Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens

“We noticed that, and honestly, to us it was less appealing,” Ms. Shneyer said.

She went to public school in District 3, at P.S. 75, the Emily Dickinson School, on West End Avenue between 95th and 96th Streets. Less than a fifth of the students were white, a percentage that hasn’t changed much over time. She went on to the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s most selective high schools.

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Elana Shneyer with her son at their home in Manhattan. She included P.S. 165 among her son’s school choices.

Credit
Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

“I think public school shaped me in a lot of ways — that I feel like I can relate and talk to and be with people who are different from me racially, economically, socially,” Ms. Shneyer said. “It was very valuable in that way.”

A look at the history of District 3, which stretches along the West Side of Manhattan from 59th to 122nd Street, shows how administrators’ decisions, combined with the choices of parents and the forces of gentrification, have shaped the current state of its schools, which, in one of the most politically liberal parts of a liberal city, remain sharply divided by race and income, and just as sharply divergent in their levels of academic achievement.

In 1984, two years before Ms. Shneyer started kindergarten, less than 8 percent of the district’s 12,321 elementary and middle school students were white. Not a single school was majority white, and the only school where white students made up the biggest group was P.S. 87 on West 78th Street. At the time, many white parents would not even consider their zoned schools. James Mazza, who served as deputy superintendent, and then superintendent of the district, from 1988 to 1997, recalled in an interview that parents would sometimes come into his office carrying a newspaper with the test scores of every school in the district and explain that they didn’t want to go to their zoned school because of its place on the list. Though scores are often used as a shorthand for quality, they correlate closely with the socioeconomic level of the children in a school.

“We tried to encourage people to make the decision about what school to attend based on more information than test-score results,” Mr. Mazza said, adding that that was often difficult. So the district pursued another strategy for attracting white, middle-class families: adding gifted classrooms, dual-language programs and schools that were open to all students from around the district.

Thanks to these options, more white families began sending their children to District 3 elementary and middle schools. Today, over a third of the roughly 14,000 elementary and middle school students in District 3 are white. But they are unevenly…

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