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How a Brooklyn District Tackled School Segregation

Today we’ll find out what happened when a school district in Brooklyn began an ambitious effort to better integrate its middle schools. We’ll also find out about a decision throwing out an attempt by the city to ban foie gras.

It’s been five years since District 15 in Brooklyn adopted a plan to better integrate its middle schools, which were then among the most homogenous in the city. I asked Troy Closson, who covers education for the Metro desk, to assess how the plan has worked out.

District 15 in Brooklyn dropped selective admissions and began giving every child a lottery number. What happened?

Before the pandemic, a handful of districts in New York City were thinking about disparities across schools in their areas and how they could address them through desegregation. In District 15, where that conversation had been going on for several years, parents decided to go further than anywhere else in the city, eliminating selective admissions for middle schools and setting high targets for the proportion of disadvantaged students that each school would enroll.

At the time, there was a lot of support in District 15. But there was also concern that when districts try to desegregate, they run the risk that some families will be dissatisfied and that middle-class families in particular will leave the school system.

Five years later, enrollment declines in District 15 are below citywide averages. Their schools are far less segregated than they were.

What worked in District 15? Was it that school officials made everything but race a priority? How did they do that?

They came up with a plan to focus on students who are homeless, learning English or come from low-income families — and considered them to be the quote-unquote disadvantaged students they wanted to focus on. They didn’t focus on race explicitly.

Many of the white students and middle-class students in the district had been enrolled in just three middle schools. One of them was the school where Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his children when he was mayor — and where 30 percent of kids came from low-income families.

At other schools, that number was over 95 percent. The plan was really aimed at redistributing those students so they were not in two or three particular schools.

But the change hasn’t been uniform. There are two schools in high-poverty parts of Sunset Park. How is the new system playing out there?

A lot of immigrant families who attend those schools wanted to stay, according to the superintendent. They wanted to be closer to home. Sometimes an eighth grader might be the babysitter for a third grader, so it’s helpful to be nearby. The superintendent says that’s one piece of it.

Another piece is that higher-income families from other parts of the district probably aren’t ranking those two schools high on their lists, so they’re not being placed in them.

Where were parents in all this, and was their involvement different from parents’ involvement in other districts?

District 15 is largely a progressive section of Brooklyn, so you had a lot of parents, including many white parents, questioning the makeup of their schools and thinking that it’s time to do more to integrate.

In other areas of the city, there has been more pushback.

In District 28 in Queens, which goes from Forest Hills and Rego Park to Jamaica, there was a similar effort to desegregate schools before the pandemic, but it sparked a huge pushback from a wide range of parents. Some white and Asian families were worried that their children wouldn’t have the same opportunity for success if changes to admissions were made. Some Black and Hispanic families asked why their children had to travel halfway across the district to go to a good school — why couldn’t the school down the street be a good school.

In District 15, the most important factor in progress was arguably parents’ buy-in. You had parents who weren’t just interested in the concept of desegregation but were willing to change how they were choosing schools.

This comes against the background of a lawsuit challenging selective admissions — the system that District 15 abolished.

Yes. The approach to desegregation taken by Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks has been to leave it to local districts and let them take the lead if they want.

The lawsuit is essentially arguing it is the city and state’s responsibility to handle desegregation. The plaintiffs argue that Black and Latino students have been excluded from selective pathways in the school system in violation of their constitutional rights.

It’s an interesting case because before the pandemic there was a lot of momentum around desegregation. There were teenagers rallying on the steps of City Hall. De Blasio announced a plan to phase out the elementary gifted and talented program.

Under Mayor Adams, a lot of those conversations have quieted down. But the lawsuit has the potential to jump-start that debate again and force the Adams administration into the conversation.


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New York City’s ban on foie gras — which never went into effect — has been thrown out by a judge who upheld the power of the state agriculture commissioner to override local laws that unreasonably restrict farm operations upstate.

The ban on retail sales of foie gras was approved by the City Council in 2019 and signed into law by Bill de Blasio, the mayor at the time. Foie gras, made from the fattened livers of ducks and geese, is considered a delicacy by many and is an expensive item in restaurants that serve it. Animal rights advocates say it is a product of inhumane treatment.

The State Department of Agriculture determined in 2020 that the city’s ban violated a state law that said local governments could not enact laws covering farm operations in designated agricultural districts.

The agriculture commissioner, Richard Ball, found that the city law fell unfairly on two upstate duck farms that produce almost all the foie gras in the United States — and are in designated agricultural zones. The two farms said in 2020 that they could not survive a ban.

The city took Ball and the agriculture department to court.

Last week, Justice Richard Platkin of State Supreme Court in Albany said that Ball had “rationally and reasonably” found that the city law amounted to “a command” to the two foie gras producers “to discontinue a farming practice in agricultural districts to which many city residents object.”

Platkin said the city had “no power to directly command” the two producers “to restructure their farm practices.”

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said it was reviewing the ruling “and determining next steps.”

“We believe the city has the authority to implement this local law, which is intended solely to ban the sale of foie gras in the city,” he said. “The law in no way restricts or regulates upstate farms.”

The ruling was Platkin’s second involving the city’s ban. In 2023, he threw out Ball’s determination as “arbitrary and capricious.” But the judge sent the matter back to the agriculture department, directing it to make a new determination after finding that its reading of the legislative record had been limited to “two brief quotations drawn from a multi-thousand page record.”

The new determination, issued last December, prompted the city to file the case that Platkin decided last week.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

A shoal of large wooden letters by the trash
on Thirtieth Street near Penn Station, pondered
as I went by, there were not many but
turned back thinking I might find her there.
A bit guilty for my daylight scavenging
I hurriedly tried to piece unlikely her
together with a lowercase l, two a’s, one broken, and two u’s, one for an upside down n
— but no e or r. All day at work I fretted my
return to the scene, but all was cleared except
for, just off the curb, that lipogram e
— eureka for her hapax legomenon!—
and when I came home I carved out the broken
a into a smaller r — and now I have her
in anagrams: “neural,” “unreal,” our “lauren.”

— David Stanford Burr

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


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