Most New Yorkers are surprised to hear that, as of 2014, our public schools ranked 50th of 50 states on metrics of integration. This is not an accident of history: In New York City, a web of elementary school zone lines and screened admission policies has created two systems — one serving primarily white and Asian children and the other their Black and Brown neighbors. Children on either side of this divide learn clear messages about their place in society, one group destined to inherit the city’s power structure and the other to serve it.
Our growing awareness about the pernicious effects of racism on all of us demands that we not only see this inequitable divide, but that we dismantle it. And COVID’s disruption brings a very specific opportunity to do just that: to breakdown a system that perpetuates inequity and replace it with a system that best serves all students, regardless of their zip code or their race.
New York City’s public school system, the nation’s largest, educates a larger percentage of students in selective admission schools than any other American cities, but this year, the 126 high schools and 196 middle schools that put up formal barriers to admission have lost the basis for making selective admission decisions. Much as the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes in college admissions by disrupting administration of the SAT, it swept away state standardized tests, grades, attendance and other measures that enable selective admission middle and high schools to sort students into the two separate systems.
To state it bluntly, there is no longer a socially or educationally acceptable cover for cloistering white and Asian students into separate and unequal schools, no matter what admissions method they use. COVID has swept away the veil. With the veil removed, we must embrace this moment as the time to come together around barriers like admission screens, which perpetuate inequity.
Successful open-enrollment schools exist throughout the city, and they provide a model of a school that is valued not because it puts up barriers to access, but rather because it effectively supports the growth of each young person. Today, based on these models, we have an opportunity to rebuild a school system where all children learn with and from the most diverse community of young people on the planet.
We are proud that many of the city’s successful schools proudly serving all students are members of the Urban Assembly network, which we lead. UA schools consistently outperform the city as a whole as we embrace all students. But we are not alone in this commitment. Most educators want to serve their whole communities — together.
Some of the city’s 32 community school districts have taken the initiative in the last couple of years to pilot more equitable admission systems. Notable among them is District 15 in Brooklyn, which has just completed its first year of a whole-district plan to integrate its middle schools, with promising early results.
We’ve also seen positive progress in a number of other districts. Parents and educators of all backgrounds no longer consider it defensible to protect a system that reserves some public schools for some types of kids.
Pilots like these demonstrate that the true strength of a public school lies not in its ability to restrict the profile of students that will attend it, gerrymandering its constituents and then taking undue credit for their achievement. The actual strength of a public school lies in seeing to the social, emotional and academic development of every student, at every level, from every background.
New York City has taken a hit in 2020, and every New Yorker’s talents will be essential to rebuilding the economic and cultural strength that drew us to this wonderful city. But in order to do so, we must finally come together as one community. That begins with our schools. It is time to build a school system that educates all of New York’s children together.
Kearns-Jordan is CEO and Adams is senior director of strategy at the Urban Assembly.