Finding the Right School · School Choice

Diversity: You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Martin Luther King Day weekend came right on the heels of New York City’s public school Kindergarten application, Kindergarten Connect, scheduled to close on Friday, January 12, 2018. However, as I kept predicting, they extended the deadline to Friday, January 19, 2018, at the last minute.

Due to the earlier stated deadline, I spent the previous week in back-to-back phone calls with dozens of frazzled parents, talking out all their options, and strategizing the optimal way to rank their alternatives – zoned, unzoned, magnet, dual language – in order to maximize the odds of getting their child into their first choice school. (Welcome to NYC, everyone!)

As I wrote last week, different parents have very different opinions of what makes a ‘good’ school. For some, diversity is at the top of the list.

But their definition of the word is puzzling.

Merriam-Webster defines it (quite conveniently for our purposes) as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization; programs intended to promote diversity in schools.”

Yet when many NYC parents say about a school such as, for instance, Upper Manhattan’s PS 149, “that school is so diverse!” what they mean is that it is majority non-white. In this particular case, it’s 61 percent Black and 28 percent Hispanic.

That’s not diverse. That’s pretty homogeneous. (No, I am not, under any circumstances, saying that Black and Hispanic cultures are interchangeable. I am not even saying that all people who identify as Black and/or Hispanic share the same culture within their respective groups. I am merely employing the Department of Education’s terminology.)

When people say that they want public schools to be less segregated and more racially representative, to be  more diverse, I wonder what they mean exactly?

Representative of the country? That would be: Non-Hispanic White – 63%, Hispanic – 16%, African-American – 12%, Asian-American – 6%, Multiracial – 2%, Native-Americans – .8%, Pacific Islanders – .1%.

Representative of the state? For New York that would be: White – 75%, African-American – 18%, Hispanic – 17%, Asian-American – 6%.

Representative of the city? For NYC that would be: White – 44%, Hispanic – 27%, African-American – 26%, Asian-American – 13%.

Representative of the neighborhood the school is in? Integration advocates charge that’s what we have now. And they are not happy about it.

Chalkbeat reports that “while the city’s students are 70 percent black or Hispanic, the education department defines racially representative schools as those that enroll between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic students.”

How is 90 percent diverse?

According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Specialized High School like Stuyvesant is not diverse because it is almost 75% Asian. Numerous elementary schools on the Upper West Side were rezoned last year in order to make them more diverse. At the time, PS 87 was 62 percent White, as was PS 199, while PS 452 clocked in at 68 percent White.

So with that number of White or Asian students, the schools were not considered diverse, while with the same number of Black and Hispanic students they would be? For example, PS 191, the school the rezoning was ostensibly supposed to help the most, was 44 percent Hispanic and 33 percent African-American, which means that it technically already met the DOE’s criteria for being racially representative.


How can that possibly make any sort of sense?

If we’re talking about diversity in the truest definition of the word, then wouldn’t a Specialized High School like LaGuardia (White – 43 percent, Asian-American – 19 percent, Hispanic – 17 percent,  African-American – 11 percent, Other (includes Mixed Race) – 8 percent) or a publicly funded charter school like Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy (White – 51 percent, African-American – 41 percent)  hit closest to the mark?

Of course, raw numbers don’t always tell the whole story. A school like Manhattan’s PS 163  (Hispanic – 45 percent, White – 27 percent, African-American – 16 percent, Asian-American – 5 percent, Other – 5 percent) appears very close to the city’s demographics on paper. Until you look closer and realize that White and Asian-American children make up the majority of the Gifted & Talented program, while the rest are relegated to General Ed. Something that tends to surprise the New York Times each year with clockwork regularity.

And we haven’t even gotten to socio-economic diversity yet which, despite what stereotypes would suggest, does not always march in lockstep with race.

Every year, NYC triumphantly announces yet another plan to diversify its schools. And while the goal may be noble (some experts and parents beg to differ – and no, they’re not the ones you think), shouldn’t we first define the term accurately?

I’m sorry, NYC Department of Education, but as of right now, I do not believe that word means what you think it means. (Have fun storming the castle!)

What do you think?

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