Joy Burke at John Hay Elementary School
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

This time of year, social media feeds are teeming with back-to-school pictures. Children at bus stops, sidewalks, in classrooms, and on campuses. A parade of photos, showing off shiny braces, backpacks and summer growth spurts.

I welcome this upbeat rite of passage, with its iconic images and high hopes for a fresh start. But lately, I’ve found myself casually searching in these photos for evidence of an issue dear to my heart and the work I do at The Hechinger Report: diversity. But more often I see the opposite. For a variety of reasons, racial and ethnic diversity is lacking in far too many schools, both here in New York City and around the country.

And it’s not okay.

There is no U.S. education problem more painful and paralyzing than persistent gaps in educational outcomes between black and brown students and their white peers, many decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that racial segregation of children in public schools is unconstitutional.

And yet, reporting consistently reveals that racial disparities persist at every level of the system, with racial separation remaining at levels that haven’t been seen since the 1960s.

In part as a result, academic progress for nonwhite students still lags way behind.

That’s why I can’t help noticing, in so many of those back-to-school photos, nothing but white faces. In others, though, I see only non-white faces, except for the teacher.

That’s the situation teacher and contributing Hechinger Report author Jennifer Rich found when she departed her leafy liberal arts college in Pennsylvania for an all-minority school in 1990s-era Brooklyn, her first teaching job. “Not one of my students was white,” Rich writes. “Every student lived in poverty.”

The all-white photos I see come from friends and relatives who have chosen largely homogenous religious or private schools for their children, or who live in suburban towns where black and brown students are scarce (like the one I grew up in).

Yet I also have friends who’ve chosen more integrated neighborhoods and schools for their kids. Their photos this week show a mix of children from many different ethnic backgrounds, no easy task to achieve in New York City, where close to half the elementary schools are 90 percent black and Hispanic.

Richard Carranza, the city’s new school chancellor, is now forcing a long overdue conversation about changing that racial picture, while acknowledging the difficulty of convincing white parents to believe what the research says: All children benefit from racial integration, something the U.S. government also acknowledges.

Carranza’s path will likely be both fraught and complicated and marked by resistance, as has been the case in other communities we’ve covered that have tried to desegregate.

Consider the story that The Hechinger Report’s Emmanuel Felton wrote last year on white communities setting up charter schools to effectively keep out black children.

We’ve also seen in our reporting that segregation is on the rise even in places still under federal desegregation order. Mississippi, for its part, has shown persistent efforts to keep white and black students separate.

We’ve also reported on the successes of integration in places that have pursued it intentionally, and we’ll continue tracking districts that are bucking the national trends and pushing back against reluctant white parents.

In New York City, we’ll be watching how Carranza confronts this national problem, and listening closely to the voices of students. We’ll continue publishing their opinions and hosting a podcast we help oversee from The Bell. 

Young people’s views matter greatly here: The city’s students are the ones who directly experience the consequences of inequality, and it sometimes reaches into every aspect of the school day. Some black and Latino students maintain, for example, that they have far fewer athletic opportunities at their segregated schools.

I embrace the airing of differing views and a robust conversation from those keeping a close eye on how schools are addressing diversity.

Already, Carranza is igniting ire, cheers and controversy for questioning the need to screen students for admission to the city’s specialized high schools, and for introducing ways to enroll more black and Hispanic students in them.

Change won’t be easy, and if history is any lesson, it will be a long time coming.

I often come back to the day many years ago when visitors and their kids from a white suburban town accompanied me to pick up my sons at their integrated New York City public elementary school.

Why, the visiting children wondered, did my kids attend a school “with so many brown children?”

Progress will come when they instead wonder why there were none at their own school.

This story about school segregation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.