A study on school district segregation recently released by the Long Island Index concluded that the rate of segregation is double the national average on Long Island and nearly triple the national standard in Nassau County.
The report, conducted by Doug Ready, an associate professor of education at the Teachers College at Columbia University, looked at segregation both within and between school districts. According to the report, Long Island has some of the most segregated schools in the country, ranking 10th in the nation in residential segregation between blacks and whites.
“I knew how bad segregation was on Long Island — it’s something that we’ve been writing about for a long time,” said Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index. “It was kind of obvious that it was going to be bad when you look at the number of school districts we have and how they mirror the housing patterns on Long Island. But what I didn’t know, and this is what threw me, is how much worse we were than the nation as a whole. I knew we were bad, but when Professor Ready was able to quantify those numbers to show how we compared to the rest of the United States, in particular Nassau County, I was kind of floored.”
The method of quantification used in the study is known as Theil’s H, which, according the report, indicates the extent to which racial or ethnic groups are distributed in schools. The value ranges from 0 to 1, where 0 is a perfectly balanced racial or ethnic makeup and 1 is perfectly segregated.
According to the report, segregation between Long Island districts with multiple elementary schools hovers around 0.5 on the scale, which means that segregation between districts is roughly 50 percent higher than segregation within districts.
The report found that segregation within school districts measured less than 0.1 on the Theil scale. “What it means is that there are some districts, in Nassau especially, that are 90 percent black,” said Ready. “… [Y]ou can’t have much segregation in a system that’s 90 percent black.”
Of the 190 Long Island schools Ready used in his analysis, 13 had enrollments that at least 50 percent black. And nine of those 13 schools were in just three districts — Baldwin, Elmont and Roosevelt.
In Nassau County, the quantifier for black/white segregation jumps to almost 0.7 on the Theil scale, compared with the national average of between 0.21 and 0.25.
The cause, Golob believes, is rather obvious: Long Island’s school district boundaries so closely mimic its already segregated neighborhoods.
“We could be residentially segregated, but if, for example, we had fewer school districts that crossed the residentially segregated communities, your school wouldn’t necessarily have to be racially segregated,” said Elaine Gross, the president and CEO of Erase Racism, a Syosset–based organization. “The students who might live in neighborhoods that were residentially segregated would be going to the same school.”
Ready could not say whether larger school districts would be the answer to Nassau County’s pronounced segregation, but there is data to support that idea, he said. “When you have one [large] school system, the neighborhood you choose to live in is not determinate of what school system you go to,” said Ready. “But in Nassau County, if you move half a mile in any direction, you could be in one of three school systems. They call it ‘municipal fragmentation.’ And when you have that, you’re more likely to get segregation because the housing markets across school systems can hyper-fragment.
“You can say in places that have less fragmentation, there is less segregation,” he added. “Would it be a magic bullet for Nassau? Who knows. But there have been lots of studies, and in places that have less fragmentation, there’s less segregation.”
One way to ease the problem, according to the L.I. Index, would be the creation of magnet schools, along the lines of what BOCES provides — facilities where all students, regardless of their community or district, could go and receive a quality education. “Something like that, where you’re beginning to break down the walls of these districts,” said Golob.
But as difficult as it may be, Gross believes that the long-term answer lies in consolidating some of Long Island’s school districts. “There doesn’t seem to be any real logic for maintaining the 125 districts that we have,” she said. “And I hope that — as more people recognize that we really need to do something, and are willing to take on the difficult conversation and to do it in a way that’s systematic and not just an emotional conversation — we stand a chance. We stand a chance of maybe making some headway here.”