The Attempted Integration of the Upper West Side
“[New York City] has a school system more segregated than the South, if that is not an indictment of New York City then I don’t know what is,” said New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres at a recent forum. Torres is one of many local politicians who have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to integrate the public schools of one of the most kaleidoscopically diverse cities in the world. Some reports have shown that racial segregation in New York schools is established early in the process when children are in kindergarten and elementary school, where many children are already being set on educational tracks that will determine the future of their schooling.
One of the areas with some of the most segregated elementary schools in the city is the Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The 50 odd blocks are home to over 200,000 people, and it is the only area in the city where the schools are more segregated than the housing. This intense divide has lead the local schools to gravitate towards the far ends of the spectrum of success. On West 69th street, Public School (PS) 199 is one of the most sought after elementary schools in the city due to its sky high test scores and a PTA that brought in over $800,000 last year in donations. At PS 199, 67% of students are white. Less than 10 blocks south is PS 191, an elementary school that serves the Amsterdam Houses public housing project and other low-income areas. In the past it has been listed as one of the most dangerous schools in the city and its PTA receives less than a tenth of the funding of PS 199. PS 191 students are 81% black and Latino.
“You have to ask the question, what is the price that these rich white children are paying if they are not in a diverse community?” said Dr. Jane Bolgatz, an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education and author of Talking Race in the Classroom. “What is the price that they pay when they stereotype and underestimate their peers? I think that there’s a pretty steep price.”
Many city officials have been loudly crying out for more diversity and equity in the public schools but little has changed in the past few decades, especially in the Upper West Side. This is largely due to the fact that locals are almost always heavily divided when it comes to changing things, especially when it comes to the topic of rezoning school districts. Many parents want better and more diverse schools for their children, and would often like for their kids to be able to go to better schools than the one that they are located by. Inversely there are many parents who bought real estate at a certain location in the Upper West Side specifically so that their children could go to a certain school. Many of these parents might want the schools to be on a more even playing field, but don’t want to see their child’s school decrease in quality in order to achieve that goal. “I imagine that the parents who oppose [rezoning] actually want diversity, but what that means is somewhat different when it comes down to these things that are considered high stakes for their children,” says Enrique Figueroa, a doctoral candidate and researcher at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. “There is this public perception that black and brown kids are not successful, and many parents will think that they don’t want their child in that scenario.”
These sentiments have come out in full force in the past year as the Community Education Council 3 (CEC3), the local board that decides school zones and other regulations on the Upper West Side, set forth its plan to rezone the elementary schools with the goal of making them more diverse and less crowded. The community was immediately, emphatically split. There were heated debates among neighbors in the streets and on line. The divisions became so large that one man told the Gothamist, “I’ve heard about kids who were uninvited to playdates because their parents are in favor of the move.” At most community council meetings there were large protests against the CEC3 and all of their rezoning proposals. The same kind of reaction could be found online, like on a WestSideRag article where of the 140 comments, 60 expressed negativity about the plan, 55 were neutral, and only 25 were in favor of it. However there were expressions of support throughout, and there was a general suspicion that many more people may have supported the plan, but resisted speaking out against the forceful parent associations that opposed it.
There was several months of hearings, meetings, and finally a vote. On November 22nd the CEC3 Board voted 9–1 in favor of a comprehensive redistricting plan that included the relocation of thousands of students and the building of three brand new schools.
Although the official decision has been made, the fight is long from being over. Several parent groups are preparing legal action against the city, saying that CEC3 broke state laws by creating a rezoning proposal behind closed doors and without enough public input.
However others have praised the plan saying that despite the questionable process of making it, the new zoning lines will help to right a historical wrong. “You’ll hear the complaints…what you won’t hear is from the thousands of children who will benefit in the future, many of whom haven’t even been born,” Clara Hemphill, editor of insideschools.org, told Dnainfo.com.
Despite protests it seems likely that the rezoning plan will be put into effect starting next school year. The question now is what happens next. Many wealthy parents have expressed their intentions to move away from the Upper West Side. Others have stated they will try to get their children into private schools instead. Both of these situations will detract from the goal of having more racial diversity in the public schools, but there will most likely still be a significant number of families that stay.
While the most of the public conversation has revolved around the issue of racial diversity, this rezoning plan might end up creating a more equitable school system in other ways. “There are actually many different kinds of diversity,” said Dr. Bolgatz. “There's special education diversity, there's English language learner diversity, there's religious diversity, there's economic diversity, so when we're talking about diversity it's not a simple thing.” Although these other forms of diversity are often overlooked, CEC3’s rezoning plan could have a large impact on them. The plan expands dual-language programs at several school, and splits certain low-income neighborhoods in a way that there is a more even ratio of students on free-lunch programs spread amongthe schools. These measures will most likely help create diversity in several areas other than race.
Although this plan only affects a relatively small area of the city, there will likely be people from every neighborhood intently watching to see if it succeeds or fails. This plan is being looked at by some as a test run, and may have implications for dozens of other school districts depending on its results. A public vote to rezone Harlem is currently on hold, while Brooklyn has been facing its own rezoning battle that bears a striking resemblance to the one that has just occurred on the Upper West Side. Some school integration advocates, such as Clara Hemphill, see widespread rezoning as a positive move that could be supported by Governor Bill de Blasio, who has been criticized for his incremental approach to reducing school segregation.
While city officials may be concerned about these future implications, the parents of the Upper West Side remain hawkishly fixated on the here and now. “You can vote on this plan, but that doesn’t mean people will accept it,” said a resident of the Lincoln Towers Complex who was considering moving due to the rezoning plan. “I’m really excited,” said Hope Dendy, who attended PS 191 as a child and whose children go there now. “Hopefully the others will see the brighter light.”