Seeking Real Diversity In New Schools

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Last year, after founding seven charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, Success Academy Charter Schools opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Soon, we’ll be opening schools in Williamsburg, Cobble Hill and Hell’s Kitchen. Critics have questioned our motives for starting charters in these mixed-income neighborhoods. They claim we want to educate affluent students because it’s easier but that is wrong (and we get terrific results with children in disadvantaged neighborhoods).

We do it in the name of diversity. Socioeconomic and racial diversity. It benefits everyone, and it is harder to achieve in this incredibly multi-cultural, racially mixed city than one might expect.

Sadly, New York City’s schools are shockingly segregated. Most are either more than 90 percent minority or less than 10 percent. Watching documentaries about segregation in the South 50 years ago may make us feel morally superior, but the truth is that segregation is alive and well in 21st Century New York City.

Actually, it’s even worse than official statistics suggest. Take Manhattan’s District 3, where Success Academy Upper West is located. It has perfect conditions for creating diverse schools. The district’s students are one third African-American, one third Hispanic, one quarter white and seven percent Asian. But its schools don’t reflect this diversity. Of District 3’s 19 elementary schools, nine are either more than 90 percent African-American and Latino or less than 20 percent. Moreover, the remaining schools are superficially diverse. Many have either dual language or gifted and talented programs that tend to draw the middle class and white students, leaving the “general education” classes with overwhelmingly poor minority students.

Sadly, this fake integration is typical of our schools and it does a great disservice to our students.

First, the schools serving minority students are not only separate but usually unequal. Second, all students are deprived of the benefits of cross-cultural experiences. My brother and I attended P.S. 36 in Harlem. We were virtually the only white students. That experience has benefitted me enormously in life, particularly now that I am running schools that serve many minority families.

We need more diverse schools. That is why Success Academies concluded that even though our schools were strong, we could do even better for our students and for our city by making our charter classrooms more diverse.

But doing so isn’t easy. Because our first seven schools served primarily disadvantaged students, many middle class parents assumed our schools were designed only to serve low-income children, code for a low-expectations “back to basics” education. In fact, we designed our schools to provide a world-class education that is rigorous but also rich in science and the arts and is intended for students of any background.

However, we had to convince parents of that fact by engaging in extensive outreach. We were criticized for this “marketing,” but it was necessary to overcome the skepticism of many middle class parents about our schools.

These efforts are clearly paying off when you look inside the classrooms at Success Academy Upper West. Forty-nine percent of students are African American or Latino and 40 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch. More importantly, these students actually learn together without intra-school programs that segregate students.

In less than a year Success Academy Upper West has become one of our most popular schools, with seven applicants for every open seat this year. Other socio-economically diverse charter schools, like Community Roots and Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, are also getting great results and seeing high demand among local families. That is because parents of all races and classes truly want diversity as long as it is also accompanied by academic excellence.

It’s time we embrace integration models like these and make school diversity a priority so that we can finally offer students the academically and culturally rich education our country promised them more than 50 years ago.