New York state has the most segregated schools in the nation, according to a new study — but Schenectady is bucking the trend.
In many schools in the state, black and Latino students predominantly attend schools in which less than 10 percent of the students are white. Likewise, white students attend schools in which minorities are rare.
The report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles looks at enrollment trends from 1989 to 2010. In New York City, the largest school system in the U.S. with 1.1 million pupils, the study notes that many of the charter schools created over the past dozen years are among the least diverse of all, with less than 1 percent white enrollment at 73 percent of charter schools.
But in Schenectady, nearly every elementary school is a mix of races. Just two schools stand out as being disproportionately leaning toward one race: Paige, which has the
highest proportion of white students in the district, and King, which has the highest proportion of black students.
Even those schools, though, look diverse in comparison to the surrounding suburban schools.
Paige is 55 percent white, 17 percent black, 14 percent Latino and 14 percent Asian (including many Guyanese who identify themselves within that category).
King is nearly the reverse: 46 percent black, 18 percent white, 14 percent Latino and 22 percent Asian.
At nearby Niskayuna elementary schools, the student bodies are 79 percent to 86 percent white. The most diverse elementary school has just 15 black students.
Niskayuna school officials aren’t trying to increase diversity, which would be a difficult task in a town that is predominantly white.
“That specific need hasn’t articulated itself in our district,” said Niskayuna schools spokesman Matt Leon, who added that diversity is valued in the schools.
In Schenectady, the numbers at Paige and King have caught the attention of Superintendent Laurence Spring.
“We should try to make sure it doesn’t continue,” he said, adding that he would look into it the next time the district adjusts attendance zones for each school.
He said he doesn’t want to create “enclaves of homogeneity.”
Other schools, though, are fairly equal.
Zoller, for example, is 31 percent black and 42 percent white, with nearly equal amounts of Latinos and Asians as well at 14 percent and 13 percent.
Similarly, Pleasant Valley is 34 percent black, 21 percent white, 18 percent Latino and 25 percent Asian.
Spring is happy with those numbers.
The diversity rates at most schools are not “a major concern,” Spring said.
The city’s racial makeup is 61 percent white, 20 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and some residents reporting two or more races, according to the 2010 Census.
The elementary schools in Schenectady are largely populated by the children in each surrounding neighborhood, so the diversity — or lack thereof — reflects those neighborhoods.
That’s the same reason so many schools in New York state are so segregated, according to researchers. The neighborhoods are also segregated.
But while Schenectady has “enclaves,” as Spring put it, many neighborhoods have a mix of races.
University at Albany sociology professor Samantha Friedman was fascinated by the mix of races in Schenectady. Because so many diverse people live in the same neighborhood, the city is on the low end of the rating for “moderately segregated” neighborhoods, based on the 2010 Census, she said.
Still, 38 percent of the whites or blacks in Schenectady would have to move to another part of the city to create perfect racial distribution, she said.
“That’s low,” she added. “I’m quite surprised.”
In Albany, she said, there is a great divide, racially, in many neighborhoods.
“A lot of this segregation happened because of whites’ behavior,” Friedman said. “White flight [to the suburbs] or white avoidance, particularly of black-only neighborhoods.”
In recent decades, Schenectady has lost many white residents, which she said was likely “white flight.” But those who remained, she said, are clearly willing to live in diverse neighborhoods.
“It sounds like the people who didn’t suburbanize have decided they’re going to live here. They probably have fewer stereotypes,” she said.
And some white residents say they moved to Schenectady for the diversity.
Spring, who is white, is already reveling in the impact Schenectady has had on his two young children.
“They’re learning that people have implicit value,” he said. “It’s just a given: Of course kids celebrate different holidays — that’s not a thing.”
Many parents say Schenectady’s diversity is one of the school district’s biggest strengths.
Corey Hammie, whose daughter attends Pleasant Valley, said he’s totally satisfied by the diversity at her school.
“In her class we have Guyanese, black, white, Latino,” he said. “She has friends of every ethnicity.”
Hammie, who is black, was raised by a white father and is raising a white daughter. Immersing her in a multi-cultural world is important to him. But he also thinks it’s good for everyone.
“I think diversity is really, really essential,” he said. “Let’s say I didn’t like Chinese people. That’s a billion people I’m cutting off, from a best friend to a business opportunity to someone I might fall in love with.”