Students pitch solutions to racial segregation in schools
PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — The grown-ups — state officials, lawyers and advocates — have been in talks in Trenton for months, without results so far, to identify solutions to racial segregation, an issue that has dogged New Jersey schools.
Some 500 teenagers recently tackled the same thorny issue. They gathered around packed tables at Ridgewood High School to debate the vexing question of how to ease racial divisions in the public school system. And much like adults, they often disagreed on what to do.
The conference brought together students from Ridgewood, Leonia, Cliffside Park and New Milford, who have studied in class about the nation’s legacy of segregation and examined data on race, including from their own hometowns. In breakout groups, they debated which proposals would have the most impact, but also the most support.
Teacher Charles Appel, who led the program with teacher Josh Saladino, reminded students at the outset that “we are not integrated.”
“We’ve ended up with a society that’s more segregated than it was in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was passed,” Appel said, in a reference to the famous court ruling that “separate but equal” education was illegal.
Overall, New Jersey is ranked the sixth-most-segregated state in the nation for black students, and seventh for Latino students, according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
While officially segregation has been illegal for decades, patterns of discrimination in government policy and bank lending practices, as well as people’s individual choices to live near others of the same background, have contributed to racial divisions in many parts of the state. Advocates say it has led to “de facto” segregation in schools.
“If we really want to be that free and equal society, we have to work at it,” Appel told the students. “We have to have those difficult conversations.”
Student leaders shared presentations on potential solutions with their peers, sitting at long tables in the school’s campus center. They talked about affordable housing, programs that let families choose where to attend school, residential rezoning and school rezoning. They debated the impact of taxes and community response to such plans.
Swathi Kella, a senior at Ridgewood High School, said communities should start by redistricting within their own borders to make them more diverse. As that becomes more accepted, redistricting can be introduced across towns by giving families “school choice,” or options to go to school outside their own communities.
Kella noted that people pay higher taxes to live in Ridgewood in large part because of the good schools. But with this plan, people could pay the education portion of their tax based on where they go to school and not where they live.
“This is something we could do across the nation in many other schools districts,” she said.
Tomás Carlson, a junior at Ridgewood High School, said rezoning was a distraction from the bigger issue that too many schools are struggling.
“Unless we fix these schools and make them better schools, the vast majority of people who live in some of these bad neighborhoods will get stuck in a perpetual cycle,” he said. “So I think the issue isn’t necessarily moving people from one school to the other, but we have to fix the schools that are doing poorly to give everybody a fair chance.”
Chris Jun, a Ridgewood senior, was skeptical. “You can’t just point at these neighborhoods and say: Make them better.”
He also raised concerns about school choice. Many people don’t want to send their children out of district because they identify closely with their local hometown, he said. Instead, he said, his group supported the use of housing vouchers to help low-income families move into wealthier areas as a means to integrate schools.
It would “allow these people who have historically been discriminated against to come into the school” and would give students exposure to people from different backgrounds, Jun said. “I think it’s something students in Ridgewood need, but also across the country,” he said.
Saladino and Appel were inspired to teach about modern-day segregation after researchers at the University of Virginia published maps several years ago that showed the racial makeup of schools down to the municipal level. Students have a “melting pot mentality,” but were forced to question that when they looked at the data, they said.
“When they first see the dot map, it’s jarring for them,” Saladino said. “They think Brown v. Board of Education. They think things are fine.”
The students were further surprised to learn that the racial divisions didn’t just happen, but were a product of years of government housing policy and banking industry mortgage practices that steered minorities to poor urban areas.
NorthJersey.com published its own analysis last year showing patterns of segregation across the state. The most extreme divides existed in urban areas like Paterson, Newark and Union, where minorities make up at least 90 percent of district enrollment. In some instances, the makeup was vastly different from towns that share a border or are just a few miles away.
A coalition of groups filed a lawsuit in June against New Jersey and the state Board of Education calling for the state to end “de facto” segregation in its public schools. Negotiations have taken place over a possible settlement, but no details have been made public.
Advocates have proposed remedies, including the creation of magnet schools that draw from multiple towns and districts, or allowing black and Latino students to attend schools outside their home districts while giving financial incentives to the districts that take them.
Dylan Kane, a senior at Ridgewood High School, said he believes redrawing school districts would just prompt people to move to a different area.
Like the adults who are mulling this very topic, Kane reached one commonly held conclusion.
“Anything that gets brought up, there are people who will be against it,” he said.
Still, he said, recognizing that segregation is an issue and having local conversations can be helpful.
“It can open up new possibilities for future generations,” he said.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com