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



DEC. 12, 2016

Darren D’Alconzo’s fifth-grade class at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, in the Morris School District.


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.

Many of the district’s white parents, mostly college-educated professionals whose children still account for a majority of the student body, say they are committed to these efforts.

“I came here because I loved the diversity,” said Liz Szporn, the mother of third- and fifth-graders at Alexander Hamilton.

But the praise is not universal. Some parents — both black and white — complain that the district is too ready to help its struggling Spanish speakers at the expense of their English-speaking peers. Local taxpayers have grumbled that their money is increasingly going to students who are here illegally. And a disproportionate number of the district’s well-to-do families are sending their children to private schools.

“We are doing the best we can,” said Mackey Pendergrast, the Morris superintendent, who arrived here two years ago. “But the challenges keep coming.”

Recently, Mr. Pendergrast, in a dark suit and a starched oxford shirt, stood outside an Advanced Placement biology class at the 1,855-student Morristown High School. Inside, a gaggle of mostly white students were finishing up a short biology quiz on cell membranes.

Next door, in a bilingual algebra class, 18 Spanish-speaking students, some of whom had only recently arrived in the country, were working on a review packet. Mr. Pendergrast says the district has welcomed 102 Spanish-speaking students since August, some of them unaccompanied minors who have not been to school in years; 73 students have left in an attendance churn that is becoming increasingly common here.

The teacher in the bilingual class stopped at the desk of a girl with ash brown hair whose hand had been raised. The girl pointed to the word “quotient” and looked up quizzically.

“That means divide,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

By Court Order

Alexander Hamilton, a three-story brick building with a series of imposing Corinthian columns gracing its front entrance, educates 309 students in third through fifth grades, part of New Jersey’s split elementary school system.

Near the school, in a series of modest clapboard homes, newly arrived Latino residents are packed in, sometimes four or five families to a house. Up the hill, meticulously restored Victorians and Georgian-style homes offer a nod to the town’s past. George Washington had headquarters here, and Alexander Hamilton was said to have spent time here in the late 1700s.

The 1971 court ruling that created the district was the result of a lawsuit filed by a group of area residents after Morris Township declared that it was going to build a high school of its own, pulling its students out of Morristown High, which the two municipalities had shared up until then with two other mostly white suburban communities. That would have created racially separate districts, at least one wealthy white one in the suburbs, and, very likely, a poorer and mostly black one in Morristown.

The State Supreme Court ruled that allowing the move would violate New Jersey’s Constitution and an earlier decision that called for communities to take “reasonably feasible steps” to create racial balance in schools.

The state education commissioner, Carl Marburger, was charged with creating a plan that would prevent segregation. A new school board was put in place to merge the two communities into a single K-12 district.

The process was protracted and painful, according to an October 1973 article in The New York Times. Many parents resisted. Racial unrest at the high school led it to close for a week. And when the time came to reappoint the state commissioner, detractors in the State Senate blocked his rehiring, denouncing him for his efforts to support racial integration through busing. That backlash, it is widely believed, discouraged the creation of similar districts, despite the state constitutional protection against segregation.

Today, Mr. Tractenberg said, New Jersey has one of the strongest laws against segregation, but at the same time has some of the most segregated schools in the country.

Despite this, the details and intent of the Morris plan live on. Each of the district’s elementary schools draws from a variety of neighborhoods, many of them heavily segregated. And while school zoning maps have been revised over the years as neighborhoods have changed, an open zone in the center of the district, where the region’s poorest families reside, has remained a constant.

Within it, students are not attached to any specific school by zoning map, but rather are assigned by district officials intent on helping maintain each school’s racial and economic mix. These students fan out across the district every morning, in some cases to schools in far richer neighborhoods.

No school in the district is predominantly one ethnic or racial group. No one group is isolated. And at the high school level, neighboring Morris Plains, one of the region’s richest communities, also funnels its students into the school. Today, the district is 51 percent white, 34 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black and 5 percent Asian, and each school loosely mirrors those proportions. Classrooms in the elementary schools are also carefully calibrated for diversity. With the exception of the district’s increasing numbers of bilingual classrooms, a representative spread prevails.

During map study on a recent afternoon in Darren D’Alconzo’s fifth-grade classroom at Alexander Hamilton, the diversity manifested itself: A student born at Morristown Medical Center watched as other students pointed to faraway spots on small, plastic globes to show where their families originated — Jamaica, Honduras, Mexico.

Class Divisions

During math period in Mr. D’Alconzo’s class, he ushered a group of students, including a boy from Peru and one from El Salvador, to the front of the room for a lesson on exponential notation. Students at other math levels stayed at their desks working on problems in their textbooks and on laptops.

Some students “are a year ahead and some are two and a half years behind,” said Mr. D’Alconzo; in some classrooms the divide is even greater.

For that reason, the district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on software programs and laptops that allow students to work at their own pace.

 “This is the best way for me to teach them all,” he said.

Writing 10 times 10 times 10 on the board, Mr. D’Alconzo asked Carlos, a boy in blue basketball shorts, to guess the exponential form. When Carlos scribbled 10^3 on the small whiteboard in his lap, Mr. D’Alconzo fist-bumped him and said, “Yes, you’re the best!” Then he moved on to the next child in the cluster. Eventually he dismissed the group and retrieved another, until he had worked with all three groups in the class.

The groups, teachers say, tend to correspond with the children’s socioeconomic class, with poorer students clustered in low-performing groups and wealthier children in accelerated ones. This is partially a function of English-language skills, although the district works hard to determine when a student’s skill level, particularly in math, is cloaked by lack of language proficiency. The attention to these details is part of the district’s obsession with struggling learners. Administrators keep careful track of who is moving up, and who is stagnating, through a near-constant checking of the district’s online, color-coded assessment charts — green for those above grade level, red for others two to three grade levels below. When a classroom looks to be saddled with a disproportionate number of struggling students, roaming teachers drop in to work individually with them.

Kelly Harte, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, says “staying ahead of the tidal wave of poverty” is her biggest challenge.

The demands are acute. Shortly before a back-to-school meeting earlier this month, close to 40 Spanish-speaking parents — mechanics, restaurant dishwashers and day laborers, many of whom work two and three jobs — piled into Alexander Hamilton’s first-floor library. The school’s principal at the time, Josephine Noone, who speaks Spanish and was promoted over the summer to curriculum and instruction director for the district, told families about student homework folders and parent-teacher conferences, which now include in-room translators for those who sign up. One parent wanted to know how to contact the school. A discussion about the district’s new Spanish-language voice mail system ensued.

Alex Riano, a 52-year-old handyman from Bogota, Colombia, who has three children in the district, helped start the Spanish-speaking arm of the parent-teacher association because he said many of the immigrant parents didn’t know what was going on.

Once the school’s English-speaking parents arrived, the meeting moved to the auditorium. Spanish-speaking parents were given translation headsets. A volunteer sitting at the back of the auditorium offered a running translation of the meeting.

Opting Out

Countless studies have shown that both lower-and upper-income students experience widespread benefits as a result of economic and racial integration.

But not all parents in the district are convinced. Some families of students with learning challenges, and those who believe their children would benefit from more one-on-one attention, complain that the district is too focused on children still learning English. Holly L. Blumenstyk, a Morristown learning specialist and private school consultant, says many of these parents are turning to independent schools because they want their children’s academic needs to be met “more robustly.”

Whether some families opt out because of the schools’ racial mix is hard to answer, but data suggests that they are choosing private school at a higher rate than their counterparts in the rest of the state. According to the 2014 American Community Survey, more than 14 percent of the district’s high school students and slightly more than 12 percent of its K-8 students go to private schools, well above the state average of 11.4 percent for high schoolers and 10.6 percent for K-8 students. In wealthier Morris Township, 22 percent of high schoolers attend private school.

Leonard Posey, who is president of the school board and is black, says the district works actively to prevent “white flight” by offering appealing programs. It recently finished renovation on a 24,000-square-foot technology wing at the high school. The school also houses the district’s STEM academy, a highly competitive four-year science and math program, long a feeder to Ivy League universities. The district boasts a comprehensive elementary school program for the gifted, in which students are pulled out of classes multiple times a week to build robots, design apps and conduct research projects. And the high school offers 24 Advanced Placement classes.

“If you want to be the next Steve Jobs, we feel like we can help you do that,” said Mr. Pendergrast, the superintendent. “If students come here and don’t speak English and want to go to community college, we can help them do that, too.”

But who gets steered down those paths remains an issue. And once students go onto middle and high school, some of the segregation present in other districts creeps in. Students in middle school are tracked for English and math proficiency, and top students in high school take honors and Advanced Placement classes — in all of them, white students predominate.

While the district has worked hard in recent years to make challenging classes more accessible to its students, this year, 70 percent of the 134 students in the middle school gifted program are white, 12 percent are Asian, 10 percent are black and 8 percent are Hispanic. Of the 303 students in Advanced Placement classes last year, 197 were white, 53 were Hispanic and 11 were black.

Nile Birch, a high school junior who is black, said that most of the students in his honors and A.P. classes are white. “In total, they are not very diverse,” he said about the higher-level classes.

Still, electives, clubs and required classes have provided him the opportunity to learn about people whose lives differ from his own.

He recalled being in a health class during his freshman year, with a quiet Hispanic girl who barely talked. One day, it was time to recite a written monologue: She stood up and told the class she was a single mother who had made it across the border and eventually to New Jersey, where she dreamed of getting an education.

“It really moved every single person in that class,” he said. “Before that she was just the quiet girl in the corner.”

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