The rampant segregation in New York City public schools has placed significant pressure on the Department of Education (DOE) to address the disproportionate demographic representation in thousands of NYC schools. After many months of promising to implement a new policy to integrate the city’s public schools, the DOE has unveiled their 12 point plan to establish “diverse and inclusive” schools.
Despite considerable anticipation, the policy proposal, Equity and Excellence for All, was released without much fanfare on Tuesday, June 6th via an email newsletter by the DOE. Neither the Mayor nor the Chancellor appeared in public to announce the new plan.
The plan, which focuses on establishing schools that reflect the diverse demographic of the city, aims to:
“1. Increase the number of students in a racially representative school by 50,000 over the next five years,
2. Decrease the number of economically stratified schools by 10% (150 schools) in the next five years; and
3. Increase the number of inclusive schools that serve English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities.”
Additionally, the DOE has formed a Diversity Advisory Group, which includes diversity experts, parents and students, to steer and monitor the progress of the plan's 12 points:
Eliminate priority admissions to families that attend an info session or open house
Increase access to screened schools
Make it easier for families to learn about school choice
Create diversity in admissions pilots
Provide greater assistance to students in temporary housing
Introduce more diversity in Specialized High Schools
Plan ahead to create diversity in new schools
Rezone communities with diversity in mind
Provide diversity grants
Create more positive, supportive classroom climate
Increase participation of underrepresented students in STEM
Improve diversity, excellence and equity
Despite the DOE’s aim to remedy segregation in the city’s schools, no mention of the words “segregation” or “integration” appear in the policy proposal. Instead, the plan opts for “diversity” and “inclusion.” Word choice is important. “Segregation” and “integration” recognize the existence of a history of systemic obstacles that have consistently disadvantaged underrepresented populations, whereas “diversity” and “inclusion” diminishes that history, and in doing so, neglects the experience of those disadvantaged students. However, this has been the first time in history that the NYC DOE has committed a concrete plan to addressing racial and economic stratification in its schools. In doing so, this issue - which exists in many big cities across the country - may rise to the top of the policy agenda and conversations around education reform.
It should be noted that Equity and Excellence for All furthers the city’s choice program, a system beginning in 6th grade that allows students to apply to a range of schools across the city rather than attend the school assigned within their district zone. The choice program was implemented to integrate middle and high schools because many elementary schools are segregated due to economically divided housing arrangements. Despite its goal however, the school choice program has done little to integrate schools - so, will a plan that turns to the choice system as a solution achieve success?
The conversation around segregation in schools is very political, which explains why the DOE appears to be tip-toeing around the issue. But tip toeing around the issue will not lead to effective school reform. Therefore, we must examine and address the root causes of segregation and its influence on student performance. For example, less adequate housing, healthcare and access to nutritional foods cause chronic absenteeism. With fewer opportunities for summer enrichment and after school programs, students’ academic and developmental skills regress. Without the support of English-literate parents or a two parent household, a student’s ability to navigate the school system is significantly strained.
There is no silver bullet in education reform - school choice cannot be the only way that the DOE addresses school segregation. Though making school choice more accessible to all families is part of the solution and is a step towards integration, schools will have to partner with other sectors and organizations that influence academic success. Because a student’s academic success relies on their health, housing and access to education - among other factors - the DOE must collaborate with organizations such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health to witness deeply rooted change.
I do believe that Equity and Excellence for All is a step in the right direction, but it is vital that we - as teachers, parents and education advocates - continue a critical and constructive conversation around policy decisions that directly influence our students. I like to think of education reform as a never-ending project, always progressing, but never complete.