On Tuesday, June 6, the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE)—which runs the largest school district in the country—released a plan designed to promote school integration. The announcement is a first step, not a full solution, to addressing racial and socioeconomic segregation in the city’s schools. But even with its limitations, New York City’s diversity plan includes several strong elements that other school districts would do well to note.
What the Plan Gets Right
Here are four strategies from NYC’s school diversity plan that lay a strong foundation for promoting school integration:
1. Start by affirming diversity as a necessary goal. New York City’s diversity plan starts with a policy statement that identifies working to promote more diverse schools and classrooms as an essential part of the city’s work:
The New York City Department of Education is committed to supporting learning environments that reflect the diversity of New York City. We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive schools and classrooms where all students, families and school staff are supported and welcomed. This work is essential to our vision of Equity and Excellence for all NYC students.
A policy statement like this is important—and a first in New York City—because it identifies school integration as necessary work, not just a bonus when it’s convenient, and it doesn’t excuse school segregation as simply a result of housing patterns or parent choice.
2. Establish specific goals for progress. School districts don’t always measure all that they treasure, but they do usually treasure what they measure, whether it’s student test scores or enrollment numbers. Establishing specific goals for school integration is important to provide accountability and ensure that the work is prioritized. New York City’s diversity plan sets three concrete goals for reducing school segregation and increasing access to diverse schools and classrooms:
- Increase the number of students in a racially representative school [one in which 50-90% of students are black or Hispanic] by 50,000 over the next five years;
- Decrease the number of economically stratified schools [those with an Economic Need index more than 10 percentage points from the citywide average] by 10% (150 schools) in the next five years; and
- Increase the number of inclusive schools that serve English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities [by enrolling and effectively serving a number of students proportional to the borough or district average].
Setting goals that require measurable progress has been an important tool in other school districts for pushing forward work on school integration. Stamford, Connecticut, for example, has a policy requiring all schools to fall within 10 percentage points of the district average enrollment of disadvantaged students. Former Stamford Superintendent Joshua Starr has noted, “Having that hard and fast rule was really powerful.” While New York City’s initial goals do not extend to all schools in the district, they will provide a yardstick for city officials and the public to make sure that commitments and actions translate into results.
3. Create a structure for ongoing community engagement. As part of the diversity plan, New York City is creating a School Diversity Advisory Group that will include a variety of experts, officials, and community members. School integration advocates across the city have been pushing for more community engagement in the DOE’s diversity work, and this advisory group will help advance that goal. Establishing clear channels for input from students, parents, educators, and advocates is important for creating greater transparency and accountability for the DOE’s work and incorporating the views and expertise of a broader range of stakeholders in developing solutions for addressing school segregation.
4. Include early education. Research shows that preschool children experience cognitive and social-emotional benefits from learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms. While New York City officials have previously spoken in support of the goal of fostering diversity in the city’s universal pre-K classrooms, this plan takes a step forward in including pre-K in more of the city’s diversity initiatives. Notably, community-based pre-K providers—private preschools, subsidized and unsubsidized daycare centers, or other organizations that contract with the city but aren’t located in public schools—will now be eligible to participate in the city’s Diversity in Admission pilot program, which allows schools to incorporate diversity-based criteria in their enrollment priorities and helps schools to recruit and serve diverse populations.
What More Is Needed
While the city’s diversity plan lays out a strong framework for beginning work on school integration, much more will need to be done if the city is to reach its goals for integration over the next five years and chart a course for continued work on this issue beyond that timeframe.
The plan does not spell out which staff and resources within the DOE will be devoted to diversity work. Its success will depend upon having a team of people within the DOE with the time, expertise, and accountability needed to ensure progress is made toward the broad goals that the city has set.
And while the plan lists a dozen strategies that will be implemented to increase diversity in schools, these initiatives on their own aren’t likely to be enough to reduce segregation by the goals outlined or, more importantly, set the pace for continued progress in years following. A number of the programs being proposed would tweak the existing middle and high school admissions processes. Some of the policies will remove barriers that make it hard for high-needs students to make it into in-demand schools, eliminating the priorities given to students who are able to tour schools or who rank a school higher in their list of choices. Other programs provide disadvantaged students with supports and resources designed to help them navigate the choice process more successfully by streamlining application processes, updating information systems, and providing targeted outreach and coaching programs to help more black and Hispanic students gain admission to specialized high schools.
If NYC is going to move the needle in school integration in a meaningful way, the city will need to do more to de-track schools and classrooms.
These initiatives, however, essentially uphold the status quo of a system with many gradations of screened and selective admissions that in practice sort students not only by academic performance but also by race and class. If NYC is going to move the needle in school integration in a meaningful way, the city will need to do more to de-track schools and classrooms—as districts like Stamford, Connecticut, and Rockville Centre, Long Island, have done. And in cases where academic screens remain, NYC should develop admissions criteria that address diversity head-on, like Chicago Public Schools’ algorithm that uses census data to give a leg up to low-income students in admissions to selective and magnet schools.
In school districts that have successfully promoted integration over the years, the process has been an iterative one: setting goals, developing and implementing strategies, measuring progress, and then revising goals and strategies. New York City’s diversity plan doesn’t have all the answers, but it establishes a strong launchpad for the discussions, decisions, and actions needed to create more integrated schools across the city.