New York schools have a problem, as do many other schools across our nation. Our children are so segregated from others who aren’t of similar backgrounds that they have difficulty relating to the world at large.
Last week, the New York Board of Regents started the conversation about how we can encourage integration, but that discussion should have started long ago.
I witnessed this problem first in my own upbringing. I went to a public school sheltered from the experiences and perspectives of others not so fortunate to live next to the beautiful, peaceful coast of San Diego with access to an abundance of resources. Sure, there were kids from less privileged areas bused in—but they were mostly tracked into different classes.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I had more interaction with people of different backgrounds, and it took me some time to begin to learn how to communicate across these social and cultural divides (still learning on that one).
When I later moved to New York City and taught special education, I saw a mirrored experience in the lives of my students. They grew up in a community with little respite from stress, pollution and noise. Their opportunities for interaction with others of different backgrounds were mostly limited to their interactions with teachers like me, who had little understanding of their lived reality.
We were both raised in segregated worlds. I grew up in a privileged community in San Diego; my students grew up in a poor community in the Bronx. Yet we were both sheltered from the world at large.
But this isn’t just about me or my students, or San Diego and the Bronx. The problem across our nation is the pervasive, persistent segregation of our communities and schools that commences from day one of a child’s life.
When we prevent children from learning from both adversity and diversity, we increase the fragility of our society.
So what can we do?
There’s two parts to fighting segregation. There are the private choices we can make as individuals—as parents—about where we live and where we send our kids to school. And there are the public policies that we can advocate for our representatives and school district leaders to create.
Start With the Parents
I can’t tell you where to send your kids to school and what neighborhood to live in. But I can encourage you to consider whether a “good” school is defined only by test scores, or whether you also will consider whether a school will provide a diversity of experiences and exposure to different perspectives, such as at a magnet school or a dual language school. And I can ask you to think about whether a “good” neighborhood is only about how convenient and comfortable it is, or whether it’s also about living somewhere that challenges and enriches you.
Safety is of course a paramount consideration. But overzealous sterility can also be deadly in the long-run (read Greg Ip’s “Foolproof” or Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class” for more on this idea).
There’s been recent news stories about parents who protest about their property values falling when the possibility of different kids coming to their school is raised. It’s time parents who see the bigger picture push back on such concerns.
What about the value that will be added to their child’s experience in learning alongside another child of a different background? What about the value in getting to know families from the other side of the fence and viewing them as human beings rather than derelicts to be feared? What about the value in viewing a public school as an opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than your own limited self-interest?
I’m not saying putting kids of different backgrounds together is easy, nor even sufficient. But real learning and growth has never been comfortable, nor easy.
Similarly, bringing this to our public representatives and school district leaders may make them uneasy, precisely due to the potential backlash from constituents who might espouse progressive values from afar, but who rise up in arms when the phantom menace of other people’s children attending their schools is raised. But the kinds of pitched battles we see take place in places like the Upper West Side also occurs because of poor leadership, not simply because diversity is on the table.
Putting families on the defensive results in ugly turf battles, but proactive communication, involvement, and planning can go a long way. And as the Brookings Institute has recently suggested, when practical factors such as school scheduling and bus timing are carefully considered, parents are much more likely to be engaged.
What would it mean to be proactive about segregation?
Bring in the Policymakers
That’s where public leadership and policy comes in. Unfortunately, we can’t expect the U.S. Department of Education to provide any guidance on this. A grant program already funded under the Obama administration was canceled by Betsy DeVos, our new education secretary.
So it’s up to the states and districts to lead. Here’s some ways in which they can do so:
- Our state representatives and leaders must clearly and consistently communicate that diversity in schools serves a civic purpose and is furthermore backed by substantive research. They must formally state that creating diversity in schools is a system-wide goal. Such policy statements have been made at a state level in Ohio, and at the district level in Nashville, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Fresno.
- Public representatives need to pull together the best definitions and models of school diversity they can find, drawing upon the experiences of researchers, academics, community activists and school leaders. They need to then share these findings widely and transparently and listen to feedback and concerns from communities.
- School diversity numbers must be made public and regularly reported, as the City Council has done in New York City, and as it appears New York state is planning to do.
- Finally, district-wide admissions and choice programs that will systematically foster greater diversity must be developed, such as a controlled choice program implemented in Cambridge. Schools and programs that are already fostering diversity, such as magnet schools, should be supported, expanded, and invested in.
When parents and public representatives work together, both as individuals and through policy, we can fight the increasing segregation of our kids. But if we do nothing, we guarantee the further polarization of our society.