New York City

Brownstone Brooklyn's Racial Divide: Why Are the Schools So Segregated?

How residential assignment keeps kids who are black and white-rich and poor-apart.


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[*Note: There is a correction to the narration in the video story, which is explained at the bottom of this page.]

Will moving the lines on a map integrate Brooklyn's public schools? What if instead of redrawing catchment areas, poor parents were given the same choices middle-class families take for granted?

P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights is one of New York City's most sought after public elementary schools. It's surrounded by luxury condominiums and nineteenth-century town houses. Young families pay top dollar to move into the zone with the goal of laying claim to one of P.S. 8's coveted kindergarten spots.

Three quarters of a mile from P.S. 8 is another public elementary school called P.S. 307. It serves a tiny section of Brooklyn that on a map looks like it was carved out of the area assigned to P.S. 8. And the zone is fully occupied by the Farragut Houses, which is a large public housing project.

As a result, demographically these two schools just a short distance apart look nothing alike: Ninety-percent of the students at PS 307 come from economically disadvantaged homes, as compared to 16 percent at P.S.8, and 95 percent of P.S. 307 students are minorities, while at P.S. 8 the figure is 40 percent.

And there's nothing unusual about this particular district; race and class divisions exist in public school systems all over America. Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled against separate but equal, school lines are drawn in a way that keeps kids who are rich and poor—black and white—apart.

Now, in this particular district in Brooklyn, with P.S. 8 experiencing severe overcrowding, the community is making a serious attempt to bring more integration. In early January, a local board that represents the district voted 6 to 3 to redraw the boundary between P.S. 8 and P.S. 307. In theory, this will mean hundreds of white affluent families will start sending their kids to a school that's currently predominantly poor and minority.

But will parents go along with the plan?

"In general, the lesson of integration over the past 30 or 40 years has been don't just compulsorily reassign families and expect integration to occur," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation who is considered "the intellectual father" of the movement to integrate schools. "Upper middle class families have options," he says. "They can move to a different district. They can send their kids to private school."

Wendy Lecker—a senior attorney at the Education Law Center, who's part of an informal working group to bring more diversity to New York City schools—is more sanguine.

"Many parents don't themselves have experience with integrated education," she says, "and I have a little more faith in parents that…when they understand the benefits of being in a diverse school district they will choose to participate in the public school system."

Meanwhile, walking distance from P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 there are three charters with diversity as part of their core mission. They're taking a different approach to integration—within the very same district. 

Charters are public schools that are free from many of the bureaucratic rules that govern traditional public schools, and they aren't strictly tied to a particular neighborhood, so kids from anywhere in the city can apply for a slot. The newest of the bunch is the International Charter School of New York.

"We have everyone from parents who work on Wall Street to families who live in transitional housing," says Matthew Levey, the school's executive director and founder. "Diversity is something that everyone should value," says Levey, "but if you force [parents] to value it then they don't."

Today most charter schools in the U.S. aren't diverse at all, but Kahlenberg believes that if parents had more choices many would recognize the immense benefits and opt to send their kids to integrated schools. "I'm excited about the possibility of charter schools, empowering teachers and integrating students," he says.

[*CORRECTION: A line of voiceover in the video story states that: "[Wendy Lecker] wants the city to go farther and redraw the lines for every school in the district to reflect the reality that 70 percent of the families living in the community are poor."

In fact, though Lecker says that redrawing schools zones has worked well in some places, she thinks the local community should choose the best approach to achieving diversity in District 13.]

Written, shot, edited, and narrated by Jim Epstein. Production help from Alexis Garcia, Todd Krainin, and Izzy Skenazy.

About 11 minutes.

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