School children facing the camera with three adults in the back.
A kindergarten class at PS 705 which sits on the border of Crown Heights, a gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. Researchers found that as neighborhoods gentrify, so do local public schools. Loren Wohl/AP

How Gentrification by Urban Millennials Improves Public School Diversity

In rapidly gentrifying areas of Queens and Brooklyn, the new population is spurring a gradual desegregation of some New York City public schools.

At the end of June, New York City public school children were dismissed for the summer break. When they return in the fall, some schools are likely to see changes in the composition of the student body as gentrifying neighborhoods become home to a more diverse population.

New York has been through many waves of gentrification, dating back to the 1960’s and 1970’s when the avant-garde of the city’s art community started setting up shop in SoHo and Tribeca. The most recent wave has been a massive migration of urban millennials into the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. These neighborhoods have seen an increase in swanky coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and gourmet grocery chains, but the increase in Instagram-worthy brunch spots is not the only thing that these newcomers bring with them. They have also ushered in skyrocketing rents and threats of displacement for long-term residents, especially low-income residents of color.

Many progressives who oppose gentrification also advocate the need for diverse schools, failing to see that the dreaded specter of gentrification could provide a key to the much-desired classroom diversity. Gentrification threatens to drastically decrease student enrollment by displacing families of current students, while new families choose to opt out of the public-schools entirely. However, if handled very differently, the forces of gentrification could create islands of true integration in a sea of segregation, bringing new support to neighborhood schools.

Historically, gentrification brings with it an increase in neighborhood diversity, at least temporarily. It creates pockets of economic and racial diversity that are seldom seen in the urban American landscape. However, this newfound diversity rarely seems to make its way into the local schools, and New York City is no different in this trend. Despite being considered one of the most diverse and progressive urban centers in both the country and the world, as a landmark 2014 UCLA study showed, New York is home to one of the country’s most racially segregated school systems. As a result, students of color remain segregated in schools that are under-resourced. For New York City, this has meant that millions of students over the years have been fed through a system of failing and segregated schools.

School desegregation has long been a topic that city leadership has shied away from, despite its known consequences. Studies have shown that diverse schools are strongly linked with positive outcomes for all students, including higher academic achievement, a reduction in racial prejudice, and higher levels of civic engagement later in life. Fortunately, the city’s rapidly shifting demographics have brought the topic of school diversity to the forefront of New York’s political agenda.

In February, the city’s high-powered School Diversity Advisory Council released an impressive report, “Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students,” which was commissioned by the mayor to recommend steps towards tackling one of the most persistent challenges New Yorker students face—school diversity.

While the situation may seem dire, there are some signs that in certain areas, racial segregation in schools is on the decline. In a recent UCLA Civil Rights Project study of New York City’s fastest gentrifying areas, such as Brooklyn and Queens, we found a substantial decrease in racial school segregation. In these areas, which historically had intensely segregated schools with approximately 95 percent black and Latino students, white and Asian elementary public-school enrollment doubled in the last decade and a half, jumping from 5 to 10 percent.

Perhaps most interestingly, our analysis shows that while school segregation is decreasing in gentrifying areas, the percentage of intensely segregated schools is on the rise in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. It’s probable that these pockets of diversity may only be fleeting—and that schools in gentrifying neighborhoods will show “pass-through” diversity before tipping and re-segregating, unless thoughtful policy is implemented.

If adopted by New York City, the diversity plan can serve as a model for other cities undergoing demographic change. The plan includes the implementation of: culturally responsive curriculums; diversity and integration information into school quality reports; and the establishment of pilot programs for diversity admissions targets. Neighborhoods undergoing revitalization have an opportunity to harness the upside of community change and alleviate the stark racial and economic isolation that is so pervasive in our urban centers. But real and significant action to prevent the displacement of long-standing residents must be part of the solution.

To accomplish these goals, cities will need to coordinate efforts between housing authorities and schools to maintain these newly diverse neighborhoods, and ensure that schools reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve. Most gentrifying cities and districts have not figured out what those policies might look like, but some are beginning to develop them. Denver public schools recently launched the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a citywide effort to address the effect of gentrification on the city’s public schools. Strategies include redrawing school boundary lines, system enrollment priorities by socio-economic status, innovative transportation solutions, and the creation of new and specialized schools.

In order for gentrification to be a shared opportunity, aggressive action is needed that views schools as neighborhood anchors to ultimately integrate these newly diverse communities.

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