By Jaimie Julia Winters
In 1977, the Montclair school district moved away from the neighborhood school model and instead chose the choice system. Forty-one years later, the district is being lauded for its diversity among the student population throughout its district. A report by the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education released last week concluded Montclair stands as a model system for its success in integration throughout the district.
However, one of the authors of that report, Paul Tractenberg, says the district needs to go further by integration in classrooms and within programs.
”Montclair is light years ahead of many districts when it comes to diversity in the schools,” Tractenberg said. “The remaining frontier is to stop closing its doors to minority opportunities such as in AP and honors classes and tracking.”
The report, entitled “The New Promise of School Integration and the Old Problem of Extreme Segregation: An Action Plan for New Jersey to Address Both,” found that around a quarter of New Jersey’s districts are segregated, while about 25 percent, including Montclair, are rated as diverse.
Districts such as Newark were found to be highly disproportional with almost a zero-percent white student population, while Fairfield was found to have a zero-percent black population, although 10 percent were Hispanic.
Diversity is strong among the 6,658 Montclair students, 50 percent of which are white, 26 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 5.6 percent Asian. But its move away from neighborhood schools to the choice system has created diversity in all its schools.
Edgemont scored as “highly proportional,” meaning that less than 10 percent would need to be exchanged with students of a different race in order to achieve optimal diversity, while the rest of the schools rated as “somewhat proportional,” meaning 10 to 25 percent would need to be exchanged with students of a different race.
The district’s schools ranged from a low of 44 percent white student population (Hillside School) to a high of 61 percent (Bradford). Black student populations varied from a low of 15 percent (Bradford) to a high of 33 percent (Hillside). The highest Hispanic population was found at Edgemont (18 percent), while the lowest was at Bradford (8.5 percent). The highest proportion of Asian students was at Bradford (8.5 percent), while the lowest was at Nishuane (2.6 percent).
Poverty rates in Montclair ranged from 4 percent at Watchung to 20 percent at Charles Bullock.
Montclair’s graduation rate was at 92 percent, with a 0.2 percent dropout rate.
By the numbers
• Edgemont rated as highly proportional with eight percent Asian, 18 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 46 percent white.
• Hillside rated as somewhat proportional with four percent Asian, 33 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic and 44 percent white.
• Nishuane rated as somewhat proportional with 2.6 percent Asian, 28 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 49 percent white.
• Renaissance Middle School rated as somewhat proportional with 7.5 percent Asian, 21 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 55 percent white.
• Northeast rated as somewhat proportional with 5.5 percent Asian, 16 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 57 percent white.
• Buzz Aldrin rated as somewhat proportional with 5.7 percent Asian, 27 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 50 percent white.
• Bradford rated as somewhat proportional with 8.5 percent Asian, 15 percent black, 8.5 percent Hispanic and 61 percent white.
• Watchung rated as somewhat proportional with 7.5 percent Asian, 19 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 56 percent white.
• Charles Bullock rated as somewhat proportional with four percent Asian, 27 percent black, 12.5 percent Hispanic and 50 percent white.
• Glenfield Middle School rated as somewhat proportional with 4 percent Asian, 27 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic and 52 percent white.
• Montclair High School rated as somewhat proportional with 6 percent Asian, 31 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 48 percent white.
Pros of a diverse school
According to the Center for American Progress, integration is the key to giving students equal opportunities to education. Too many racially and economically isolated schools fail to serve students well. Schools that primarily serve low-income students of color often have poor curricular offerings, few extracurricular and enrichment activities and too many inexperienced teachers. The prevalence of isolated, segregated, low-performing public schools is the most powerful driver of the persistent educational opportunity gap, according to the center.
On the flip side, integrated schools also benefit white students. According to the National Coalition for School Diversity, benefits include more robust classroom discussions and the promotion of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“Compared to racially isolated educational settings, racially integrated schools are associated with reduced prejudice among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a diminished likelihood of stereotyping, more friendships across racial lines and higher levels of cultural competence. Each of these outcomes are crucial components of white students’—indeed, all students’—preparation for an increasingly diverse society,” writes Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of the National Coalition for School Diversity.
She points to the $200 to $300 million spent each year by U.S. companies providing diversity training because too few of their employees are prepared to work with people who come from different racial, economic or cultural backgrounds.
New Jersey schools continue to be among the most segregated in the nation, said Ryan Coughlan, a faculty member at CUNY’s Guttman Community College and co-author of the report.
In New Jersey, extreme segregation exists in approximately 25 percent of the school districts. They are mostly urban districts where Black and Hispanic students, many of them low-income, go daily to intensely segregated schools, where the population of white students is below 10 percent.
The Mount Laurel ruling played a large role in creating diverse communities by mandating affordable housing be dispersed throughout towns with all new development. Local municipalities also had an important role in the diversity of their communities by embracing affordable housing with continued development. In Montclair, new amendments to its land-use regulations reiterate the town’s commitment to creating 20 percent low and moderate income housing within each new development.
Realtors and real estate developers play a powerful role in shaping local communities for better or worse in terms of their diversity, said Coughlan.
“There are formidable obstacles to the achievement of community or neighborhood diversity, which relate to factors such as racially identifiable income inequality, differences in the cost of available housing by municipality or neighborhood, and the reality that some people simply prefer what they perceive as the comfort of living in communities or neighborhoods populated by people who are like them in terms of country of origin, culture and native language,” Coughlan said. “These communities have to be places where residents want to continue living because they offer something special and valuable. It is no accident that communities like Montclair and Morristown, especially, have made themselves into ‘happening’ places in terms of cultural, recreational, social and culinary opportunities.”
William Scott, co-chair of the housing commission, recalled going to Hillside School in the 1950s when the school was predominately African-American. He said Montclair’s magnet system has worked to integrate the district, but he pointed to Montclair’s four wards as segregation still existing within the community.
Although Essex is a relatively diverse county by overall population, it continues to lag in integration within its schools, according to the report. Of the county’s 21 regular school districts, the four urban districts include three apartheid districts—East Orange, Irvington and Orange—and one intensely segregated district, Newark. The county also has one white isolated district—North Caldwell—and 10 others close to that status, eight of which have at least 75 percent white students.
“Montclair and South Orange-Maplewood are on everyone’s short list of New Jersey school districts diverse by choice of the local communities,” Tractenberg said.
If a school district is already diverse at the district level, such as in Montclair, the next diversity challenge is at the school level, especially within elementary schools and departing from a strict neighborhood school approach.
True integration takes in not only the makeup of the school population, but also the opportunities afforded to each student. Tractenberg believes in a system where students are placed in AP and honor classes based on drive and want, not grades and standardized tests, and in teachers who are aware of a multicultural society and passes that on through the curriculum in the classroom.
In 1977, Montclair’s “choice” system was implemented originally as a voluntary desegregation plan. Beginning with only two magnet programs, the plan has grown and now includes all schools.
In September 1977, the district’s first magnet schools opened with a gifted and talented program to draw white students to a school with a predominance of students of color. A fundamental back-to-basics program also opened to draw students of color to a predominately white school.
In 2010, a new student enrollment/assignment-by-zone policy was approved by the board of education. Under the plan, the township was divided into three zones, labeled Zone A, Zone B and Zone C. Students are now assigned to zones based on census data, including household income and Title 1 status (eligibility for free or reduced lunch). Students from all three zones are represented in each school.
Today, parents and students visit each school. When parents register their children for elementary school at the district’s central office, they must list their ranking of schools. A computerized system randomly assigns students with a number, according to zones, with ranking of parental preference of elementary and middle schools. Students are assigned to schools from the database, based on school enrollment/spaces/slots.
Scott said although the district may be integrated, after 3 p.m. the children go home to their own communities, which still reflect different demographics based on race and economics.
“There’s still two Montclairs. The next Census will be interesting, we may see a greater divide in Montclair,” Scott said.