After waiting for almost a year, integration advocates finally learned what New York City plans to do about its severe school segregation. They were largely unimpressed.
“The tone the plan took was, ‘We encourage people to do this from the bottom-up.’ But the time for encouragement is over,” said Shino Tanikawa, a Community Education Council member in District 2 who has worked on school integration issues. “It’s time to start doing this work.”
Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor in the education department, said the city’s proposal, released Tuesday, is the beginning of “a more intense conversation.”
“We made some really concrete steps,” he said.
Among the city’s goals: increasing the number of students in schools that are racially representative of the city. But the city’s definition of “racially representative” raised eyebrows. While the city’s students are 70 percent black or Hispanic, the education department defines racially representative schools as those that enroll between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic students, which some advocates consider too low a bar.
Even if the city reaches its goal for reducing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent in the next five years, about 60 percent would remain segregated by income.
“The goals are negligible in comparison to the scale of the problem,” Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent who has worked on integration efforts, wrote in a comment on a Chalkbeat report.
Some elements of the plan call for doubling down on programs that have shown little impact so far. For example, the city is expanding test prep for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and administering the exam in more underrepresented schools.
Both have been tried, and yet there has been virtually no change when it comes to admissions offers made to black and Hispanic students. The expansion of these programs “will neither improve outcomes — just as they have not in the past — nor do they represent a public acknowledgement that the SHSAT is not the mechanism by which merit can be fairly assessed,” Lazar Treschan, who has studied specialized high schools for the Community Service Society of New York, wrote in a statement. Nevertheless, he called the department’s plan an “important” first step.
It’s unclear whether other larger-scale plans, such as eliminating the “limited unscreened” admissions method at high schools, will spur desegregation. Limited unscreened schools give admissions priority to students who express interest by attending an open house or high school fair, a system that advantages families with more time and resources.
Advocates were anxious to see how the city’s creation a School Diversity Advisory group will play out. The city has said this group will evaluate the city’s proposals thus far, come up with recommendations and help lead community engagement efforts in districts that are already working on diversity issues. The group’s recommendations are nonbinding and its representatives were selected by the city.
David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said the group could “have teeth.”
But Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said its success will “ultimately depend on who else is in that group.”
Part of the group’s work will be to make recommendations for the “long-term governance structure” for school diversity work within the education department. Miriam Nunberg, a parent in District 15 who has worked to make middle school admissions more equitable, said that will be important to watch as the city moves forward.
“The biggest thing missing is high-level, administrative oversight [by someone] who is financially empowered and accountable,” she said.
Tanikawa said she had hoped to see a requirement that individual school districts come up with their own plans to create and support integration.
“I wish there was a bigger, stronger commitment,” she said. “I know the chancellor has said she doesn’t like to mandate, but there are many mandates on schools. I don’t see why this can’t be a mandate that allows for a bottom-up, community-driven process.”
Hebh Jamal, a student activist with IntegrateNYC4Me, wants students to have a greater say as the city continues its work.
“We understand the problem. We see it every day,” she said. We’re going to continue to advocate for exactly the type of ideal school system we want.”