New York Schools Wonder: How White Is Too White?

Kyle Spencer, New York Times, February 16, 2016

How white is too white? At the Academy of Arts and Letters, a small K-8 school in Brooklyn founded in 2006 to educate a community of “diverse individuals,” that question is being put to the test.

The school–along with six others in New York City–is part of a new Education Department initiative aimed at maintaining a racial and socioeconomic balance at schools in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods. For the first time the department is allowing a group of principals to set aside a percentage of seats for low-income families, English-language learners or students engaged with the child welfare system as a means of creating greater diversity within their schools.

The continuing segregation of American schools–and the accompanying achievement gap between white, middle-class students and poorer minority children–has become an urgent matter of debate among educators and at all levels of government. Last week, President Obama lent his weight to the issue when he included in his budget a $120 million grant program for school integration aimed at de-concentrating poverty.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, have disappointed school diversity advocates by failing to make integration a priority. The set-asides plan, approved by Ms. Fariña in November, was the first attempt at addressing the issue across multiple schools.

All of the schools involved enroll children by lottery, rather than having a school zone.

In its early years, Arts and Letters was more than 90 percent black and Hispanic, reflecting the Brooklyn neighborhoods around it, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. More than 80 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch.

But the school gained a reputation for its humanities curriculum, its science lab and its focus on the arts. And newcomers changed the demographic mix of its surrounding blocks. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, the white population rose 120 percent from 2000 to 2010 and the black population fell by 30 percent, according to the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Now, Arts and Letters has become one of Brooklyn’s hottest schools. Half of the school’s kindergartners are white; a mere 12 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. {snip}

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{snip} The principals are concerned that their schools will “tip” over into majority white, middle-class schools.

They hope the new program will help them maintain more balanced populations.

“This is a very important step,” said David Tipson, the executive director of New York Appleseed, which works to create more integration in city schools. “This is the first time that this D.O.E.–under de Blasio–has begun truly addressing the effect gentrification has on our schools.”

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The principals say the set-asides are needed, because once a school is viewed as desirable by middle-class families, their networking capabilities and social capital are far more powerful than any outreach the schools can do to attract lower-income families. All it takes, they say, is a few posts on Facebook, some word of mouth at cocktail parties, preschool fund-raisers and neighborhood playgrounds for a school to be inundated with applications from high-earning families. Those can far outnumber the ones coming from lower-income minority families, so even though seats are given out by lottery, the population can quickly shift.

“There is a number of families,” said Sandra Soto, the principal of Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I don’t know what that number is exactly. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But then you become the next place.” In 2012, Ms. Soto took over a failing school that had been more than 95 percent black and Latino, renamed it and overhauled the curriculum.

This school year, around 15 percent of the population is white and more than 5 percent is Asian. Last year, it had a Parent Teacher Association president who was white.

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At the 28-year-old Brooklyn New School, which once had race-based set-asides to help it draw low-income families from Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, now close to half the students are white or Asian, less than a third get free or reduced lunch, and many families hail from the area’s brownstones and condos or drive in from Park Slope or nearby Dumbo. Anna Allanbrook, the principal and founder, mourns the past. “Part of the vision has been lost,” she said.

The pilot program will allow her once again to give priority to low-income students after siblings and current pre-K students, helping to lure back some of the families for whom the school was originally designed.

Principals at these schools say they know that middle-class families often bring with them higher test scores, making the schools look better on paper. But several added that chasing test scores was not what had drawn them into education.

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