While the judge considers the school segregation case, lawmakers consider possible solutions

When Kelly Ribeiro switched schools, she saw the biggest difference in how people reacted to the Brazilian cuisine her mother packed for her lunch.

At Roosevelt Middle School in Lyndhurst, the kids made fun of her because her food smelled or teased her about her looks. She asked her mother to pack sandwiches so she wouldn’t feel like an outcast.

But once she began attending Bergen County Technical High School, she said the reaction was the opposite. At first she was hesitant to bring the meals she usually eats at home, but students at this Teterboro magnet school praised her lunch. Ribeiro points out the difference to a lack of diversity in Roosevelt, which led to a lack of respect for others.

“I don’t want anyone to call me weird because of my lunch, and it’s just a completely different environment at this school,” she said.

Lyndhurst’s population is nearly 80% White, while residents are Black 2%, Asian 7% and Latino 20%. according to census data. The data shows that the school is also predominantly white, with approximately 30% Hispanic students. Ribeiro’s class had only a handful of Latino students, she said.

But Bergen County Technical High School draws students from across the 246-square-mile county and brings together people from different cities, backgrounds, and families with different incomes. At Bergen Tech, approximately 40% of the students are white, nearly 30% are Asian, 8% are black, and 19% are Hispanic.

“It feels really good to see a more diverse background because everyone has respect for one another. I have a more diverse circle of friends, I am accepted by the teachers. It’s a great group to be a part of,” she said.

More students could soon experience this kind of diversity in their schools if a lawsuit alleging that schools in New Jersey are unconstitutionally segregated is successful. The lawsuit, filed in 2018, cites a study that ranks New Jersey as the sixth-worst for black students and seventh-worst for Latino students, despite the state’s diversity.

“This lawsuit is extremely important because it is at the root of so many problems that black people and Latinos face,” said Jessely De La Cruz, executive director of the plaintiff Latino Action Network. “We don’t have a workforce that looks like us and that’s able to meet our needs, and that’s in large part because the educational qualification is very difficult. Now we need to figure out what is part of that solution.”

Officials are awaiting a decision from Superior Court Judge Robert Loughy, who heard arguments in court on March 3. It is not known when he will publish his decision. Experts say it could take months.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are wondering what an overhaul of New Jersey’s education system — home to nearly 600 districts — might look like.

Legislative committees have held public hearings, inviting school administrators, teachers, and school staff to consider what solutions might look like in the Garden State. And guests aren’t short of suggestions: charter schools, magnet schools, regional schools, higher teacher salaries, attracting more staff of color, and removing the zip code limit that forces children to attend public schools in the cities where they live.

Senator Joe Cryan said magnet schools sounded attractive as a remedy for school segregation, but school choice could help with district bonding. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

State Senator Joe Cryan introduced a bill that would create an office to investigate desegregation of schools within the Department of Education. He wants lawmakers to lay the groundwork for school desegregation before the judge’s decision is made public, he said.

“We’re not looking for yellow buses in the morning to take the kids around. We want to offer opportunities that are better than what is currently available, expand our resources and increase demand,” said Cryan (D-Union). “How we do it is a lot easier said than done.”

It will be an expensive and protracted battle when it comes to that, said Bruce Douglas, a former Hartford, Connecticut school administrator who led the transformation of that city’s school system when the Connecticut Supreme Court found that schools named after Sheff v O’Neill in 1996.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit or possible remedies.

“Learning in a diverse classroom environment is critical to the education of every child in New Jersey. With actions like our investments to expand preschool education for all children, our investments in housing and communities, and the creation of the Wealth Inequality Task Force, this administration is fully committed to that goal,” said Alyana Alfaro, spokeswoman for Murphy.

What magnet schools in NJ might look like

During his freshman year, Bruce Douglas taught at a school in Bloomfield, Connecticut, where the school system’s mission was to be as inclusive as possible. He said he loves watching kids come together and learn about each other’s cultures.

After working his way up to superintendent, he was asked to head the Capitol Region Board of Education, where he focused on developing magnet schools to integrate Hartford as part of the Sheff v. O’Neill decision.

His plan focused on how students would achieve justice in different schools. This included recruiting the best teachers and modernizing school buildings to attract children from both suburban and urban districts.

“There was immense suffering in Hartford, especially for African American and Hispanic students. Then these students were in schools and they were under-supervised, and that really showed this failure of what was happening in public education,” he said. “In the end it had to be about the students.”

Over the course of nearly two decades, Douglas oversaw the construction of 18 magnet schools across the capital region, which have been acclaimed for improving educational opportunities for thousands of students. The schools offered focused academic courses, internship programs and mentoring.

“A lot of students went to colleges that they wouldn’t have gone to otherwise,” he said. “I know many students who showed up traumatized in first or second grade, who are now doing great things. The schools have been very successful because of the zeal of the children.”

New Jersey already has some magnet schools, such as Bergen County School, which Riveria attends. She is studying law there and wants to study after high school. It’s a lot different than the opportunity she would have been offered at Lyndhurst, she said.

“I don’t think I would have been that aware of what’s going on in the world. Teachers are constantly changing our curriculum to demonstrate what’s going on, like we’re in the middle of learning about the Great Depression and then talking about Ukraine for a few days,” she said. “So I don’t think I would have been as aware or as respectful of other people’s situations, and that’s really important as we grow up and get into the field of work.”

Jordan Victor Wallace feels the same about the magnet school he attends, Science Park in Newark. He was one of three black students in his class at Abington Elementary, the public school closest to his home in the city’s North Ward. The area is a heavily Hispanic part of town, and almost 90% of the students are Latino.

While Wallace made some friends, he recalled feeling constantly bullied because of the color of his skin. The students switched the conversations to Spanish to make him feel left out, he said.

When the 17-year-old started at Science Park in 2018, it was the first time he was surrounded by people from different backgrounds, he said. He noted that even in a diverse school, cliques exist and students tend to be attracted to other children of similar cultures. But there’s a level of respect he never experienced at his old school, he said.

“The biggest debate at my old school was saying the N-word, what kind of jokes they would make, the casual racism. You go to school with these people and none of them look like you,” Wallace said. “There are still microaggressions that I have to deal with now, but you can find your own space with your own people.”

Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education at Penn State University, said social interaction is one of the most important parts of school integration. As kids go to school to get an education, they also acquire “soft skills” that aren’t typically discussed, she said, and that are critical to their growth.

“I wonder with New Jersey if it’s an ideal place to do that as long as it’s part of a larger, broader strategy,” she said. “I think it’s important to get the process right so that it’s a sustainable solution that works for the community and all the students that are part of the cure.”

She mentioned school choice as another option for a densely populated state like New Jersey, where a child may live closer to a school in a neighboring city than their own. This might be easier to implement as lawmakers could simply remove county boundaries.

Frankenberg added that this may not fully address the problem of schools with biased racial makeup.

How it might play out in Trenton

Experts can’t name a cost of what an integration plan would look like. No one knows if new buildings will be built, how bus contracts work, and how long it might take for the plan to come to fruition.

In Hartford and surrounding cities — about 40 school districts — the plan cost $3 billion in the 1990s. But Douglas has said officials in Connecticut haven’t spent enough money.

“It was a nasty political fight,” he said. “There was a lot of frustration, resistance, complaining, that’s always there.”

Some of the biggest political problems revolved around money — building schools, funding repairs and paying teachers, he said. State officials were initially reluctant, he said, but eventually the program proved a success.

Sen. Cryan said he’s still listening to advocates for what might be the best solution in New Jersey. Magnet schools sound appealing, he said, but school choice could help with district retention.

“As cheesy as it sounds, that’s what these hearings are for. Then we have to analyze and analyze and see if we’re providing fair choices in all schools,” he said. “I’ve heard some really interesting options that I think are plausible. They are easy to say and difficult to implement.”

Frankberg suggested lawmakers consider ways to link efforts to desegregate schools with housing initiatives, such as B. offering housing vouchers for changing districts.

Douglas had another idea.

“Let’s say we’ll build you a soccer field if you integrate your school system. We will add an agricultural wing to this school,” he said. “Then the city has a financial incentive for integration and there are also higher requirements for academic achievements.”


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