A Plan to Diversify New York’s Segregated Schools

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New York’s public schools are among the most racially segregated in the country.

That’s partly a result of decades of policies that have allowed parents of well-off white and many Asian students to steer their children to the most sought-after public schools, while largely consigning the Hispanic and black children, who make up an overwhelming majority of students, to underperforming schools.

A commission formed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017 has proposed major steps to change this. In a report released on Aug. 27, the School Diversity Advisory Group recommended replacing gifted and talented programs in elementary schools with magnet and enrichment programs aimed at identifying advanced learners from every background.

The report also called on the city to end the use of admissions screening criteria for middle schools and high schools in cases where they have been shown to disadvantage minorities, those with learning disabilities, students for whom English is a second language or students living in homeless shelters. About a quarter of the city’s middle and high schools consider grades, attendance and other criteria to admit students. But those schools tend to be sought-after by white and Asian parents with resources or know-how, making them a driver of segregation. Under this proposal, schools could still use some admissions criteria as long as they are admitting a more diverse group of students.

The committee made a compelling case that segregation has been made worse over the past three decades by the expansion of gifted and talented programs in elementary schools that have largely failed to enroll black and Hispanic students.

While Hispanic and black children make up 41 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of all kindergarten students, they make up just 10 percent and 8 percent of offers to the citywide gifted and talented program, which begins in kindergarten and runs through the fifth grade, according to the report. Children as young as 4 must receive a score of 97 or higher on the test to be admitted to the citywide program. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration began using the exam in 2007, hoping to increase access for black and Hispanic students. Instead, it had the opposite effect.

By high school, the gap is just as wide. Just 6 percent of students at selective high schools are black, and 10 percent Hispanic, even though black students make up 25 percent of high school students overall, and Hispanic students, 41 percent. It’s clear that these programs are failing in their stated purpose: to identify all of the city’s most talented, ambitious students and help them succeed.

The commission outlined specific practices selective high schools use for admission that disadvantage black and Hispanic students, like attendance and lateness. Three-quarters of black and Hispanic students miss more than five days of school per year, according to the report, one measure used by some schools. That’s a snapshot of the grinding, generational poverty they face. Last year, one in 10 students lived in temporary housing, immersed in the trauma of homelessness.

To truly remake the system, the city needs to come up with a comprehensive plan to educate these extremely vulnerable children. But rethinking gifted and talented programs and changing admission practices for selective schools can at least make the city fairer for tens of thousands of children. The commission’s proposals are promising, and deserving of serious, thoughtful consideration from City Hall.

If Mayor de Blasio and the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, adopt them, the city is likely to face fierce resistance from some parents.

Many Asian parents protested a proposal from Mr. de Blasio last year that would have removed an admissions exam to some selective high schools in the hopes of increasing abysmal black and Hispanic enrollment. Backlash to the proposal was severe in part because the exam has served as a pipeline to the schools for many Asian students. The proposal required approval by the State Legislature in Albany, and went nowhere. For many white parents, the gifted and talented programs have served as a reason to remain invested in the public schools.

Of course, black and Hispanic parents have also sought alternatives for their children: Thousands have abandoned their neighborhood schools for charter or private schools. Others have said they want more gifted and talented programs in schools that are heavily black and Hispanic. Under the current system, that would almost certainly require spending millions on test preparation for children as young as 4, a dubious exercise, according to education experts. Further, the inevitable competition for seats in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods could soon once again leave poor black and Hispanic students at a disadvantage. And, significantly, expanding these programs is unlikely to address the racial segregation so embedded in New York’s schools.

The best way to keep students in the system is to improve all the city’s schools. But the pursuit of that goal is no substitute for addressing inequality right now.

Some recommendations in the report can — and should — be adopted right away.

One important step is to ban a practice allowing high schools to give preference in admissions to students who live in the surrounding neighborhood. The high school admissions process is citywide, and thousands of students regularly travel throughout the five boroughs to attend the school of their choice. Why should it be harder for a student to win a seat at a high-performing school on the Upper East Side simply because she lives in the Bronx?

Removing the entry test for the city’s gifted and talented program is also overdue, to stop an absurd practice of testing the reasoning and language skills of children so young. Parents with resources can often spend hours — and in some cases hundreds of dollars — to prepare their children for the exam. Many experts say a better system would wait until children are significantly older, in middle school, to begin identifying advanced learners, using criteria that draw students from every background. So long as the city’s gifted and talented programs continue to exclude black and Hispanic children, there’s a strong argument for eliminating them.

Skeptics of integration efforts like to point out that there aren’t enough white students in the public school system to racially balance every city school. That’s no excuse for failing to address segregation where it’s possible to do so. Many neighborhoods are diverse, yet have schools that are nearly all-black and Hispanic, or all white and Asian. The goal should be to have more schools that reflect the demographics of the city at large, a standard the report concludes could be met in the next decade.

The commission identified nine school districts across the city where significant racial diversity in the neighborhoods hasn’t translated to more integrated schools. The panel recommended requiring those districts to come up with integration initiatives. Three, including one in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and another on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, have already done so. Another three have begun the process, according to the report. City officials say they are strongly encouraging others to adopt integration plans. Requiring every district across the city to do so, and setting measurable goals, would send a far stronger message.

The recommendations from the commission aren’t binding. On Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio dodged a question about the report on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying he planned to assess the findings before giving his thoughts on the matter. Fair enough.

But to make any meaningful change, Mr. de Blasio will have to summon real mettle on educational inequality, something he has claimed is one of his signature issues.

The report has laid out a path toward ending entrenched segregation and inequity in the nation’s largest school system. The question now is whether the mayor who ran on the promise of confronting inequality will make good on that promise.