he other day, I was walking to an appointment on East 125th Street in Harlem and saw an interesting sight outside the huge new building holding Promise Academy, the central institution of Geoffrey Canada’s much-celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone. I saw a teacher marching about 20 children from one entrance in the building to another. All twenty children were black, dressed in uniforms of white blouses with blue trousers or skirts, and they moved through the street with discipline and purpose. This was the face of one of the city’s best known charter schools
I could not help but contrast this scene with the one I regularly see in Park Slope, Brooklyn when I drive by PS 107 on 8th Avenue between 13th and 14th Street. There, on a typical late morning or early afternoon, I see groups of parents, virtually all white, taking their children to school or picking them up, their movements cheerful and often chaotic. The whiteness of the group never fails to stun me because in the 80’s, when my friends’ kids went there PS 107 was one of the most multiracial schools in the city, with its student population well over 2/3 black and Latino. This was the face of one of the city’s high-performing public schools.
The contrast between the two scenes struck me because of what it said about the direction of housing policy, education policy, and law enforcement in Michael Bloomberg’s New York and how they contribute to maximizing segregation in the city.
Though the Bloomberg administration has constructed a significant amount of affordable housing and has made it a priority to give parents in poor neighborhoods more options through the development of charter schools, it has not made fostering integrated schools or communities a priority. The vast majority of affordable housing the city government has fostered has been located in already hyper-segregated communities like the South Bronx and the vast majority of charter schools it has approved have had 100 percent black and Latino populations.
One result is that in the neighborhood where I have lived for the last 35 years, Park Slope, excellent public schools which were once 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Latino, and which had enormous income diversity, have become majority white and affluent. The resulting loss of educational opportunity for black and Latino and working class families has been maximized by the city government’s approach to market level housing. Had the city government required that all market level housing designate 30 to 40 percent of all units as affordable, then the proliferation of new housing developments in Park Slope would not have changed the demographic character of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood schools.
But because so much of affordable housing in the city has been constructed in neighborhoods where the public schools are segregated and struggling, the opportunity to create high quality integrated public schools has been lost.
This in turn affects the “choices” the city is offering working class parents and parents of color. Instead of giving them the option of sending their children to integrated public schools with top teachers, innovative curricula and excellent arts program, the city offers parents only the chance to attend highly regimented, ethnically homogeneous charter schools, some of which drive out children with special needs or children who can’t adapt to the school’s rigid discipline.
What we have, at the extreme, is a Promise Academy for working class blacks, and a PS 107 for affluent whites, each committed to educational excellence, but following strategies for achieving that excellence that are totally contradictory to one another and which lead to young people of different race and class backgrounds having no contact with one another.
And when you add stop-and-frisk to the mix, the result is an ever more segregated city.
It’s time to start making the development of culturally and economically diverse communities the city’s top priority even if it undermines the city’s character as a playground for the Global Rich.