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Join the integration movement, N.Y.: Before our eyes, New York City’s public schools are diversifying

2019-06-13

Expanding opportunities for all. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

In a city where a lot goes wrong, something right is happening in New York: a growing movement to attack and reverse the racial segregation of our public schools.

White students make up only about 14% of the student body in our public elementary schools — far below the 25% or so of all New York City kids in that age group. And those 14% of kids are overwhelmingly clustered in “their own” schools, while black and Latino students who are the majority of the student population are in theirs.

Public schools don’t segregate themselves. The separation is created through myriad individual decisions by parents, politicians, realtors, educators and city bureaucrats.

Some New Yorkers have decided it’s time to make other choices. One indication of the movement’s power is the passionate involvement of young people urging to mayor to move faster on desegregation plans.

“We had over 400 students and allies on the Department of Education steps yesterday, representing over 100 high schools — Asian, white, black, Latinx, poor, rich students and supporters,” a 16-year-old student named Tiffani Torres told the mayor during a recent call-in segment on WNYC radio. Torres, from Browsnville, is part of a group called Teens Take Charge.

“How much longer will it take before you make the choice to end the segregationist enrollment policies in our high schools and how much more time do you need to study the issue?” Torres asked.

A very good question. De Blasio, who often gets prickly when challenged, says he doesn’t mind being pressed on the matter.

“The students who are actively engaged — I admire them, and I honor them. Because I was a student activist myself, and you know, they’re working hard for changes they believe in,” de Blasio later told me. “We’re trying to move the hearts and minds of parents, many of whom this is a new idea for, and convince them that diversity goes with great schools, and will be part of what will help their kids succeed.”

That is the crux of the matter. Changing policy means challenging assumptions and changing minds, and the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group is doing exactly that, by recommending more than 60 changes to school admissions procedures, hiring policies, curriculum development and more.

I recently talked with people deeply involved in the growing movement at a public forum hosted by the NYU Furman Center.

“Integrated schools are one of the most important elements of teaching lessons of democracy,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who served on the mayor’s advisory committee. “When you have segregated schools, people take certain lessons from that. So more privileged students may think, ‘Well, the textbook may say that we’re all equal, but that’s not in fact true.’ ”

Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio, served on the executive committee of the diversity group, and hinted at the tough conversations we still need to have about why our city stays so divided.

“We have all these stereotypes that even parents who would say ‘I value integration and I want my kids to be in an integrated environment’ — and that yet will opt out of schools that look too black,” said Wiley. “If we don’t actually get more honest about that perception, even when it’s implicit — meaning not even operating at a conscious level — we won’t actually start to confront how we change it. “

All true.

The passion and energy of the kids must be answered by forward-looking adults like Sandra Soto, who has been quietly desegregating part of my Crown Heights neighborhood as principal of PS 705, the Brooklyn Arts & Sciences Elementary School.

“Integrated schools create an opportunity,” Soto told me. “They create a space for stories to be told, for people to learn about each other, for people to learn about each other’s backgrounds and to hopefully change narratives that people have held based on history, based on the media.”

De Blasio, pursuing his presidential dreams, has given the city’s integration movement a strong push forward. It’s up to the rest of us to make the dream real.

Louis is political anchor at NY1 News.