Are Jersey City schools integrating on their own?

Most school districts across the United States have become more segregated since the end of mandated busing in the early 1990s. In response, housing, poverty, and education advocates have looked to neighborhood segregation as a culprit--and tried strategies to maintain numbers of low-income, predominantly minority residents in rapidly gentrifying areas and to keep their high-income neighbors in public schools.

A new study from Ryan Coughlin at CUNY and reported on by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat shows that these efforts aren't working in most cities. Even where neighborhoods have become more integrated, schools remain segregated. While 72 percent of urban neighborhoods became less segregated between 1990 and 2015, 62 percent of city schools became more.

That national trend does not hold in Jersey City, however, where neighborhoods have become 25 percent less segregated and public schools even more integrated over the past decade. In fact, of the cities in the study, Jersey City has the third greatest degree of increased school integration, after Durham, NC and Corpus Christi, TX. The study defines integration as the degree to which city schools mirror the district or city's demographics as a whole. It did not include charter schools, which can be more or less segregated relative to Census figures for families in the district, depending on the school.

This analysis seems to undermine well-publicized efforts of districts such as Louisville, KY to maintain school integration through controlled choice, a strategy in which families are able to choose or rank schools and their children's ultimate placement is based on economic diversity goals. Louisville had some of the highest increase in segregation in recent years, in part due to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that limited public schools' ability to use race as a factor in integration. Louisville's experience suggests that using economic diversity measures to integrate schools may not, in fact, work.

Why would Jersey City schools be integrating quickly, without any visible or public effort by the school board or school officials? The research doesn't address that. But there are plenty of hypotheses. Perhaps the data captures Jersey City at a particular moment for gentrification, when wealthier and whiter families move into formerly distressed neighborhoods, and the balance of families of different incomes and races may prove evanescent. (Because of decades of discrimination in access to mortgages and fair rents, many black and Hispanic families in cities were not able to build wealth in home equity and to have well-funded schools based on property taxes.) It's also possible that the Abbott preK classrooms, in which children of all incomes receive high-quality school at ages 3 and 4 in former Abbott districts such as Jersey City and began a generation ago, had the effect of keeping more diverse children in city schools, reducing isolation by poverty and race. Or it may be that the influx of Arabic-speaking families with origins in Middle East-North Africa (MENA students, as a recently rejected Census category would have allowed them to identify) has seemed to reduce segregation, as they are identified demographically as white.

At PS 17 on Bergen Avenue, for example, the percentage of white students has increased as the percentage of black students has decreased over six years. Does this represent gentrification, integration, or an increase in Arabic-speaking MENA students, from 14 percent to 30 percent over the same time period?

To see the data for all the districts studied, go to Chalkbeat's interactive chart here.