Walk the hallways of the Cheektowaga schools, and you’ll see what Superintendent Dennis Kane believes civil rights activists dreamed of in the 1960s.
Even as schools in Erie and Niagara counties remain heavily segregated along racial lines, some, including those in Cheektowaga, are becoming more integrated. In the past decade, the percentage of white students in Cheektowaga fell from 84 percent to 56 percent, giving the district one of the greatest balances between white and minority students in the region.
“It is just an amazing thing to see our kids and the respect they have for each other,” Kane said. “I find it totally amazing.”
While the schools in Cheektowaga are more integrated than many others in the region, other school districts appear headed in the same direction.
Over the past decade, the percentage of minority students grew in every school district but one in Erie and Niagara counties. In half of the districts, minority enrollment grew by at least 5 percentage points. And minority enrollment grew by at least 10 percentage points in seven districts: Cheektowaga, Cleveland Hill, Sweet Home, Cheektowaga-Maryvale, Williamsville, Lockport and Amherst.
Some people believe that finding ways to create more schools like those in Cheektowaga is critical not just for the students, but for the future of the entire region. And other districts across the country have made progress integrating.
“The U.S. is going to be a majority non-white community,” said Gary Orfield, executive director of the Civil Rights Project, a think tank affiliated with University of California at Los Angeles that researches demographic patterns in school systems. “For us to be viable socially and economically, we have to develop the talents of everyone.”
The growing diversity in some suburbs comes even as the state – and the region – remain among the most heavily segregated in the country.
A recent report by the Civil Rights Project put this area in the top 3 percent of the country for its failure to integrate students.
Two out of every five black students in the Buffalo Niagara region – 40 percent – attended a school where less than 10 percent of the student enrollment was white, although white students make up more than 70 percent of the overall metro population, the report found.
Conversely, white students overwhelmingly attended schools where fewer than 10 percent of students were black.
A Buffalo News analysis showed similar trends across the area’s 243 schools in Erie and Niagara counties, outside of Buffalo. About three out of four of those schools would, by the framework of Buffalo’s desegregation order, be considered segregated, meaning that at least 80 percent of their population was either white or minority.
“Sometimes I think New Yorkers are so afraid of doing anything about segregation, and so convinced integration has been a failure, because they have never experienced it,” Orfield wrote.
The segregation comes with hefty consequences, particularly for black and Hispanic students who are more often than not concentrated in high-poverty schools in the city and – increasingly – the inner-ring suburbs. Research consistently reinforces a correlation between a school’s poverty level and academic performance.
“The state constitution guarantees every child a rigorous and quality education,” said Robert Bennett, chancellor emeritus to the state’s Board of Regents, who represents the area. “And you don’t have to look further than Buffalo and Rochester to see that’s not happening.”
Pockets of integration
The minority enrollment in local suburban districts is increasing, if only gradually, in many places.
In slightly more than half of the districts in Erie and Niagara counties, black student enrollment increased over the last decade.
Other districts are becoming more diverse because of growth in their Asian population, which in some cases accounts for more than other minority groups combined.
Half of the schools in Williamsville in 2012 had an Asian enrollment that accounted for at least 10 percent of the student body. At Country Parkway, Asians accounted for 22 percent of the students, up from 10 percent a decade earlier.
The most dramatic growth in minority population, however, was in Cheektowaga, where black students now account for 32 percent of the overall enrollment – nearly the same proportion as in Niagara Falls schools.
School leaders in Cheektowaga anticipated the racial shift in the late 1990s and started developing programs that would prepare staff and schools for the diversification.
The districts brought in experts from across the country to conduct cultural sensitivity training and explored programs that accommodate the needs of a wide cross section of students. Kane and other leaders attended conferences for administrators in inner-ring suburbs to explore what the integration would mean for them.
By the time students of different races started arriving in the district, Kane said, the schools were well-equipped to accept them.
“There are people around the country who have been driving this for years,” Kane said. “We haven’t seen it in New York State.”
Regina Szachta’s two children attend Union East Elementary in Cheektowaga, one in first grade and one in second grade. Each one has about as many white children in their class as children who are black, Hispanic, Asian or multiracial.
“My children play with all types of children. It gives them the sense of, ‘I’m no better than you,’ ” she said. “It teaches them to respect others. That’s why I think it’s a good thing.”
Looking for models
Other regions have been more progressive in their efforts to better integrate students.
In Wake County, N.C., school and political leaders integrated the school system by putting a 40 percent limit on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch at each school. Because there is a strong correlation between race and class, the policy resulted in both racial and socioeconomic integration.
More recently, voters in Memphis voted to dissolve the school district and merge it with the surrounding suburbs.
Both efforts were met with political and legal challenge.
“We’re finding a real vacuum of people in the suburbs who are courageous enough to talk about this issue,” Orfield said.
Former Congressional candidate Kevin Gaughan has run into similar issues as he has promoted a consolidated government, which would include countywide schools.
“That’s a very difficult task but not insurmountable,” he said.
Some argue that a better racial balance can be achieved using less-drastic measures.
That might include developing magnet programs in the city strong enough to attract families across district lines. In Rochester, city students also have an opportunity to attend suburban schools through an Urban-Suburban Program, although the program there serves relatively few students.
Others argue for regional schools; one is planned for Rochester. And some state leaders are pushing to expand the one regional model that already exists in the region, giving BOCES greater authority to grant diplomas.
“The crime is confining students to an inferior education because by accident of birth they happen to be born inside an urban boundary,” Gaughan said. “That boundary today only exists in people’s minds. To adhere to that boundary for the purpose of educating is deeply wrong and will not serve us in the long run.