Yes, In Your Backyard A recently implemented initiative to desegregate schooling on the Upper West Side

The Upper West Side of Manhattan is known for its two, vastly distinctive, types of residents. There’s the elitist community made up of affluent families, mainly whites, who enjoy high incomes and lavish homes. And in stark contrast, there’s the poor, mainly black and Hispanic families who struggle to pay each month’s rent on their broken down and crowded apartments. While these stereotypes may not accurately portray much of life on the Upper West Side they are tragically all too true in the school system. The public-school system in New York City is known to be segregated and unequal. In fact, New York City has the third most segregated public schools in the country, following Chicago and Dallas. The Upper West Side is no exception.

However, in recent years, changes have been made. In the fall of 2015, there was a proposal set forth by the Department of Education to redraw the attendance zones of two schools, P.S. 199 and P.S. 191. P.S. 199 mainly serves the wealthy, white families and is known for its high test scores, heavy funding and over crowdedness. P.S. 191 is underused, was deemed “persistently dangerous” and constitutes of mostly black and Hispanic students from lower income families. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the proposed redistricting plan that would integrate the schools conjured too much significant backlash and so it was dropped before the schools even had a chance to desegregate.

In 2016, a new, more complicated idea was brought forth. Instead of a simple redrawing of districts, the proposed plan suggested a reshuffling of sorts. First, P.S. 191 would move a block over, to a recently constructed building that had been intended for a new school. Aside from the physical upgrade of a new building, the hope was for the relocation to indicate a symbolic move of P.S. 191 that would allow it to enjoy a fresh start and attract diverse students. At the opening ceremony of P.S. 191’s new campus the principal, Lauren Keville, said “Make no mistake: This occasion is about more than just a building. It is about integration. It is about equity of all students.” P.S. 452, a smaller school with similar dynamics as P.S. 199, would move into P.S. 191’s old building, giving it much room to grow. The thought was that it would be probable for some parents from P.S. 199 to send their children to P.S. 452, a well-established and high-ranking school, even if they would never send to P.S. 191. Along with these two changes and the redrawing of districts, students of P.S. 199 would be switched to both P.S. 191 and P.S. 452 and students from Amsterdam Houses, a housing project nearby, would be split among all three schools, rather than fully concentrated in P.S. 191 as it had been prior to the implementation of the project. Despite the backlash, the threats and the criticisms and unlike the previous proposal, the reshuffling and redistricting idea was passed. This school year of 2017-2018 was the first year with the implemented plan.

P.S. 191 – The new building.
P.S. 452 – The new 452, the old 191.

Like all changes, the desegregation of schools won’t happen instantly. School segregation and educational inequality on the Upper West Side has not vanished, but rather has taken its first step in fading away, hopefully. P.S. 452 has had the greatest demographic shift. This year’s kindergarten class compared to last year’s is 16% less white and 10% more Hispanic. In P.S. 191, the classroom is beginning to fill with a kindergarten class of fifty students, while it only had thirty-four last year. The percentage of the kindergarten students classified as being part of low income families has decreased from 82% to 74%. Least impressive of the three schools, and unsurprisingly so, is P.S. 199. And it is quite clear why. Those families who will only send to P.S. 199 have options if their child is redistricted. There are expensive alternatives that only high-income families can afford, such as moving or leasing a second apartment that is within 199’s zoning or sending to private school. Because of this, while P.S. 199 did shrink in size, it did not become any less white or any more black or Hispanic.

It’s the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitude that prevents change. In Emily Badger’s New York Times article “How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’”, she considers both the detrimental and constructive effects of the ever-growing attitude that has become known as NIMBY. NIMBY is defined as “a person who objects to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or potentially dangerous in their own neighborhood, such as a landfill or hazardous waste facility, especially while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere.” It’s a selfish mindset that allows a person to pardon him/herself from taking a part of progressive development.

But, don’t we want people to care for their neighborhood? To be passionate for their community and fight for its behalf? As most beliefs do, NIMBY has a positive and negative aspect. The positive side is rooted on nationalism, just in a local realm. We need American citizens to be invested in their communities so that they’ll care about the schooling quality, the parks, the safety of the neighborhood, it’s local elections etc. What is a community without people who care for it? But there is a very strong danger that comes with it. If people are too invested and have too much of a say, they will prevent any sort of change that’ll impose too much on the community. With the attitude of NIMBY, no homeless shelters are built, no affordable housing is constructed, no schools are desegregated. As Emily Badger concludes, “we want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.”

The majority of the residents of the Upper West Side identify as liberals. And yet, even they, are not willing to advocate for or even allow the integration of their community to happen. Schooling is high stakes. It’s elementary and high school education that leads to college which leads to jobs which determines a person’s income and standard of living. And, especially, when it comes to children, many parents are over-protective and overly concerned. But, research has proven that in reality, these parents are not protecting their children from anything, rather they are preventing their children from reaping the benefits of socioeconomic and racially integrated classrooms. The Century Foundation has done research that proves a myriad of academic and social benefits that a child in a diverse classroom will gain including higher test scores, higher likelihood to enroll in college, lower likelihood to drop out, a reduction of racial bias, enhanced leadership skills, equitable access to resources and the tools to succeed in a global economy. So what exactly is the justification of parents to oppose integrated schooling?

It’s been a long time coming for desegregated schooling. To be precise, it’s been sixty-four years since the landmark decision of Brown Vs. Board of Education which outlawed separate schools. In 2017, the New York City Department of Education instituted a plan called “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools” with an advisory group to lead it and a mission of specific measures to be taken in order to diversify and integrate the city’s schools. The New York City Department of Education is the nation’s largest schooling system. It has over 1,700 schools and over 1.1 million students. So, besides for the over one million students who will be positively affected by the desegregation, hopefully, New York City will serve as a model for schools across the globe to follow the initiative and enact measures to integrate, include, and unite.