Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: A lottery is not the answer to desegregating schools

One parent asks: Do we really expect equity to come about by moving people around?

June 20, 2019 Lisa Chamberlain
Is the blunt instrument of a lottery the best approach to dealing with the complicated issue of segregation? Image via Pexels
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This coming school year, Brooklyn’s District 15 is implementing a pilot project to desegregate middle schools in New York City. The primary tool for achieving this is to remove all student performance considerations and base admissions entirely on a lottery — a tactic that is being considered for other NYC middle school districts.

It is a complicated issue, needless to say. But as the diversity plan rolls out in one district in Brooklyn, serious questions have yet to be answered about the impacts of a change in admissions that could resonate across the largest school district in the country.

With my own daughter entering middle school in District 15, this is the question I had hoped would be adequately investigated (albeit framed here in a way that reveals my own conclusion): Is the blunt instrument of a lottery the best approach to dealing with the complicated issue of segregation?  

“There are going to be privileges that are spread out more,” Community Education Council member Neal Zephyrin told a local website for an article in which I was also quoted. “That’s the result of equity.”

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That is an astonishing statement. Do we really expect equity to come about by moving people around — equity achieved by adjacency? Seems to me the first step toward real equity is to provide low-performing schools with the same resources that more privileged schools have by virtue of strong PTAs. When schools improve, everyone wants to be there. This has been demonstrated… in District 15!

Since the late 1980s, middle schools in District 15 have developed very enriched and specific curricula to bring middle-class families back to the public school system — creating specializations in the visual and performing arts, or math and science, or special ed needs. As those schools improved — and as gentrification took hold — they became increasingly privileged spaces.

More recently, some District 15 middle schools have grappled with this head on by implementing their own diversity plans—and it’s working! Families are choosing those schools because they are diverse, academically strong and have developed a rich school culture. Those schools were at the top of our list. Why not learn from what they are doing and adapt it to the more segregated schools?

Using a combination of carrots and sticks, the Department of Education could incentivize schools to develop and implement tailored diversity plans that are phased in over several years so school leadership and staff can prepare. For example, MS 51, the traditionally sought-after Park Slope middle school, will have an incoming 6th grade that is 57 percent disadvantaged (defined by DOE as receiving free lunch, are in temporary housing or are English language learners), a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

This is a large demographic swing — and some schools will experience an even larger shift. Are they prepared? As part of the plan, DOE will provide District 15 with two dedicated diversity coordinators (for 10 middle schools) to work with staff and students toward integration. I would argue that is a lot of work to put on two people tasked with unwinding such a deep-seated issue as segregation. At the very least this work should have gotten underway before a lottery-based admissions process was fully implemented.

Meanwhile, what happens to middle schools in District 15 that have spent 20-25 years creating very enriched and specific curricula? If a student loves arts and literature but gets placed in a tech school, too bad. If your kid has a learning disability or sensory issues but gets placed in a school that does not focus on special ed, too bad. If your child excels at sports and music but gets placed in a school that offers neither, too bad. These are not hypothetical scenarios. This is what families are experiencing as a result of a lottery system that undermines the entire point of specialization.

But perhaps more importantly, what happens to schools that are focused on and succeeding at helping disadvantaged kids? We got placed in a school that is doing an excellent job of working with kids who need extra help — kids who might not otherwise graduate without the level of support this school provides. But that comes at the cost of other things. Schools can’t be everything to everyone.

We knew this school was not for us and for that reason put it further down on our list. Why did we list it at all? Because we were told to fill out the entire roster of 12 slots or risk not getting a placement (when I talk to people outside of New York about this process, they can’t believe it).

So I spoke to the head of admissions for DOE about our placement, and he encouraged me to talk to the school principal and express my concerns. I won’t do that. I’m not going to be the parent who marches in and starts making demands. The school is doing exactly what it should be doing for the kids who are there. And it’s not just for minority kids. It is one of the more diverse schools in the district.

White parents at the open house spoke passionately about wanting to be in a place that emphasizes community building with minimal testing. They are grateful to have this option. But the very nature of the school is likely to change as the demographics shift from a majority disadvantaged population to majority privileged, which will happen this year as a result of the lottery.

There are undoubtedly people who oppose the diversity plan based on racist assumptions. But there are clearly going to be unintended consequences resulting from a lottery-based approach that upends the admissions process in one fell swoop. Some consequences are predictable, some we won’t know for a while.

For us, the bottom line is, we’re going to exit the District 15 public school system. The parochial school we have chosen is not a school I would have considered until now. It’s not a perfect fit — nothing ever is — but it is a high-performing, diverse school with enough resources to educate my child at a critical time in her life.

Lisa Chamberlain is a communications consultant who lives with her two daughters in South Park Slope. She is a former journalist who reported on real estate for The New York Times

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  1. Lisa Berry Stowe

    Great piece Lisa. Tomorrow my husband and I are closing on our new house in a new school district, exiting District 15 after 9 years. Our son starts middle school in 2020 so now was the time.

  2. Lillith

    I share your skepticism about this sort of ‘diversity plan’ but i think you are disingenuous in the objection you express here to the school assigned to you. It does not specialize in under-achieving kids as a drama school specializes in drama. It merely has a large number of these kids because they couldn’t get in elsewhere whilst higher-achieving kids could. The whole idea of the plan is to mix kids in together so the , shall we say struggling children aren’t segregated out from the higher-performing children, with the hope that their former will benefit from being with the latter, while the latter, we’re told will also benefit from a more diverse environment. You object to that whole idea, believing that your own, higher-performing kid will lose out. And now you see that in fact higher-achieving kids are getting spots there, and the school is bound to change…you just think the unpredictability of that change is risk you don’t want to take for your child. So say it – be honest.