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East Village Schools Split Along Racial Lines Under City Policy

By Julie Shapiro | January 30, 2012 6:46am
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Billy Figueroa

EAST VILLAGE — When Martha Kessler decided to send her son to the East Village Community School six years ago, one of the biggest draws was the tiny school's diversity.

The stately brick building on East 12th Street sits within easy walking distance of both million-dollar condos and public housing projects, and the school admitted plenty of children from both worlds through a process that prioritized racial and socioeconomic diversity.

But to Kessler and other parents' dismay, that careful balance did not last for long.

In 2007, the city put an end to the diversity-based admissions policies at the East Village Community School and other elementary schools in the neighborhood. Since then, the East Village Community School has seen a rapid influx of white and high-income families, according to parents and Department of Education figures.

"Our school has radically changed since they stopped looking at ethnicity," said Kessler, 47, an East Village resident who is co-president of the school's PTA and has two children there.

"I think it would be better for my kids to be exposed to a range of people."

While several schools in District 1 — which stretches from Chinatown up to 14th Street — have seen a drop in diversity since the city forced the district to change its admissions policies, the impact is clearest at the East Village Community School.

Between 2004 and 2010, the school's white population swelled from 21 percent to 43 percent, according to Department of Education figures. Over the same period, the school's Hispanic population dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent, and the number of black students dropped from 30 percent to 13 percent of the school, the figures show.

District 1's overall elementary population has changed since 1999 as well — growing from 4 to 13 percent white — but that shift has not been evenly distributed across the district's schools, said Lisa Donlan, president of the District 1 Community Education Council.

Some schools, including P.S. 110 on Delancey Street and the Neighborhood School on East Third Street, have seen similar trends to the East Village Community School. Others, like P.S. 140 on Ridge Street, have seen their minority populations remain high or even grow.

"Our schools are increasingly race and class stratified," Donlan said. "We have some very integrated schools, and we have some very racially and economically isolated schools. That's a learning disadvantage for students."

Under Donlan's leadership, the District 1 Community Education Council and neighborhood parent activists are pushing the city to reinstate its diversity-based admissions policy.

"It was much better before," said Harvey Epstein, an East Village father of two and a project director at the Urban Justice Center. "We could ensure economic, racial and gender diversity, which made school better for all who attended."

A Department of Education spokesman said that the city works hard to make sure District 1 parents know they have a choice about which school their child attends. Each year, the city reaches out to thousands of District 1 parents through notices to schools, community-based organizations and elected officials, the spokesman said. 

District 1's diversity-boosting policies date back to the early 1990s, when the district erased the elementary school zone lines that had carved up the neighborhood and gave families the freedom to apply to any school within the district.

Whenever a school received more applications than it could accommodate, it held a lottery and implemented racial quotas to prevent one group from dominating the pool, Donlan said.

That policy evolved over the next decade to include factors such as socioeconomic class, gender and language ability, with the goal of making each of the schools as diverse as the neighborhood as a whole, Donlan said.

But shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the city's schools, the city began chipping away at the diversity-based preference system, before ending it altogether in 2007, Donlan said.

The city may have been reacting to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that schools in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., could not use children's race to decide where they went to school.

Since then, District 1's elementary schools have reverted to using a blind lottery system to dole out their seats.

While the lottery technically gives an equal opportunity to all families in the district, it actually favors parents who speak English, are computer-literate and have the time to research schools and pick the best one for their children, Donlan and other parents said.

Donlan frequently sees higher-income, white families following the playground buzz to one of the neighborhood's newer progressive elementary schools, like the East Village Community School or the Neighborhood School, while lower-income families simply send their children to the school that is closest to their home, not realizing that they have options.

"Choice alone creates segregation and affords privilege," Donlan said.

While a diversity-based admissions policy would not necessarily change which parents applied to which schools, it would help counteract the self-segregation that is currently occurring, Donlan said.

The DOE spokesman did not comment on the Community Education Council's request for a return to diversity-based admissions.

Without any change in city policy, though, parents expect the polarizing trends to continue.

Epstein, who sent his two children to the Neighborhood School on East Third Street, is disturbed by what he's seen there over the past 10 years.

Between 2004 and 2009, the Neighborhood School's white population swelled from 30 to 40 percent, while the Hispanic population dropped from 33 to 28 percent and the black population dropped from 19 to 17 percent, according to city figures.

Because the schools cannot even control for gender balance, Epstein said classes sometimes wind up wildly uneven, as in last year's incoming kindergarten class, which was more than two-thirds boys.

"It's a less diverse environment," Epstein said. "There are whiter families. It's not as much about community building…. It's unfortunate."

Epstein said it is extremely important for young children to be exposed to people who are different from them, to "demystify" the divisions of race and class.

"It benefits children from all backgrounds — you just get exposed to more," Epstein said.

While several Lower East Side and East Village schools have seen their white populations increase over the past 10 years, most have retained large minority populations.

P.S. 64 on East Sixth Street, which draws many of its students from the public housing buildings that line Avenue D, has served at least 88 percent Hispanic and black students since 2001. P.S. 63, P.S. 34, P.S. 142, the Island School and others also serve almost entirely minority students.

The only District 1 school that serves predominantly Asian students is the Shuang Wen School, which offers a dual-language program in English and Mandarin. While Asian students made up 20 percent of District 1's public elementary population in 2010, they accounted for 81 percent of the student body at Shuang Wen, according to city figures.

Ceci Scott, a parent of two Shuang Wen students who lives on the Lower East Side, said she wishes Shuang Wen had a more diverse mix of students that better reflected the neighborhood as a whole.

But she's glad that at least her children are in the minority — Shuang Wen had just 9 percent white students in 2010 — so they can learn from their classmates.

"I was fine with being in a school that was all one thing or all another, as long as it was different from what we were," Scott said.

"I didn't want to be in an all-white school. I wanted [my children] not to think in terms of race. And for the first few years at Shuang Wen, they really didn't."