SOUTH BRONX — When Samantha Ramos walks the hallways of her South Bronx high school, nearly all the faces she sees are Latino or black.
Samantha, 15, is a student at the Bronx Academy of Letters on Morris Avenue, where last year just 2 percent of the 584 students were white or Asian. She has recently been thinking a lot about diversity in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer, and she believes segregated schools like hers are one root of the problem.
"If you're not exposed to different people — people who don't look like you — it's easy to create assumptions and create stereotypes," said Samantha, a 10th-grader, who is part of a newly formed advocacy group at her school called IntegrateNYC4me.
"When you go to school, it's not only about school," Samantha continued. "It's learning from each other, an exchange of knowledge. There are so many different cultures that would be great to know."
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education — the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools — racially-divided schools are still a pervasive issue in New York City, according to DNAinfo New York's analysis of 2013-14 data from the Department of Education based on self-reporting by families.
More than half of the city's 1,600 public schools are just like the Bronx Academy of Letters, with black and Latino students making up 90 percent or more of the student population, data shows.
Meanwhile, half of the city's white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of the schools, and half of the city's Asian students are concentrated in just 6 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.
Samantha believes that the racial breakdown of the Bronx Academy of Letters — where 69 percent of students are Latino and 29 percent are black — is one reason why her school lacks basics like music instruction. A stack of musical instruments sits untouched in a closet of the school, since there is no money to hire a music teacher, she said.
"We should all have the same opportunities, like with music and art," Samantha said. "It feels like we're targeted," she said of her school's population, "and put in this little box."
Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, Bronx Academy of Letters' principal, said that while the school does not offer music class during the day, there are drumming, choir and theater classes after school. He added that he is glad to see his students taking action on diversity through IntegrateNYC4me.
"It is undoubtedly a critical time for young people to be talking about race, class, equity and access," he said. "I am so proud of our students for leading that conversation."
Overall, New York City's public school system is a model of diversity, with about 1.1 million students, of whom 41 percent are Latino, 26 percent are black, 17 percent are Asian and 15 percent are white, according to DOE data.
Yet very few kids attend schools that reflect that racial breakdown, and thousands are learning in classrooms that are almost entirely composed of students of a single race, DNAinfo found.
There are 56 schools where at least 90 percent of students are black, mainly in Crown Heights, Flatbush, Canarsie and southeast Queens, according to DOE data.
At another 52 schools, at least 90 percent of students are Latino, including programs in upper Manhattan, Bushwick and Queens neighborhoods like Corona, data show.
"School segregation is not just an educational issue — it's a legal and a moral issue," said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "As a society, we've agreed that separate is not equal, but in New York City, far too many schools separate students from one another based on the color of their skin or their economic status."
Segregation starts in elementary school, when most children attend local zoned programs that reflect the makeup of the surrounding neighborhood. These schools are often segregated by race and class, as affluent families move to attend specific schools in neighborhoods like TriBeCa and the Upper West Side.
But even in middle school and high school — when children are able to pick schools farther from home — similar patterns of segregation persist, DNAinfo's analysis found.
Many families struggle with the city's complex middle and high school admissions process, which parents say is even more stressful than applying to college. Some parents are not aware of their kids' options because of language barriers, while others may be too busy working to attend the many school tours and information sessions, advocates said.
As a result, there is little mixing between white and black students, from elementary school all the way through high school, DNAinfo's analysis found.
Just 4 percent of white students across the city attend schools where black kids are the largest group, data shows. Conversely, only 5 percent of the city's black students attend schools where white kids are the largest group.
There is a similar separation between black and Asian students, DNAinfo found.
To combat this segregation, some school leaders have made diversity a priority, recruiting students from beyond their immediate neighborhood and drawing them in with magnet or dual language programs.
Lisa Gioe, principal of Millennium Brooklyn, a selective high school that opened 2011 in Park Slope, spent a lot of time doing outreach to middle schools across the borough to ensure a wide pool of applicants.
That effort paid off: Millennium is now one of the city's more diverse high schools, with a student body that was 32 percent white, 32 percent Latino, 25 percent black and 11 percent Asian last school year, according to the DOE's data.
But it's not enough to create a diverse community. Gioe said she also makes an effort to "cultivate" it.
"The other piece is making sure that kids feel accepted and part of the community, and there's a positive spin from when you walk in the door to the time your graduate," said Gioe, whose school uses course materials that celebrate diversity, holds an annual "peace day" conference to talk about race and gender and encourages cultural pride through clubs and spirit week.
Gioe has also been conscious of whether parents feel included and comfortable volunteering.
"What structures can you put on place that acknowledge that everybody has a voice and input?" Gioe said. "It takes work and a lot of reflection."
At Scholars Academy, a 10-year-old middle and high school in the Rockaways, the students come from a range of ethnicities, religions and neighborhoods. Thirty-nine percent are white, 23 percent are Asian, 18 percent are black and 18 percent are Latino — and principal Brian O'Connell said he works hard to make sure every single student feels comfortable.
"One of the objectives when Scholars Academy was created was to be a haven for diversity," O'Connell said. "I think diversity can help beget diversity."
While individual principals can do their best to attract a diverse group of applicants, schools are not allowed to consider a student's race when deciding who to admit, following a 2007 Supreme Court decision that barred racial quotas in public schools.
Still, school officials acknowledged the importance of having students "interact and collaborate with peers from diverse backgrounds," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.
"We look forward to engaging with school communities, elected officials, families and other partners as we work to ensure that our schools reflect the city's tremendous diversity," he added.
The City Council is taking on the issue this week, by considering three bills designed to improve diversity at a hearing this Thursday.
One bill calls on the city to make diversity a priority when opening new schools, creating new school zones or changing admissions policies, while a second bill hopes to make the city's elite high schools more diverse. The third bill calls for more nuanced demographic data from the DOE that would include a breakdown of students in special programs like gifted and talented and dual language, whether they're attending school out of the zone or district or whether they're in foster care.
“We don’t have an answer for how to fix this, but there are steps to make it better," said Park Slope Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the data reporting bill. "The goal for the hearing is to set a policy goal for diversity as opposed to achieving it overnight."
This is the first article in a series on diversity in New York City's schools. Read Part 2 about how one Park Slope school is tackling the issue and Part 3 about parents criticizing the DOE for not doing enough on diversity.