As judge mulls school segregation case, lawmakers look at potential solutions

The biggest difference Kelly Ribeiro saw when she switched schools was how people reacted to the Brazilian cuisine her mom packed for her lunch.

At Roosevelt Middle School in Lyndhurst, kids would make fun of her for the way her food smelled or tease her for the way it looked. She asked her mom to pack sandwiches so she wouldn’t feel like an outcast.

But when 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 typically eats at home, but students at this magnet school in Teterboro complimented her lunches. Ribeiro cites the difference to a lack of diversity in Roosevelt that led to a lack of respect for others.

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

Lyndhurst’s population is nearly 80% white, while Black residents make up 2%, Asians 7% and Latinos 20%, according to census data. Data shows the school is also majority white, with about 30% Hispanic students. Ribeiro’s grade only had a handful of Latino students, she said.

But Bergen County Technical High School attracts students from across the 246-square-mile county, bringing together people from different towns and backgrounds and from families with varying incomes. At Bergen Tech, about 40% of 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 each other. I have a more diverse friend group, I’m accepted by the teachers. It’s a great group to be in,” she said.

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

“This lawsuit is super important because it’s at the root of so many issues Black and Latino people have,” said Jesselly De La Cruz, executive director of plaintiff Latino Action Network. “We don’t have a workforce that looks like us and that’s able to meet our needs, and a lot of that is because educational attainment is very difficult. Now we need to find what is part of that solution.”

Officials are waiting for a decision from Superior Court Judge Robert Loughy, who heard arguments in court on March 3. It’s unknown when he’ll release his decision. Experts say it could take months.

In the meantime, lawmakers are confronting what an overhaul of New Jersey’s educational system — home to nearly 600 districts — could look like.

Legislative committees have held public hearings, inviting school administrators, teachers, and school staff to weigh in on what solutions could look like in the Garden State. And the guests come with no shortage of suggestions: charter schools, magnet schools, regional schools, increasing pay for teachers, attracting more staff of color, and removing the zip code boundary that forces kids to attend public schools in the towns where they live.

Sen. Joe Cryan said magnet schools sound appealing as a remedy for school segregation, but school choice could help with district retention. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

State Sen. Joe Cryan introduced a bill that would create an office to study school desegregation within the Department of Education. He wants the Legislature to lay down the groundwork for school desegregation before the judge’s decision is released, he said.

“We’re not looking for yellow buses tomorrow morning to start shipping kids around. We’re looking to provide opportunities that are better than what’s available now, expand our resources and expand the demand,” said Cryan (D-Union). “How we do that is much easier said than done.”

It’s going to be an expensive and drawn-out fight if it happens, said Bruce Douglas, a former school administrator from Hartford, Connecticut, who led the revamping of that city’s school system when the Connecticut Supreme Court found schools needed to integrate after Sheff v . O’Neill in 1996.

gov. Phil Murphy’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit or any potential remedies.

“Learning in a diverse classroom environment is critical for the education of every child in New Jersey. With actions such as our investments to expand preschool education for all children, our investments in housing and communities, and the creation of the wealth disparity task force, this administration is fully committed to that end,” Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said.

What magnet schools could look like in NJ

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

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

His plan centered around how students would achieve equity in different schools. That included recruiting the best teachers and updating school buildings to attract kids from both suburban and urban districts.

“There was immense suffering in Hartford, especially for African-American and Latino students. Then these students were in schools, suffering from inadequate care, and it really showed this failure of what was happening in public education,” he said. “Ultimately, this had to be about the students.”

Over the course of nearly two decades, Douglas oversaw the building of 18 magnet schools spread throughout the Capital Region, which was praised for improving the educational opportunities of thousands of students. The schools offered focused academic courses, internship programs, and mentoring.

“A lot of students went to colleges they never would’ve gone to otherwise,” he said. “I know many students who were traumatized showing up in first or second grades, who are now doing great things. The schools were very successful because of the eagerness children had.”

Some magnet schools already exist in New Jersey, like the Bergen County school Riveria attends. There, she studies law and plans to go to college after graduating. It’s much different from the opportunity she would’ve been afforded at Lyndhurst, she said.

“I don’t think I would’ve been so aware of what’s going on in the world. The teachers are constantly shifting our curriculum to demonstrate what’s going on, like we’ll be in the middle of learning about the Great Depression and then talk about Ukraine for a couple of days,” she said. “So I don’t think I would’ve been as aware or as respectful of other people’s situations, and that’s really important as we grow up and go into the work field.”

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

While Wallace made some friends, he recalled feeling constantly bullied over his skin color. Students switched conversations to Spanish so he’d feel excluded, he said.

When the 17-year-old started at Science Park in 2018, it was his first time being surrounded by people of different backgrounds, he said. He noted that even in a diverse school, cliques exist and students tend to gravitate toward other kids of similar cultures. But there’s a level of respect he never witnessed 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,” said Wallace. “There’s still microaggressions 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 pieces of school integration. While kids go to school to get an education, they also gain “soft skills” that aren’t usually discussed, she said, and those are crucial to their growth.

“The thing I wonder about New Jersey is if it’s an ideal place for this to succeed, as long as it’s part of a larger comprehensive strategy,” she said. “I think it’s important to get the process right so it’s a sustainable solution that works for the community and any students who are part of the remedy.”

She mentioned school choice as another option for a dense state like New Jersey, where a child might live closer to a school in a neighboring town than one in their own. This could be easier to implement since lawmakers could simply remove district boundaries.

Frankenberg added this may not completely address the issue of schools with lopsided racial makeup.

How it could go down in Trenton

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

In Hartford and its surrounding towns — roughly 40 school districts — the plan cost $3 billion in the 1990s. But Douglas has said officials in Connecticut did not spend enough money.

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

Some of the biggest political issues revolved around money — building schools, funding repairs, and paying teachers, he said. State officials dragged their feet at the start, he said, but eventually the program proved to be a success.

Sen. Cryan said he’s still listening to advocates on what could 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’re going to have to analyze and analyze and look at whether we are providing fair choices in all schools,” he said. “I’ve heard some really interesting options that I think are plausible. They’re easy to say and hard to implement.”

Frankberg suggested lawmakers consider ways to partner school desegregation efforts with housing initiatives, like offering housing vouchers for switching districts.

Douglas had a different idea.

“Say, we’ll build you a football field when you integrate your school system. We’ll add an agricultural wing to this school,” he said. “Then the town has a financial incentive to integrate, and you’re also setting higher standards for student achievement.”

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