The Buffalo Public Schools are just as segregated now as they were in the 1970s, essentially reversing the results of an integration program that once was heralded as a national model.
About 70 percent of the city’s schools were considered segregated in 1972, when parents filed the lawsuit that prompted a federal judge to order the district to desegregate.
Despite decades of programs aimed at striking a racial balance, a Buffalo News analysis found that in 2012, 70 percent of schools in the city were segregated, suggesting that any gains seen after the implementation of the court order have been erased.
The situation in Buffalo underscores a disturbing trend seen across New York state, which the Civil Rights Project identified as the most segregated state in the nation.
The difference in Buffalo, however, is that the district was one of the only cities in the state that once instituted a serious integration policy resulting in more racially balanced schools, and has since resegregated.
Now, the city is at the heart of a region the Civil Rights Project ranks 21st out of 940 metropolitan areas in terms of multiracial segregation.
“They were pioneers,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, a University of California at Los Angeles think tank that researches demographic patterns in school systems. “There was a major creative impulse there. The city has declined dramatically.”
Housing patterns largely drive the segregation in the schools, as do parents opting to keep their children in schools within their communities. Some parents also argue that placement policy and the admissions criteria at some schools may play a role.
Regardless of the cause, community activists say the segregation drives a racial divide that can be felt at all levels of the school system, from the Board of Education to parent groups to the place where it matters most – the classroom.
The impact of this segregation is most acutely felt by black and Hispanic students, who more often than not are concentrated in high-poverty, low-performing schools. The issue is not so much one of race but of class, which here and elsewhere are all too often connected, and correlates with academic performance, the report found.
“The black struggle to end segregation in the Buffalo schools began in the 1800s and it is still a struggle today in 2014,” said Eva Doyle, a well-respected local author, columnist and historian. “The African-Americans are still trying.
“They want a good education for their children.”
The racial makeup of the city has shifted in the decades since the desegregation lawsuit was filed.
In 1972, white students accounted for 54 percent of the district. By 2012, the most recent year for which school demographic data is available, they made up just 22 percent.
But the same percentage of city schools are segregated now as in 1972, with segregation defined as enrollment that is at least 80 percent minority or 80 percent white.
That percentage is a dramatic increase in the share of schools considered segregated just a decade earlier, when 29 of the 74 Buffalo schools were segregated. None was 80 percent or higher white.
At around that time, two things happened: the district eliminated neighborhood schools, and instead started assigning students to schools based on parental requests; and more charter schools opened in the city.
Since then, schools in South Buffalo have seen a significant increase in the percentage of white students, The Buffalo News found, while nearly all the other schools in the city experienced a growth in their minority enrollment. In fact, the minority population grew by 10 percentage points or more at half the schools in the city over the past decade.
Today, the enrollment of Buffalo’s white students remains heavily concentrated in a small number of schools where they make up a disproportionate majority. Although white students make up the minority districtwide, at 11 schools in the district, they are the majority. That includes two schools that have special admissions policies, City Honors and Olmsted 64.
One, Discovery School, is so predominantly white – 82 percent – that it’s considered segregated.
There are two exceptions to the city’s school choice admissions policy, which eliminated neighborhood schools about a decade ago. At Discovery, half of the seats are reserved for students in the school’s South Buffalo neighborhood; at Olmsted, where two-thirds of the seats are designated for students who test into the gifted program, the remaining seats are reserved for students in the gerrymandered admissions zone, which includes part of North Buffalo and the Delaware District.
Like Discovery, half of the other majority-white schools in the district are located in South Buffalo. So, too, is South Buffalo Charter School, the only charter school in the city where white students outnumber all other racial groups combined.
Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of student support, said the district faces difficult dynamics when it comes to demographics, especially given that many neighborhoods of the city remain heavily segregated. In the past decade, the district has moved to a system that gives parents more options for where their children can attend school, in the hopes that the school choice process would allow greater movement throughout the city and not confine children to segregated schools in their neighborhood.
But by and large, most families opt for schools within the neighborhoods where they live.
“When open enrollment was established in our district over a decade ago, part of the intent was to eliminate any contribution we may have been making to segregation with rigid attendance zones,” he said. “We have found, though, that parents still generally choose to remain enrolled at a school either in their ZIP code or adjacent to it.
“The result is that school demographics continue to represent trends in the community – a community that is often segregated.”
Black, Hispanic, Asian and multiracial students accounted for 99 percent or more of the students at five schools in Buffalo in 2012. All of them were charter schools: Community, Buffalo United, Westminster, Aloma D. Johnson and Pinnacle, which has since closed.
“You have to consider that charter schools are schools of choice, which means people aren’t satisfied with schools they could have gone to,” said David Bouie, principal of Aloma D. Johnson Charter School, which has no white students.
Terenda Brown had been home schooling the oldest three of her six children when she decided to enroll them in school more than a decade ago. She lives across the street from a district school, but she chose to send them to Westminster.
The racial composition of the school wasn’t a factor, she said. Rather, she was impressed by what she saw at Westminster. She liked the student uniforms, along with opportunities for children to pursue their interests, such as drama productions and industrial arts. But what really hooked her was an atmosphere that made her and her children feel at home.
“One of my children had a problem with reading. The principal personally looked up information to help him with his reading. Where else do you find that?” Brown said. “It was so impressive, the close-knit community bond they have and the parent involvement they have.
“It was the school environment and the teachers and how they cared about the children pretty much one on one. It wasn’t so much because of the ethnic background of the school. Of course, we’re in an area it’s minorities. That just happens to be where the school is located.”
Just as Westminster is in a predominantly black neighborhood near Bailey and Kensington, Aloma D. Johnson had, until this year, been located in the Fruit Belt, which is also predominantly black. This year, Aloma D. Johnson relocated to the corner of Jewett and Main in North Buffalo. Bouie said he hopes the school will be able to attract a more diverse mix of students.
“We find strength in our differences,” he said. “It’s important that we teach our children about different backgrounds. As kids grow up, they need to know that.”
Whereas students are placed in charter schools through a lottery system, in the district schools, families indicate their top few choices, and students are generally placed in one of them.
At half a dozen schools in the district, known as criteria schools, students are chosen based on various factors, such as grades, teacher recommendations, and a placement exam.
Some parents have expressed concerns that the admissions criteria at those schools discriminate against minority students.
Although district schools with specific admissions criteria came closer to a racial balance, they tended to have a disproportionately white student population. At City Honors, for example, 66 percent of the student body is white – three times the percentage of the overall school district.
Those criteria schools recently became the focus of a civil rights complaint.
“It’s hard to see when you’re in that situation,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the lawsuit. “If your child is there, it’s hard to see how this wonderful situation that’s good for your child is actually creating a set of unfair conditions for other children.
“Privileged people are going to see change differently than underprivileged people.”
Keresztes said the district is well aware of how certain admissions practices affect enrollment, and some schools are making a concerted effort to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds.
“Principals of criteria-based programs have recognized that families may face barriers to accessing their schools because of the application process,” he said. “The district can and must address those barriers and that can be accomplished without diminishing the entrance requirements of the programs.”
Once a model
The issue of segregation is one that has dogged Buffalo and the surrounding area for generations.
For years, schools serving black children were considered inferior to those that educated their white classmates. More than a century ago, black students were banned from attending the city’s only high school.
Over the years, however, parents and community members became more aware of the poor opportunities provided their children. In the late 1960s, a group of parents appealed to the state to force some form of desegregation in the Buffalo schools, but those efforts had little impact.
Several years later, parents – both black and white – filed a federal lawsuit, which resulted in a federal court order mandating a multiyear desegregation plan designed to racially balance the school system.
The plan included the forced busing of both black and white students, along with the creation of a number of specialized magnet programs designed to encourage students to transfer schools voluntarily.
“Probably the big question was what was going to happen at the end of the bus ride,” said Lloyd Hargrave, a longtime activist whose four children were in schools during the desegregation. “Not just with the people, but the academic programs.”
Despite those concerns, and even as integration efforts were met with violence in other cities, school leaders here were able to rally support around specialized magnet programs, fueled by an injection of federal Title 1 dollars. By 1993, educators here and elsewhere were heralding the integration effort as a success, pointing to more racially blended schools and improved academic performance.
About 37 of the 58 elementary schools complied with the court-ordered guidelines calling for a minority population between 30 percent and 65 percent. A 1985 New York Times article cited improvements in test scores, with third-grade performance in mathematics on state tests improving from the 45th to the 69th percentile. Administrators came from all over the world to visit the district’s revolutionary magnet programs.
“For me, those really were the glory days of the school district,” Hargrave said. “They were the best of times.”
Two years later, Judge John T. Curtin lifted the court order, amid complaints about how the order was affecting hiring practices.
Ultimately, the results unraveled.