In The Age of Gentrification, What Constitutes A “Good School”? How To Make Education Colorblind

By Jeff Vasishta August 17, 2016

Gentrification. Perhaps the most contentious issue in real estate today. Mention the word in some circles and the room will go as silent as a Trump rally in Park Slope. But long-term home owners don’t always grimace at the word. Some actually welcome it. After living for years in urban blight, an influx of affluent neighbors and soaring home prices can be like a balm to some chaffed psyches. Even many minority residents will tell you, change isn’t always a bad thing. Especially when it comes to schools.

RelatedBirth of a Brooklyn Nation: How the Gentrified Nabe Went From Grit to Glitz

The Academy of Arts and Letters, a small K-8 school in Brooklyn was founded in 2006. It was part of the Education Department’s initiative to create a racial and socioeconomic balance at schools in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods. Initially, the charted school was more than 90 percent black and Hispanic and it reflected the Brooklyn neighborhoods around it—Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Fort Green. More than 80 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch. But in the early 2000’s the neighborhoods started to change.  In Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Fort Green, the white population rose 120 percent from 2000 to 2010. At the same time, the black population fell by 30 percent, according to the Center for Urban Research. While this extreme demographic shift took place, The Academy of Arts and Letters gained a reputation for its humanities, science and arts lab— and so it became a hot commodity. Now half of its kindergarteners are white and its demand has sky rocketed.

John O’Reilly, Principle at Arts and Letters told the New York Times recently, “I love the fact that so many white affluent families would want to send their children to my school, but I know the impact it has on the diversity.”

In New York City in 2016, 38 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 36.4 percent passed the math tests. At Success charter schools, including the majority black and Latino Harlem school, the corresponding results were 82 percent and 94 percent. Clearly minority schools can succeed academically.

“Performance is closely linked to a student’s socio-economic level,” says Ted Hamilton, Work Based Learning Coordinator at the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Minority parents like their kids going to school with white kids and in elementary school it’s all about where you’re zoned. Middle school and high school in New York City are a different animal. In some respects, they’re are insulated from gentrification because you can choose where you want to go. Great schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant are based purely on testing. Some Manhattan schools like MLK or Washington Irving don’t have a lot of local kids because parents who can afford to live near Union Square or Lincoln Center don’t send their kids to public school.”

Inevitably, many parents, including minority residents in gentrifying neighborhoods, welcome gentrification. Increased property prices and greater taxes mean better equipped local schools. Given a choice, most parents, regardless of color, want to send their children to the best performing schools they can. And usually that happens to be schools that lack diversity.

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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