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Will New York City's Plan to Make Its Schools Less Segregated Work?

New York City has released its long-awaited plan to address school segregation—a 13-page document that education officials say lays out their commitment to increasing diversity in schools and classrooms in the nation's largest public school system. But critics and advocates say the plan falls far short of what's necessary to undo the deep segregation in most of the city's schools.

New York state, according to some research findings, is home to the most segregated public schools in the nation, an imbalance driven in large measure by the high levels of segregation in New York City's schools. Other big cities face similar challenges. Dallas and Denver, for example, are coming up with plans to promote integration. Denver, specifically, is digging into how housing patterns are affecting schools, with an eye toward creating school policies around admissions, school choice, academic program offerings, that would help promote integration.  

New York City's plan, "Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools," aims to increase the number of students who attend more racially balanced schools by 50,000 over the next five years; reduce the number of students attending schools that are economically stratified (this can be a concentration of students in poverty on one end of the spectrum or a concentration of high-income students on the other end) by 10 percent—or by 150 schools—in the next five years; and increase the number of inclusive schools serving English-language learners and students with disabilities.

To achieve those goals—which some critics say are far too modest—the city outlined a series of strategies, including:

  • Set up a school diversity advisory group, made up of city appointees, parents, experts, students, and community representatives, who will review the department's plan and propose changes. The group will submit recommendations to the mayor and chancellor by June 2018.
  • Expand "diversity in admissions" pilots, in which schools set aside a percentage of their seats for students who may be English-learners, low-income, or have family members who are incarcerated. Private early-childhood programs that are providers in the city's pre-K program will be able to participate. Middle schools can propose opening admissions to students boroughwide.
  • Remove some admission methods at high schools that give preference to parents who are able to attend school fairs and information sessions.
  • Create an online application for middle schools and high schools.
  • Expand programs to help poor, black, and Hispanic students prepare for the entrance exam required for specialized high schools and take the test during the school day.

The city's specialized high schools are predominantly Asian and white, and city programs introduced under Mayor Bill de Blasio to offer extra tutoring to low-income, black, and Hispanic students have done little to make a dent in the demographics at those schools. But city officials did say there has been an uptick in the numbers of students who took the admissions test when it was offered on a school day, and that black and Hispanic students who took the test-prep were more likely to get offers.

"That's a clear indicator that we are onto something positive there," said Josh Wallack, the city's deputy chancellor for strategy and policy.

Diversity considerations will be a central part of planning and developing new education programs, and city officials hope to open 15 new schools in the next three years that will specifically include diversity efforts, according to the plan. 

"I think we made some significant steps here, and I think it's the beginning of a longer conversation that we are going to have to get at these issues," Wallack said. 

An 'Inspirationally Deficient' Plan to Integrate Schools

But critics said the long-promised plan failed to use the words "segregation" or "integration," had modest goals for a system with about 1,800 schools and nearly 1 million students, and that many of the initiatives touted in the proposal were already underway.

"The entire plan lacks urgency," said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. "The idea behind this is that children's education is diminished by segregation, and there seems to be no recognition of that fact. This reminds me of the words in Brown v. Board of Education—'with all deliberate speed,' which allowed districts to drag their feet. This seems like more foot-dragging."

"There is nothing here that is so groundbreaking that it could not have been suggested in the early days of the administration," said Bloomfield, who called the plan "technically deficient as well as inspirationally deficient."

Two New York City councilmembers, Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres, said in a joint statement that setting concrete targets was a breakthrough, and they praised the city education officials for the creation of the school advisory group.

"The plan reflects a change of approach that would not have happened without the insistent activism of students and teachers, parents and public officials, all with an eye toward recapturing the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education," they wrote. "Segregated schools cannot teach inclusive democracy."

But they also said they were sorry that the plan did not use the words segregation or integration.

"We will not break the cycle of segregation if we cannot even name it," they said.

Wallack said that he understood that there would be a range of opinions on how far or fast the city was moving, but the department was committed to the goal of diversity. The department used the word "diversity" as opposed to integration and segregation to make it clear that the plan intended to go beyond race and include economics, home language, immigration status, special needs, religion, gender expression, sexual orientation, housing status, and cultural background, he said. 

You can read the full plan here.

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