Race and Class Collide in a Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools

Kate Taylor, New York Times, September 22, 2015

At Public School 8 in Brooklyn Heights, the auditorium’s stage is crowded with music stands that were stored there when the music room had to be turned into a first-grade classroom.

The prekindergarten program was cut because of lack of space. And with the school operating far above capacity, 50 families who live within its zone–which also includes Dumbo and much of another Brooklyn neighborhood, Vinegar Hill–were placed on a waiting list for kindergarten last spring.

To the city, the solution for the overcrowding at P.S. 8 seemed obvious: move those two neighborhoods from P.S. 8’s zone and into that of P.S. 307, which is nearby and has room to spare. The proposal, however, has drawn intense opposition, and not only from the families who would be rezoned from the predominantly white P.S. 8 to the mostly black P.S. 307. Some residents of the housing project served by P.S. 307 also oppose the rezoning, worried about how an influx of wealthy, mostly white families could change their school.

For all its diversity, New York City, by some measures, has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, in part because many elementary schools are effectively closed off to children who live outside their zones. And although the Brooklyn rezoning is mainly a response to crowding, it is becoming a real-life study in the challenges of integrating just one of the city’s schools.

It is also, perhaps, an unavoidable result of the gentrification in its part of Brooklyn. For many years, the area that came to be named Dumbo, for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, was a decaying industrial district with relatively few families.

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{snip} Saying that the crowding problem was urgent, the city’s Education Department plans to present its proposal at the end of the month to the District 13 Community Education Council, which represents school parents in the area and has the power to approve rezonings. The department is hoping the council will vote on the proposal in time for the boundaries to take effect next year.

But at two town-hall-style meetings this month, parents on both sides angrily accused the department of withholding information and demanded that the timeline be slowed down. During a meeting at P.S. 307 last week, residents of Farragut Houses expressed fears that their children would no longer be allowed to attend P.S. 307 and would be bused elsewhere. (Students who are already enrolled in P.S. 8 and P.S. 307, even if they do not live in the proposed zones, would not have to leave, according to the department.)

“We fought hard to build this school, and we’re not just going to let people come from outside when we worked so hard and dedicated ourselves,” Dolores Cheatom, a Farragut Houses resident, said at the meeting, holding her 1-year-old daughter on her hip.

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At a meeting at P.S. 8 on Monday, Dumbo residents pointed to P.S. 307’s low test scores and asked what kind of training and extra resources the school’s teachers would receive to make the education there comparable to that at P.S. 8. Some Dumbo parents said they were anxious about their children’s being part of a racial minority in the school, while others worried that their children would not be sufficiently challenged.

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A father of a 1-year-old in Dumbo, who declined to give his name, accused the department of playing down the academic challenges at P.S. 307, which he called “severely underperforming.”

“I don’t want to be the bad guy in the room, but no one else wants to talk about it,” he said.

He added, “How does sending all Dumbo and Vinegar Hill children to the school solve P.S. 307’s problems?”

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P.S. 307’s population is 90 percent black and Hispanic, and 90 percent of the students’ families receive some form of public assistance. Its state test scores, while below the citywide averages, are closer to average for black and Hispanic students, with 20 percent of its students passing the math tests and 12 percent passing the reading tests this past year. At P.S. 8, whose population is 59 percent white, with only 15 percent receiving assistance, scores are considerably above the city averages. Almost two-thirds of its students passed each test.

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Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which published a study about school segregation in New York State last year, said it was rare for a school district to take advantage of gentrification to create more integrated schools. “This is exactly the opposite of what New York has been doing for decades,” Dr. Orfield said.

He said the residents who opposed the rezoning “aren’t racists.”

“They aren’t people who don’t want to be with other races and other cultures,” he said. “They just don’t want to be in a ghetto. They don’t want to be in a school where everybody’s poor and their kid is the only white kid or the only Asian kid.”

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