New York City has established an acclaimed reputation for being an ethnic mosaic; a place where people from all countries and walks of life immigrate to, forming a giant melting pot, rich with culture and diversity. Most go as far as associating equality and opportunity with this metropolis. While rightly earning the title as an ethnic mosaic, the city is not quite overflowing with equality or opportunity. Or rather, it has a lot to do with who you are- and what you look like- that determines the types of amenities that are made available to you. More often than not, the geographic location in which a person lives, determines the nature of opportunities offered to them and how they are viewed by others, such as employers and the government. Specifically, the quality of education a child receives, directly correlates to the “status” of the neighborhood in which they live. It is not rocket science; the more affluent the district in which a child lives in, the better the quality of school he attends will be. There are a number of workings that go into this bias that is present to this day. This article will attempt to illuminate some of these factors by focusing on the southeast Queens school board District 29.
The NYC borough of Queens has snagged a prestigious reputation for being the most diverse borough of the city, and some even say, the country. This is unquestionably due to its massive immigrant influxes. Queens is the new home to whole populations of immigrants. There are dozens of entire neighborhoods strongly reminiscent of native countries from all over the world, through the foods, businesses, cultural celebrations, and essentially the people who walk the streets. “Little Guyana” in Richmond Hill, Flushing’s Chinatown, as well as vast regions such as Elmhurst and Corona dominated by immigrants from Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, etc. Queens’ exceptionalism is also reflected by the fact that it was recently found to host approximately 160 languages alone. Equally as significant is the fact that 1 out of 2 people living in Queens, or 48% of the residents, are immigrants from another country.
These statistics give us a snapshot of what the demographics of the entire borough look like, but what about the southeast of Queens, specifically? Well, the picture is not much different. The areas of Hollis, St. Albans and Jamaica, comprise Queens Community District 12, which is defined as the NYC School District 29. As of 2016, the population of this region was close to 250,000 and an overwhelming 66% of these people identified as black. Furthermore, about 14% identified as Asian and another 14% as Hispanic. Only 2% of the population identified as white. In regards to economics, CD12 claims 11.2% of residents live in poverty. The average median household income is around $60,000, but nearly 45% of the inhabitants make less than $50,000 annually. Some 82% of the residents of southeast Queens have a high school diploma or higher, but only 22% have obtained a bachelor’s degree.
With statistics such as these, let’s shift our attention at assessing the conditions of the schools in this district. After all, the quality of the schools of our children oftentimes determine the degrees of prosperity they will achieve, both in the short and long term, granted there are exceptions. In the 2016-2017 school year, schools in District 29 were documented to consist of 15.7% Asian students, 63% black, 15.3% Hispanic and 1.9% white. Comparing these numbers to the general population demographics of the area, it is safe to assume that no sort of movement of students from the region they live in, to another for schooling, is taking place. Rules and regulations nitpick who gets admitted into other neighborhoods’ schools, as well as new schools, in and out of one’s district. Priority is given to students who already reside in a particular district (especially with a sibling attending the school of inquiry). Least priority is given to students who reside out of district lines. As a result, with slim chances of being admitted into a satisfactory or good school outside of one’s zone, very often parents are forced to send their children to their zoned neighborhood school. Students are not given the mobility to move around. This becomes a contributing factor for integration, and we see school districts such as SD29 comprising 66% black students and 28% of other minorities. Ambitious propositions for rezoning will be futile if the minority students who require the renovations, cannot earn seats in them.
This lack of racial integration in southeast Queens public schools are not the only signs of a failing system. Test scores indicate how poorly the schools are performing. In the 8th grade, a meager 35% of students in SD19
actually pass citywide assessments and only 6% were qualified as “Advanced
proficient.” Likewise, on a majority of Regents exams administered, the percentage of students who pass with a 65 or higher varies from as low as 25% (in physics) and stagnate in the 40-60% range.
But the picture wasn’t always so grim for this Queens neighborhood. In fact, around the 1980s and early 1990s, the district thrived and was ranked 8th in performance out of the 32 school districts. Evidently, much has changed since, with the district now ranked 14th out of 32. Investigation into the decline has sighted a number of theories to blame. Many point to bureaucratic corruption, most notably involving former superintendent of the district, Celestine V. Miller. Miller was charged for steering money to giant tech companies and taking huge bribes, while denying her students instructional technological equipment and giving them broken ones to use. Another major outlet that is often accused, is the influx of immigrants into Southeast Queens, starting around the 90s and continuing into the turn of the century. Before the 1980s, there was only about an 8% influx on newcomers into the area, but during the 1980s, that number went to 15%, nearly doubling. From 1990-2000, 34% of immigrants joined the neighborhood and from 2000-2004, 25% of the population had moved in. With this somewhat rapid and substantial influx, many point the finger at the newcomers for the dilapidation of their school district, sighting that the immigrant children do not speak English and bring test scores down. Moreover, they argue that this increase in population puts a strain on the schools, causing them to be overcrowded and unable to provide resources for everyone.
But with this exacerbation, there are a number of other points to take into consideration. It is important to remember that during the late 70s and 80s, many of the white residents of these areas were beginning to leave in large numbers for more secluded suburbs, like Nassau County. Indeed, today we see this effect, as aforementioned, 66% of the population are black and 28% Asian and Hispanic, with a mere 2% white. With much of the white constituents gone, it makes you wonder if the government will truly care about the area anymore. After all, there were so many blatant, racist government policies, such as “benign neglect,” where disparities were purposely instituted in health care, housing, the justice system, employment, and of course, in schools, in minority, specifically African American dominated communities. In a region saturated with minorities and people of the lower and middle class, the place becomes undesirable in the eyes of the government. As a result, there is a disinvestment by the government, not only in southeast Queens, but all over NYC, including Brownsville, Brooklyn and the south Bronx. It is a very sad reality, which has unfortunately led to the present conditions in the SD29 schools and neighborhood as a whole.
In general, there has been a governmental indifference to the students who live in these areas and their needs. For example, in 2007, the NYCDOE changed policies to require inclusion of more scores by English language learners, which undeniably affected the already-challenged immigrant students. Their struggles and needs were not addressed, nor cared for. Funding regulations towards schools with immigrant populations, also insufficiently take into consideration the educational assistance that immigrant children require. For instance, in the 2017-2018 school year, PS 131 of SD29 received just $8,500 for its geared educational services to its 22% of students with a limited English proficiency.
In summary, there is not simply one factor that enables segregation to persist in schools today, but rather a plethora of deliberate workings that have fostered these prejudiced conditions. School District 29 is a perfect example, with schools severely overcrowded, significantly low performance on tests, poor staff and no real technological improvements to the learning process. With a student body that is made up of 94% of children with a minority heritage and nearly 80% hailing from a family of poverty, it is no secret that these schools have a dire need for active and urgent government investment. The double standards towards schools based on who attend them, should not and cannot exist in our society today if we want to see prosperity and advancement as a whole. As Nelson Mandela once famously said, “No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated.”