Rezoning NYC Public Schools: Parents of Color Resistance to Rezoning As a Means of Integration

Executive Summary

The rezoning of PS 191 and PS 199 in Manhattan and PS 307 and PS 8 in Brooklyn were the two most contentious battles in the city’s fight towards integration and desegregation of public schools. While other research has examined the positive aspects of integration in schools through gentrification, this policy memo delineates the reasons for which parents of color were resistant to rezoning their schools in the face of this gentrification and a growing support for integration as a means to solve issues of funding, resources, and segregation in New York City.


The ruling that separate black and white schools were inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education was an incredible feat for black Americans in 1954. It openly acknowledged the way in which unequal resources and institutions negatively affected black students. As a result, desegregation and integration policies were mandated by the Supreme Court in order to create an equal and fair education for black Americans and other minorities in the United States (Wells et. al. 2016). Nevertheless, Brown’s ruling has yet to be fulfilled 63 years later and schools are actually more segregated now than in the 1960s (Orfield and Lee 2007).

Schools are often reflections of the racial and socioeconomic demographics in neighborhoods (NY Appleseed 2013). Some New York City neighborhoods are currently undergoing dramatic demographic shifts as white middle and upper-class families move back into the city, essentially a reversal of the white flight that occurred in the early 1950s in an attempt to escape the growing populations of African Americans in the cities (Burns Stillman 2012). The gentrification of New York neighborhoods is lauded as an opportunity for integration within the public schools, which are among the most segregated in the country (Kucsera and Orfield 2014). However, the socioeconomic and racial differences between families are coming to a head in the classroom as demographics of the schools begin to change along with the neighborhoods. New York City has proposed to rezone schools as a way to accommodate the incoming white population and facilitate integration with the existing population of predominantly black and Latino families (Posey-Maddox 2014). Nevertheless, low-income parents of color are resistant to rezoning their schools. This report will delineate the reasons for this resistance as well as the ways in which integration can have a negative impact on the perception, resources and culture of a school.


In the 2010-2011 school year, 64% of black students and 58% of Latino students were enrolled in schools with 10% or less white student enrollment. According to the report released by UCLA on New York public school segregation, “the extreme share of black students enrolled in intensely segregated schools have steadily increased.” This report further explores this phenomenon in terms of minority student exposure to white students and found that it has been declining over time as the white student population decreases in public schools. Additionally, as black and Latino students continue to be disproportionately enrolled in schools that are racially isolated, they are also more likely to attend schools that are disproportionately low-income students. As a result, they experience what the report calls as “double segregation” by attending schools that are segregated by race and class (Kucsera and Orfield 2014). On the other hand, white students are increasingly isolated in public schools. White students are enrolled in schools that are heavily white and their exposure to low-income students is much lower compared to that of their black peers, 29.1% and 69.2% respectively.

Racial and socioeconomic segregation in public schools are detrimental to the achievement of black students. In 2003, “40 percent of black 4th graders scored at or above the ‘basic’ level in reading, compared with 75 percent of white students” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Fuller 2004). Black students in segregated schools are also “less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, instructional materials, and adequate facilities” (Hannah-Jones 2016). This disparity in resources and achievement also translates to longer term consequences for black students once they are outside the education system, such as differences in well-being and household incomes (Fuller 2004).

Alternatively, black students improved significantly on their reading and math test scores when they were enrolled in integrated, middle-class schools. The achievement gap between them and white students “closed more rapidly during the peak years of school desegregation” than any other time in education policy (Wells et al. 2016). This improvement in test scores is attributed to the fact that racial and socioeconomic integration creates more equitable access to experienced teachers, good facilities, more challenging curriculum, and more funding for students (Wells et al. 2016). Additionally, some studies show that “the higher educational aspirations” of middle-class families have a positive influence on student achievement (Kahlenberg 2001).

School attendance zones are an example of a system that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequality because of the reciprocal relationship between housing and school segregation. Yet, zones range in size and do not necessarily reflect only one neighborhood demographic (New York Appleseed 2013). They can encompass a couple of blocks or literally the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan and Harlem (see map below) (Taylor Jan. 2016). As a result, redrawing zone lines could allow for more students of different racial and socio economic backgrounds to be included and create the possibility of integration (Saporito and Van Riper 2015).  

The Battlegrounds for Integration:

“Through the veil I could perceive the forbidden city, the Louisville where white folks lived. It was the Louisville of downtown hotels, the lower floors of the big movie houses, the high schools I read about in the daily newspapers… On my side of the veil everything was black: the homes, the people, the churches, the schools… I knew that there were two Louisvilles and in America, two Americas. I knew, also, which of the Americas was mine.”

– Blyden Jackson in The Waiting Years

In this excerpt, Blyden Jackson is describing his experience as a black male in the Jim Crow South, and yet, his analogy of the two sides of the veil and two Americas also depicts the current segregation in New York City schools. On one side of the neighborhood are PS 8 and PS 199, two schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively, that are well-funded and serve predominantly white student populations (Taylor 2016; Taylor, Sept. 2015). On the other side of the neighborhood are PS 307 and PS 191, which serve low-income predominantly black and Latino students. Although they may only be a few blocks away or less than a mile from each other, the perception, resources, and culture of these pairs of schools are incredibly different, reflecting the idea of “two Americas”.

New York city district administrators, therefore, now face the challenge of drawing and redrawing school zones as they try to find a balance between this intense segregation in these schools, the influx of white middle and upper-class families as gentrifiers, and the low-income minority families already in the neighborhood. Ultimately, the question is who will be included and excluded by these invisible boundaries. The most contentious attempts to redraw school zones are played out in the zones that contain PS 199 and PS 191 in Manhattan and PS 307 and PS 8 in Brooklyn. These schools were battlegrounds of integration since parents were split along race and class lines as they argue about the rezoning of their respective schools. The following section will describe the responses of parents of color to these rezoning proposals while also identifying the greater dynamics between integration, gentrification, and segregation that are at play and ultimately affect any school that wishes to integrate.

Mobility and Choice

Location determines a family’s access to resources like food, community centers, transportation, and schools and their quality as well. Because students are zoned to schools based on their address, school quality and composition are aspects that families evaluate as they try to find a place to settle. However, this mobility and choice is a privilege because it is only available to and practiced by those who have the means and ability to do so.

In her New York Times article, The Get-Into-School Card, Higgins writes, “moving to a particular neighborhood in order to land a seat at a covered public schools has long been the middle-class operandi for obtaining a high-quality education in New York” (Higgins 2013). We can see this practice being carried out by white middle and upper-middle class families who are gentrifying neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. For many of these, “good” public schools are usually evaluated by their test scores and student proficiency (Posey-Maddox 2016).

It is obvious why PS 8’s student achievement and test scores are cited as main attractions for incoming families. Its proficiency percentage is double that of the student proficiency in PS 307 for 4 consecutive school years and higher than city average (NYSED Data). Nevertheless, an important thing to note is that the student test scores in PS 307 “ are closer to the average for black and Hispanic students” (Taylor, Sept. 2015), which is an important fact to acknowledge because it demonstrates a different type of achievement and success that is not usually recognized. Nevertheless, white parents from PS 8 who were rezoned to PS 307 continue to express their concerns in regards to the “low test scores” of the latter (Taylor, Sept. 2015). This anger and concern about rezoning stems from the fact that parents specifically purchased a home order to ensure that their children would be zoned to PS 8 (Hannah-Jones 2016). As a result, they have threatened to move out of the neighborhood or take their children out of the public school system altogether. White parents in PS 199 also shared the same concerns. One parent said, “People can move. Parents have options” (Taylor, Nov. 2016). Therefore, in these comments, white parents are demonstrating their freedom in choice and ability to be mobile in order to find the best education for their children (Roda and Wells 2013).

The purpose of this paper is to display the responses of low-income parents of color to the rezoning of their schools. This section has been particularly focused on the concerns of white families and their mobility because the voices and concerns of low-income parents of color are few and far between. Some research indicates that low-income minority parents have confronted exclusive practices when trying to receive information about New York City public schools (NY Appleseed 2013). Others have written about how there were few comments or concerns about the rezoning expressed by parents in schools like PS 307 and PS 191 because they were unaware of or had inaccurate information in regards to the proposal up until a few months before it was supposed to be voted on (Taylor, Oct. 2015). Additionally, many of these parents do not have the same privilege of moving outside of their neighborhoods if their public schools are not performing at a level deemed to be “good” nor do they have the networks, resources, or time that many middle and upper-class families have to research better choices that are available to them (Hannah-Jones 2016). For this reason, mobility and choice play an important role in the debate that surrounds rezoning because mobility or the lack thereof influence school composition and neighborhood composition. As a result, the presence of certain families influences the resources, networks, perceptions, and culture of a school.

Resources, Networks, and School Culture

In UCLA’s study about New York State school segregation, Kuscera and Orfield write, “data also indicate that as a school becomes more minority, the school will also become more low-income and, as such, is twice as likely to exhibit educational opportunities and outcomes.” For this reason, many praise socio economic and racial integration by white upper and middle class families as a means to achieve better educational networks, resources, and opportunities.  However, the high appraisal of these resources and networks creates tension for low-income minority parents in terms of expectations for parent involvement and contribution and school culture.

At PS 199, “the parent-teacher organization can raise about $800,000 a year to pay for things like a resident chef” whereas in PS 191, “there is no library or art teacher” (Taylor, Oct. 2015). Posey-Maddox would cite this disparity in funding as one of the ways in which white middle-class and upper-class parent involvement and fundraising in “recreate new patterns of inequality within schools” (92-3) because they create new norms and expectations that are exclusive of low-income and minority parents. Wealthy families tend to have greater networks, resources, and time that they could dedicate to the school whereas parents who need to work multiple jobs or long hours in order to make ends meet might not have the same flexibility or availability. For this reason, the positive contributions from white families, which tend to be more visible and tangible within the school, are more valued than the contributions of parents of color (Posey-Maddox 2014). This change in school culture and valuation of parent involvement is a great concern for parents of color in PS 307 because they do not want to feel excluded from schools that they “fought hard to build” and “dedicated” themselves to (Taylor, Sept. 2015).

Additionally, these parents are also resistant to rezoning because they fear that the school demographic will change dramatically and their children will be displaced from their zoned schools (Taylor, Sept. 2015). As white middle class families are moving into these zoned schools, their children are also taking up seats that low-income and minority students would otherwise be given. Parents of color fear that demographic shift this will also affect the school’s “commitment to everyone” in that it will start to focus its resources and funding on the new incoming students (Posey-Maddox 2014). An example of this is in the Title I grants that schools like PS 191 and PS 307 receive based on the number of students who quality for free and reduced-price lunch. This money can be allocated to support after-school or enrichment programs, teaching staff, and other gaps in the school budget (Posey-Maddox 2014). The influx of white middle-class and upper-class students, however, threatens this funding and endangers the programs that help and support low-income students in these schools.

“White is Right”: Racializing Good and Bad

One of the purposes of rezoning is to alleviate the overcrowding that PS 8 and PS 199 have by reassigning a few blocks to the zones that have schools like PS 307 and PS 191 which are under enrolled. However, the main argument from the wealthy white parents against rezoning is that their children would be zoned to “bad” schools and “dangerous” schools (Taylor, Oct. 2015). Although these parents do not claim to be racist, their choices indicate an underlying association between whiteness and the good quality of a school because “white schools – with white parents – are often assumed to be better than ‘black’ schools” (Posey-Maddox 2014). Nikole Hannah-Jones also discusses the way in which, for these incoming white middle and upper-class families, diversity is a “boutique offering.” They want just enough for their children’s sake, but not too much so that the school is overrun by predominantly low-income minority students. Because of this mindset, many parents of color from PS 307 and PS 199 find themselves defending the perception of their schools against these parents’ claims in order to “prove their worth and success in the public eye” (Posey-Maddox 2014). They encourage these parents to actually come and visit the schools rather than evaluating its quality based on test scores and suggestions from their peers (Roda and Wells 2013). These parents of color are also angry because the concerns and attention for these schools stem from the new presence of wealthy white families and their social capital. Why is a school labeled as “good” once there is a critical mass of white students within its walls? Why should a black student have to sit next to a white student to deserve better funding, facilities, and resources? Hannah-Jones found that PS 307, although low-income, predominantly black and Latino, and labeled by many other parents as “bad”, was incredible space in which children were genuinely learning and enjoying their time in the classroom. Schools, therefore, are described in incredibly limiting and exclusive ways that marginalize the efforts, contribution, and achievement of families of color and perpetuate the notion that whiteness is a marker of success.

Suggestions and Conclusion:

            After a two-year battle, PS 8 and PS 307 were rezoned to the sections that are evident below (Taylor, Jan. 2016). However, the proposal to rezone PS 199 and PS 191 was dropped by the city because of the intense push back from parents of color and white parents alike (Taylor, Nov. 2015). The balance needed to achieve integration that benefits both low-income minority and white is incredibly fragile, as evidenced by the way that PS 8 has progressively become whiter over the last 4 years (see chart below). This policy memo fails to address the nuances of integration and segregation when black middle and upper-class families are also part of the gentrifying families in these neighborhoods. Nevertheless, this report demonstrates the way in which an attempt to create integration can be incredibly exclusive and marginalizing of families of color. Rather than creating policies with the new white middle and upper-class families in mind, policy and school administrators also need to consider their positions and sentiments, even if they do not have the same social capital or resources as their white counterparts. One possibility is reserving places within these schools for low-income and minority students before enrolling other students. Inclusion and diversity needs to be a concerted effort on all levels, from parent-teacher organizations to admissions within schools to the drawing and redrawing school zones. The needs of parents and students of color should not be an afterthought or a “boutique offering”, but rather a priority in order to create authentic integration and equity within New York City schools.


Works Cited

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Higgins, Michelle. May 2013. “The Get-Into-School Card.” The New York Times.

Kahlenberg, Richard. 2001. All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice. Ch 1, Pp. 1-11. New York: Brookings Institution Press.

Kucsera, John and Gary Orfield. 2014. “New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future.” UCLA: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

New York Appleseed. 2013. “Segregation in NYC District Elementary Schools and What We Can Do About It: School to School Diversity.”

Posey-Maddox, Linn. 2014. When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Orfield, Gary and Chungmei Lee. 2007. “Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation,a nd the Need for New Integration Strategies.” UCLA: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

Roda, Allison and Amy Stuart Wells. February 2013. “School Choice Policies and Racial Segregation: Where White Parents’ Good Intentions, Anxiety, and Privilege Collide.”American Journal of Education 119(2): 261-293.

Saporito, Salvatore and David Van Riper. 2015. “Do Irregularly Shaped School Attendance Zones Contribute to Racial Segregation or Integration?” Social Currents 3 (1): 64-83.

Taylor, Kate. September 2015. “Race and Class Collide in a Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools.” The New York Times.

Taylor, Kate. November 2015. “Education Dept. Drops Proposal to Rezone Upper West Side Schools.” The New York Times.

Taylor, Kate. October 2015. “Manhattan Rezoning Fight Involves a School Called ‘Persistently Dangerous’.” The New York Times.

Taylor, Kate. January 2016. “Harlem Schools Are Left to Fail as Those Not Far Away Thrive.” The New York Times.

Taylor Kate. January 2016. “2 Brooklyn Schools in Gentrifying Area Will Get New Zones.” The New York Times.

Taylor, Kate. September 2016. “Rezoning Plan for Manhattan Elementary School Draws Anger from All Sides.” The New York Times.

Wells, Amy Stuart, Lauren Fox and Diana Cordova-Cobo. 2016. “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students.” New York: The Century Foundation.