Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

As Other Districts Grapple With Segregation, This One Makes Integration Work

BRYAN THOMAS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

From the New York Times:

MORRISTOWN, N.J. — When the morning rush begins at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School here, students lugging oversize backpacks and fluorescent-colored lunchboxes emerge from the school buses that roll in, one after another, for 15 minutes. By the time it ends, children from some of this area’s most privileged enclaves, and from some of its poorest, file through the front doors to begin their day together.

The Morris School District was created in 1971, after a state court decision led to the merger of two Northern New Jersey communities — the mostly white suburbs of Morris Township, and the racially mixed urban hub of Morristown — into one school district for the purpose of maintaining racial and economic balance.

The 5,226-student district is one of the few in the country created through such a merger as part of a court-ordered integration effort, and one of even fewer that still endure. Even as communities around the country have been debating how to address school segregation, with some proposals for integration meeting fierce opposition, a new report from the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, calls Morris a model of “diversity and togetherness.”

Paul Tractenberg, a professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School and the president of the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education, who co-wrote the Century Foundation report, says the district has a “remarkable can-do attitude” that has allowed officials to continuously “rejigger what they are doing to accommodate the demands of the moment.”

The Morris district is notable in that it has long been committed to diversity, even as the composition of its student body has changed. Meanwhile, schools nearby and in New York City have remained deeply segregated.

That doesn’t mean this district’s history has been free of struggle. Over the years, parts of Morristown have gentrified, pushing out middle- and low-income black families. At the same time, a wave of poor Hispanic immigrants from Colombia, Honduras and El Salvador has arrived, many of them fleeing debilitating poverty and the terror of gang warfare. In the last 15 years, the district’s African-American student population has fallen by 33 percent, to 546 students in the 2015-16 school year from 815 in 2001. In turn, the district’s Hispanic population has jumped by nearly 87 percent, to 1,698 in 2015-16 from 909 in 2001; children learning English now make up 11 percent of the Morris student body.

The district is hiring Spanish-speaking teachers. It recently appointed a part-time outreach director. It is adding dozens of bilingual classrooms, investing in translation headsets for school and districtwide meetings, and creating a Spanish-speaking arm of the parent-teacher association at some schools. A longstanding community center and local churches that used to work closely with the district to serve struggling African-American students are now mostly serving students from Central and South America, tutoring them, reading to them in English and sometimes feeding them breakfast and dinner.

Read this article in its entirety at the New York Times