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Redistricting Used to Mitigate Gentrification’s Impact on Diversity

February 16, 2016

One of the conundrums facing NYC and many urban school districts is the effect gentrification has on neighborhood schools. It typically works like this: a small group of urban homesteaders identifies a neighborhood that has well-constructed but dilapidated homes that are owned by absentee landlords who are eager to sell. They move in and either renovate the homes themselves or hire a contractor to do so. As their neighborhoods are upgraded, other landlords seize the opportunity to sell their equally rundown properties, evicting low income tenants in the process. As low income tenants move out and affluent homeowners move in the neighborhood changes. Bodegas are replaced with coffee shops and wine bars, upscale grocery stores take the place of mom-and-pop stores, and, before long, developers buy up multiple properties and erect condominiums that draw even more affluent residents to the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood schools change as well… with children raised in poverty replaced by mostly white, affluent children raised in households where both parents attended college.

An article by Kyle Spencer in today’s NYTimes describes how some Principals in NYC have formed a consortium to ensure that some of the students pushed out of gentrified schools get an opportunity to remain in them so they can get the benefits of the change in the learning atmosphere that inevitably accompanies an influx of caring and engaged parents. Spencer summarizes the rationale for this as follows:

A strong body of research, beginning in the 1960s with the now-famous Coleman Report, suggests that low-income students do better academically when exposed to middle-class ones. Numerous other studies suggest that middle-class students do not see a decrease in achievement when they go to school with poorer students, and may in fact benefit in nonacademic ways through their exposure to students who are not like them.

Last week, President Obama put his support behind that research when he announced his budget would include a $120 million grant program for school integration initiatives that seek to deconcentrate poverty.

But how to do that remains up for debate.

The Times article describes the conscious effort required at the central office level to ensure that schools achieve the right blend of “middle class” children and the debate among Principals as to what that blend should be. Some researchers and Principals believe that Coleman’s findings mean that a school must be at least 51% “middle class”, but others believe a lower percentage is sufficient. One Principal, Julie Zuckerman, is a case in point:

Ms. Zuckerman, the Castle Bridge School principal, challenges the notion that her school needs a large percentage of middle-class families to turn it into a successful place of learning. “I’m good with 20 to 25 percent,” she said.

At Castle Bridge, students from households in which a family member is incarcerated get priority for 10 percent of the seats, and low-income students get priority for 60 percent.

While the Principals who are participating in this program have different ideas about what constitutes an optimal percentage of low income students, all DO agree that some orchestration is needed to get a blend:

The principals say the set-asides are needed, because once a school is viewed as desirable by middle-class families, their networking capabilities and social capital are far more powerful than any outreach the schools can do to attract lower-income families. All it takes, they say, is a few posts on Facebook, some word of mouth at cocktail parties, preschool fund-raisers and neighborhood playgrounds for a school to be inundated with applications from high-earning families. Those can far outnumber the ones coming from lower-income minority families, so even though seats are given out by lottery, the population can quickly shift.

Fortunately for the low income children whose parents are not captured by the outreach of a school attempting to attract lower income children the NYC schools are now making a conscious effort to include their children in schools that enroll children from families with “networking capabilities and social capital”. In using “set asides”, though, there is collateral damage to some striving middle class parents… creating a conundrum that is described in the concluding paragraphs of the article:

Emily Cowan, a freelance artist and social worker, said she was willing to even sacrifice her own kindergartner’s slot next year to “preserve that diversity,” though it would mean sending her son to a different school next year.

For others, it is a bitter pill.

The idea of keeping the school diverse “totally jibes with my politics,” said Mark Schwartz, the owner of a liquor store in Prospect-Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn, who also has a kindergartner at the school. “But what if it means we lose out on this opportunity?”

Schools cannot rectify the impact of poverty… but the NYC schools are making an earnest effort to mitigate it as best they can. The mayor and Superintendent deserve praise for their courage to take this issue on.

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