A hard (but needed) conversation: New York City’s segregated schools


hist_us_20_civil_rights_school_desegregation_pic_black_school_classroomby guest blogger Myra Hernandez

One morning, I was working with a group of elementary students at a public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. As a program coordinator for a non-profit, I had been reading Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renee Watson (about the Black artist and activist Florence Mills) to a first-grade class.

I began our book study with a discussion on civil rights and asked the students to share their knowledge on the topic. One student brought up segregation.

“What does segregation mean?” I asked.

The same student explained, “Segregation was when Black and White kids weren’t allowed to go to the same schools.”

Upon hearing this explanation, several classmates began looking around at the peers sitting among them, leading one student to state:

“We’re all Black.”

It was true. This school’s student population is 91% is black, 7% Latino, 1% white and the rest “other.”  Not too surprising considering that Bedford-Stuyvesant has historically been a Black neighborhood.  But what many residents, new and old, can attest to is the dramatic racial and socio-economic change that Bed-Stuy has gone through in the last few years.

According to the New York Times, in response to the 2010 census:

In the past decade, the black population of Bedford dropped to 34,000 from 40,000, or to 49 percent from 69 percent. Meanwhile, the number of whites grew to more than 18,000, up from just over 2,000, or to 26 percent, up from 4 percent.  From 2000 to 2010, the white population soared 633 percent — the biggest percentage increase of any major racial or ethnic group in any New York City neighborhood.

The first-grade student’s statement that he and his classmates, like the majority of his teachers at his school, are all Black inspired a personal reflection on my part as a social activist and community member of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood I call home.

In Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren concluded,

To separate them [black children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The sad truth is that since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, not much has changed with regard to integrating New York City public schools. In fact, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, published a study in 2014 found that the NYC region experienced a segregation increase between White and Black students over the last 20 years. In short, NYC public schools are the most segregated in our entire nation.

The first-grade students from Bed-Stuy were inspired by Florence Mill’s example to write about needs in their neighborhood that they would like addressed. With their teacher, students came up with a list of needs that ranged from more safe playgrounds to stopping gun violence. When asked why these things were important, the children said:

“We deserve a safe place to live and play.”

When friends ask me about my recommendations for schools, I always ask,

“What’s wrong with the public school down the street?”

The answer is always: “It’s not good enough for my child because___”.  Fill in the blank. If we are going to have a conversation about diversity, we must come to a consensus that separating children as “ours” and “theirs” won’t get us anywhere. What isn’t good enough for one child shouldn’t be okay for others.

When I told the first-grade students in Bed-Stuy that we would be taking a research field trip to the Schomburg Center in Manhattan, one child, who was clearly excited asked,

“Will we see White people in Manhattan?” She went on to explain that where she lives, she rarely sees White people.

I am fortunate to have taught at Community Roots Charter School, a socio-economically diverse school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I witnessed children breaking down stereotypes and families advocating for quality education for all. Research shows that desegregated schools are linked to profound benefits for all children such as the fostering of critical thinking skills which are essential to understanding a variety of different perspectives in our multiracial society.

The Coleman Report of 1966, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to study educational equality, concluded that the concentration of poverty in a school influenced student achievement more than the poverty status of an individual student. What this tells us is that in order to ensure minority students have a chance at positive educational outcomes, high poverty concentrations have to be disrupted. One way of doing this is by encouraging White, middle-class families who are newcomers to neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, to support our public schools.

“Would I send my child to my neighborhood public school?”

Our answer can mean the perpetuation of racial isolation or, instead, move us towards a more equitable and culturally enriching education system.

If you find yourself wondering whether your young child notices the current situation that exists, the answer is, “Yes, they do.”  Just like the six year-olds from the Bed-Stuy public school.


Myra Hernandez is an educator with over 16 years teaching in public schools in California and New York City.

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