of money changing hands in commercial real estate transactions in Brooklyn increased almost tenfold between 2010 and 2015, from $1 billion to $9.5 billion.

Students from PS 307 in New York City
Students from PS 307 in New York City (PS307)

One result of this overheated real estate market has been that neighborhoods have seen their population increase, as deindustrialized areas turn residential and vacant lots and abandoned buildings are transformed into housing. Other families are pushed out by rising rents and replaced by more affluent newcomers.

At the same time, large public housing complexes--with an average rent of $484 per month--remain, leaving islands of affordable housing in a borough in which median rent had risen to $3,100 per month in 2015.

Neighborhood schools are transformed by the influx of parents with money and clout--who can raise money and make demands on the system for programs to enrich their children's educational experience. Enhancing the schools makes the neighborhood more desirable to more newcomers, and formerly underutilized schools can become overcrowded rapidly.

Working-class parents often come to feel that they are competing with the affluent newcomers for space, resources and influence within their children's schools, and that the newcomers disregard or discount the perspectives and commitment of long-time residents. They often fear, with good reason that they will be marginalized within the schools in which they have invested their time and efforts--and that their children may ultimately be pushed out.

The current rezoning controversy shows how the nature of school segregation has changed and grown more complex in recent decades. Too complex and daunting, apparently, for de Blasio--who famously campaigned for office on a "tale of two cities" theme that decried economic and racial inequality.

As mayor, however, de Blasio and his schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have indicated that the city's "dismal" record on school segregation, as Harvard's Civil Rights Project puts it, is not a priority--despite the wealth of evidence that ties segregation to low student achievement.

Instead, de Blasio and Fariña have continued the recent public policy trend of ignoring calls for desegregation while emphasizing on the similar-sounding but entirely different goal of "diversity."

THERE IS no section of Brooklyn where the changes been more dramatic than Community School District 13, serving downtown Brooklyn. One sparsely populated neighborhood consisting of decaying industrial properties was rechristened by real estate developers as "Dumbo," (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and rapidly gentrified and repopulated.

Adjacent to Dumbo is Vinegar Hill, a formerly mixed residential-commercial neighborhood that the New York Post dubbed "New York's edgiest enclave." Nearby is Farragut Houses, consisting of 10 public housing towers. The median annual household income in Dumbo and Vinegar Hill is more than $148,000, while in Farragut Houses, it is less than $21,000.

Most of the elementary school-age children in Dumbo and Vinegar Hill are zoned for PS 8, located where these neighborhoods meet the wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. Living "in the zone" means a child has priority for a seat in that school, although parents can apply to other schools within the district.

As the population within the zone increased, PS 8 became overcrowded. Meanwhile, another nearby school, PS 307, was "under-enrolled," with the capacity to absorb more students. PS 307's zone includes about 70 percent of Farragut Houses, and accepts pupils from elsewhere in the district.

In the spring of 2015, the Department of Education (DOE) announced a plan to rezone both schools, with some students being reassigned from PS 8 to PS 307.

Parents at both schools were wary of the DOE plan. Middle-class parents currently in the PS 8 zone objected to being rezoned, often based on assumptions about safety and academic performance that parents from the overwhelmingly Black and Latino PS 307 found insulting.

Parents from PS 307, for their part, worried about how an influx of relatively wealthy children would affect the school community. Another concern was that Title I funding for services needed by students living in poverty might not be available if the percentage of those students remaining in the school fell. To some, PS 8 provided a cautionary tale.

PS 8 had once also been under-enrolled, with mostly Black and Latino students. The first wave of gentrifying "urban pioneers" in Dumbo and Vinegar Hill largely avoided sending their children there, opting for private school or applying outside the zone.

Eventually, parents from the zone began working with PS 8 to write grants and raise money through contacts. As they succeeded, the school improved, and more parents opted to send their children there, but Black and Latino parents felt they had less of a voice within the school.

As more and more white and Asian American children filled the classrooms, middle-class PS 8 parents began to complain about mostly Black and Latino students with "emotional" and behavioral issues.

Currently, the school is about 75 percent white and Asian American, and only 14 percent of students are low-income. Interestingly, a piece of Farragut Houses was zoned for PS 8, and the rezoning plan would reassign those students to PS 307, removing even more working-class Black and Latino students from PS 8.

ONE PARENT of a child at PS 307 is Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and one of the leading national critics of modern school segregation. Hannah-Jones wrote an insightful feature article about her decision to enroll her daughter, Najya, in PS 307, "a segregated low-income school."

Hannah-Jones wrote that while she was tempted to work toward getting her child Najya into an integrated school, she felt that "getting Najya into one of the disproportionately white schools in the city felt like accepting the inevitability of this two-tiered system: one set of schools with excellent resources for white kids and some Black and Latino middle-class kids, a second set of under-resourced schools for the rest of the city's Black and Latino kids."

Hannah-Jones and her husband chose PS 307 because it had a "remarkable principal" who "rejected the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor Black and Brown children that strips away everything that makes school joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores."

She and her husband became heavily involved in PTA activities at the school, and were happy with their choice, even if apprehensive about what a change in leadership could mean for PS 307.

While telling her family story, and the story of the PS 8 and PS 307 rezoning controversy, Hannah-Jones put them in the context of the history of New York City public schools, which never had the formal racial apartheid of the Jim Crow South, but were just as rigidly segregated--and in ways that were arguably even more difficult to change.

In 1968, David Rogers wrote 110 Livingston Street, a history of the desegregation struggles in New York City public schools during the 1960s. "School officials typically succumb to real estate and white parent pressures," Rogers wrote, "and deliberately gerrymander school boundaries to maintain the class, racial and ethnic homogeneity of pupil populations in ways that make a farce of the label 'neighborhood school.'"

While the school system has always insisted that school segregation in the city is a product of residential segregation, Rogers showed that it was equally the product of choices exercised by school officials, responsive to advantaged white parents and real estate interests.

THAT RESPONSIVENESS hasn't changed. When Mayor de Blasio was asked in 2015 why the city couldn't redraw zoning lines to reduce segregation, he replied that the city had to respect the fact that affluent parents had made "massive life decisions and investments because of which schools their kids would go to."

In other words, parents had spent a lot of money to purchase better educational opportunities for their children in the neighborhood of their choice.

De Blasio was explicitly accepting the logic that educational opportunity is a commodity one invests in when choosing a neighborhood--which ignores the fact that most public school parents have very little choice about where they live. Just as in the period Rogers covered, the Department of Education defers to wealthy parents and the property market in drawing and revising school zoning lines.

The result is that segregation in schools doesn't just reflect residential segregation--it exceeds it. A 2016 study by the Center for New York City Affairs found that "the city's schools are even more economically and racially segregated than the neighborhoods--and for economically disadvantaged students, that usually translates to inferior education."

A report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that New York, both city and state, is home to many of the most intensely segregated schools in the country.

Charter schools in particular have an extraordinary level of segregation, with 73 percent being labeled "apartheid schools" (with less than 1 percent white enrollment) and 90 percent being "intensely segregated" (with less than 10 percent white enrollment).

Only 8 percent were considered multiracial. In the public schools, the report found that schools with higher proportions of white students tended to have more experienced teachers and better access to gifted and talented programming and other special academic programs.

The practice of co-location, grouping schools in buildings that formerly housed a single school, can result in dramatic demonstrations of segregation. In 2010, the Village Voice reported on a building housing two schools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Straus School, a zoned school that was 71 percent Black and Latino, and the Lab School for Gifted Education, which is 69 percent white, with most of the remaining students being Asian American.

The Lab School occupied the part of the building that included the front doors, so Straus students were told to go around to the back to enter school. The Lab School had a staff-to-student ratio roughly half that of the Straus School, made possible in part because the PTA raised funds to hire teacher assistants.

Fundraising for the Lab School that year included a request that each family contribute at least $950, as well as an auction that raised $166,000. Straus School had a snack sale. One teacher at Straus said, "These children are babies--they're 4 years old--when we start separating them! When you tell them from such a young age, 'You are more than, and you are less than,'--when you tell them 'You are gifted,' and 'You are not,' they get the message."

IN THE face of educational apartheid that at times is as blatant as 1950s Alabama, the DOE has pleaded powerlessness. Schools Chancellor Fariña has been reluctant to assist schools and parents that wanted to set aside seats for children from low-income households, at one point saying that it would be difficult because of "federal guidelines."

Actually, while the Supreme Court has largely eliminated consideration of race in combating school segregation, there is no prohibition on set-asides based on income, so Fariña seemed to be inventing a barrier to excuse inaction.

Instead of talking about segregation, the DOE prefers to talk about "diversity." Diversity, however, is mostly a benefit for middle-class children, because they are the ones most likely to experience it in school.

Fariña acknowledged that many children attend intensely segregated schools and suggested, "You don't need to have diversity within one building." Instead, she said, segregated schools in poor communities could "adopt" schools in more affluent neighborhoods, and students in the paired schools could become pen pals.

Hannah-Jones' article is compelling because it highlights the complicated interactions between institutional racism and the personal decisions of parents confronting school segregation. She believed that her child would benefit from attending a desegregated school, but chose a segregated school because she recognized that a desegregated experience is generally reserved for the most advantaged students, be they white, Asian American, Black or Latino.

When the DOE presented a plan that would have desegregated the school, she was skeptical, primarily because this desegregation was being implemented in such a way as to preserve the advantage of the more affluent white and Asian American students, ultimately at the expense of the Black and Latino students already at the school.

In her conclusion, Hannah-Jones writes, "True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to your own children, that can feel almost unnatural."

But surrendering advantage by middle-class parents of color is likely to do little to address the profound inequality in our public schools. It would seem more productive for all public school parents--regardless of relative advantages--to join in a struggle for equality of resources and access to programming, and against the creation of more charter schools created on an apartheid model.

It would also mean resisting gerrymandering for the benefit of real estate interests and fighting to ensure that low-income students and families continue to be represented in gentrifying schools in sufficient proportion to ensure that they are never marginalized or pushed out.

Finally, it would mean building a movement that rejects what Hannah-Jones memorably describes as "the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor Black and Brown children that strips away everything that makes school joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores."

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