Segregation in Buffalo Schools Has Returned to Early 1970s Levels
Mary Pasciak, Buffalo News, April 5, 2014
The Buffalo Public Schools are just as segregated now as they were in the 1970s, essentially reversing the results of an integration program that once was heralded as a national model.
About 70 percent of the city’s schools were considered segregated in 1972, when parents filed the lawsuit that prompted a federal judge to order the district to desegregate.
Despite decades of programs aimed at striking a racial balance, a Buffalo News analysis found that in 2012, 70 percent of schools in the city were segregated, suggesting that any gains seen after the implementation of the court order have been erased.
The situation in Buffalo underscores a disturbing trend seen across New York state, which the Civil Rights Project identified as the most segregated state in the nation.
The difference in Buffalo, however, is that the district was one of the only cities in the state that once instituted a serious integration policy resulting in more racially balanced schools, and has since resegregated.
Now, the city is at the heart of a region the Civil Rights Project ranks 21st out of 940 metropolitan areas in terms of multiracial segregation.
Housing patterns largely drive the segregation in the schools, as do parents opting to keep their children in schools within their communities. Some parents also argue that placement policy and the admissions criteria at some schools may play a role.
The impact of this segregation is most acutely felt by black and Hispanic students, who more often than not are concentrated in high-poverty, low-performing schools. The issue is not so much one of race but of class, which here and elsewhere are all too often connected, and correlates with academic performance, the report found.
“The black struggle to end segregation in the Buffalo schools began in the 1800s and it is still a struggle today in 2014,” said Eva Doyle, a well-respected local author, columnist and historian. “The African-Americans are still trying.
“They want a good education for their children.”
The racial makeup of the city has shifted in the decades since the desegregation lawsuit was filed.
In 1972, white students accounted for 54 percent of the district. By 2012, the most recent year for which school demographic data is available, they made up just 22 percent.
But the same percentage of city schools are segregated now as in 1972, with segregation defined as enrollment that is at least 80 percent minority or 80 percent white.
That percentage is a dramatic increase in the share of schools considered segregated just a decade earlier, when 29 of the 74 Buffalo schools were segregated. None was 80 percent or higher white.
At around that time, two things happened: the district eliminated neighborhood schools, and instead started assigning students to schools based on parental requests; and more charter schools opened in the city.
Since then, schools in South Buffalo have seen a significant increase in the percentage of white students, The Buffalo News found, while nearly all the other schools in the city experienced a growth in their minority enrollment. In fact, the minority population grew by 10 percentage points or more at half the schools in the city over the past decade.
Today, the enrollment of Buffalo’s white students remains heavily concentrated in a small number of schools where they make up a disproportionate majority. Although white students make up the minority districtwide, at 11 schools in the district, they are the majority. That includes two schools that have special admissions policies, City Honors and Olmsted 64.
One, Discovery School, is so predominantly white–82 percent–that it’s considered segregated.
Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of student support, said the district faces difficult dynamics when it comes to demographics, especially given that many neighborhoods of the city remain heavily segregated. In the past decade, the district has moved to a system that gives parents more options for where their children can attend school, in the hopes that the school choice process would allow greater movement throughout the city and not confine children to segregated schools in their neighborhood.
But by and large, most families opt for schools within the neighborhoods where they live.
“When open enrollment was established in our district over a decade ago, part of the intent was to eliminate any contribution we may have been making to segregation with rigid attendance zones,” he said. “We have found, though, that parents still generally choose to remain enrolled at a school either in their ZIP code or adjacent to it.
“The result is that school demographics continue to represent trends in the community–a community that is often segregated.”
Black, Hispanic, Asian and multiracial students accounted for 99 percent or more of the students at five schools in Buffalo in 2012. All of them were charter schools: Community, Buffalo United, Westminster, Aloma D. Johnson and Pinnacle, which has since closed.
“You have to consider that charter schools are schools of choice, which means people aren’t satisfied with schools they could have gone to,” said David Bouie, principal of Aloma D. Johnson Charter School, which has no white students.
At half a dozen schools in the district, known as criteria schools, students are chosen based on various factors, such as grades, teacher recommendations, and a placement exam.
Some parents have expressed concerns that the admissions criteria at those schools discriminate against minority students.
Although district schools with specific admissions criteria came closer to a racial balance, they tended to have a disproportionately white student population. At City Honors, for example, 66 percent of the student body is white–three times the percentage of the overall school district.
Those criteria schools recently became the focus of a civil rights complaint.
“It’s hard to see when you’re in that situation,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the lawsuit. “If your child is there, it’s hard to see how this wonderful situation that’s good for your child is actually creating a set of unfair conditions for other children.
“Privileged people are going to see change differently than underprivileged people.”
Keresztes said the district is well aware of how certain admissions practices affect enrollment, and some schools are making a concerted effort to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds.
“Principals of criteria-based programs have recognized that families may face barriers to accessing their schools because of the application process,” he said. “The district can and must address those barriers and that can be accomplished without diminishing the entrance requirements of the programs.”