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Race and Schools


Photo of a Teens Take Charge protest by Dulce Michelle Flores


What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline describes a series of factors that funnel predominantly Black and Latinx students out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

Omari, the Black teenage protagonist in Dominique Morisseau’s play PIPELINE is accused of physically assaulting his white teacher. His mother is terrified that this one incident will be enough to draw Omari into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects Black and Latinx youth

Black and Latinx students are statistically more likely to attend segregated schools than their white or Asian peers. Segregated schools are more likely to have lower graduation rates and test scores, as well as fewer academic and financial resources. Segregated schools are more likely to have lower graduation rates and lower test scores, as well as fewer academic and financial resources.

“Zero tolerance” disciplinary policies feed the school-to-prison pipeline

Starting in the 1990s, many schools enacted “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies as part of a national effort to curb school violence. In practice, these policies often meant that students were suspended for relatively minor offenses, like talking back to a teacher or violating their school’s dress-code. Suspension rates skyrocketed.

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Infographic_Suspension Increase

Being suspended has a real impact on a student’s education: the more time a student spends out of school, the further they risk falling behind academically, feeding a vicious cycle.

Over-policing in schools feeds the school-to-prison pipeline

In 2019, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) took steps to address this problem by forbidding the school safety officers from issuing students summonses for low level infractions, like cutting class.

However, many people feel that the current number of police officers in schools continues to feed the school-to-prison pipeline. They feel that the money used to pay for school safety should be applied to address students’ academic performance and emotional well-being. Many of the protesters who took to the streets in NYC in the spring/summer of 2020, following George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, called for the DOE to remove the police presence from NYC’s schools.

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Bias and systemic racism fuels the school-to-prison pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It is important to note the degree to which conscious and unconscious bias drives policies and practices that feed the school-to-prison pipeline. How Black and Latinx young people are perceived by their teachers plays a big role in determining how they are treated in school. The different rates at which non-white and white young people become involved in the criminal justice system are equally shaped by systemic racism. Dissolving the school-to-prison pipeline will require all levels of society to begin to address these systemic issues.

Restorative justice practices are being used to interrupt
the school-to-prison pipeline


On a school level, many communities are trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by implementing restorative justice measures instead of suspensions. Restorative justice allows people who break the rules – or the law – to take responsibility for their actions, take steps to repair the harm they have caused, and be welcomed back into the community they have hurt. Restorative justice emphasizes responsibility and repair over punishment. It asks, “How can this community move forward together?” De-escalation techniques and peer-mediation, along with support from mental health professionals, as necessary, are some of the restorative justice frameworks that are often used in schools.

School-to-Prison Pipeline



  • Does your school use restorative justice practices to resolve conflicts and repair harm within your community?

  • What makes you feel safe at school?

  • What makes you feel unsafe at school?


Click below to download an asynchronous, teacher-led student activity developed by Tokumbo Bodunde. The activity uses the Edpuzzle app to teach students about the school-to-prison pipeline. Students will reflect on the video and the themes of the play to create a piece of video poetry using Flipgrid.


Why are NYC’s schools so segregated?

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Mrs. Nettie Hunt, on the steps of the Supreme Court, with daughter Nikie   Photo: Library of Congress

In the play PIPELINE, Nya, one of the main characters, is a Black teacher who works in an urban school that serves poor Black and Latinx students. The play portrays her violence-plagued school as having few resources for its students, along with overworked and stressed-out teachers. Here in NYC, many of us are familiar with de facto school segregation. And that made us want to know, why are NYC’s schools so segregated?

The scope of the problem


In its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. Sixty-six years later, our schools in NYC, one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world, are also among the most segregated in the nation.

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School Attendance Infographic_11.18.20.p

Some people have blamed NYC’s school segregation on our neighborhoods. Although housing segregation is certainly part of the problem, it plays less of a role than you might think. For instance, forty percent of kindergartners from the city’s poorest neighborhoods don’t attend their neighborhood school. (Poverty correlates heavily with race in NYC.) A lot of kids of all ages travel outside of their neighborhoods to attend schools with higher test scores or better resources, although ones that are often still highly segregated. For neighborhood schools in NYC’s poorer communities, dwindling enrollment has meant fewer resources, and a student body that is poorer and even more segregated.

Segregated schools don’t happen by accident

Segregation in NYC public schools hasn’t happened by accident, and it has a long history. Civil rights activists led a 1-day walkout back in 1964 to protest segregation of NYC schools that involved almost half a million students. The city has considered various desegregation plans for its schools going back to the 1960s.

So why, after all this time, are NYC’s schools still so segregated? One reason is school choice. But choice is good, right? Well, sort of. 

The role of school choice in segregation

Starting in 2002, then Mayor Bloomberg’s administration wanted to break up large, comprehensive high schools that struggled with persistently low graduation rates in favor of small, themed schools. The idea was that small schools would provide kids with more personal attention and better educational outcomes. And graduation rates for Black and Latinx students have risen since 2002. 

Another of Bloomberg’s policies allowed middle school families to apply to high schools across the city, not just to the ones in their neighborhood. However, this meant that students were now faced with a dizzying range of school choices. Some of those more than 400 high schools required potential applicants to come for an interview or an in-person visit, take a competitive test, or have certain grades or test scores in order to be considered for admission. This system continues to the present day.

Although there are positive aspects to being able to choose from a wide range of schools, this complicated application process puts a burden on families who may not have the time or resources to navigate it. It has also allowed selective schools to cherry-pick top-performing students, concentrating the number of lower performing students in the remaining schools. It is probably no surprise to learn that the demographics of selective city-wide schools like Manhattan’s Beacon High School, which is 47% white, do not reflect the racial makeup of the overall public school student population for the city, which is 15% white.

The role of charter schools in segregation

Many charter schools explicitly target and serve poor students of color. Many parents feel that charter schools, which draw upon both public and private money, offer their children a higher quality education than their neighborhood schools. An unintended side-effect: the more students charter schools siphon off, the more concentrated the number of poor Black and Latinx students – as well as those with academic difficulties or special needs – becomes in neighborhood schools.

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Low performing, segregated elementary schools feed into low performing, segregated middle schools which, in turn, feed into low performing, segregated high schools. There is broad-based acknowledgement among students, families, many politicians, as well as in the Department of Education that school segregation is a serious problem that affects educational and social outcomes for all students. 

Fixing the problem

There are several solutions currently being tried at the district-level, particularly those targeting the school admissions process. However some important questions remain: In addition to race, how do we factor in the unequal distribution of quality teachers, higher level classes, laptops, or PTA funding? Until now, most diversity plans have occurred at a district level. How can we enact school equity initiatives city-wide? As we think about how to dismantle segregation in NYC schools, it is important to consider not just who our schools do and don’t serve, but how.

NYC Schools


  • To what degree has segregation affected your education and your experience as a student in NYC?

  • What is the purpose of public education?


Click below to download an asynchronous, teacher-led student activity developed by Tokumbo Bodunde using the Padlet app. The activity allows students to connect the issues of PIPELINE to their own high school experience. It also invites them to consider how student activists can effect change on issues related to race and schools.


The Impact


How does school segregation impact students’
education in NYC?

Attending highly segregated schools affects all kids negatively. However, attending highly segregated schools has a disproportionately negative impact on poor kids. And, in NYC, poor kids are much more likely to be Black and Latinx. 


Attending racially and economically integrated schools has been associated with the following positive outcomes:


  • Exhibiting less racial bias and greater cultural competency

  • Being more likely to seek out integrated settings later in life, e.g. in housing

  • Higher test scores, as well as higher graduation and college enrollment rates

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  • If you could offer the Mayor one piece of advice regarding desegregating NYC’s public schools, what would it be?

  • What are some ways you’d like your school to change? To what extent do those changes have to do with the racial and socio-economic makeup of your school?



How are youth activists in NYC advocating for
educational equality?

Segregation and educational inequality are issues that deeply affect the approximately 1.1 million students in NYC’s public schools. We’d like to introduce you to two youth-led organizations that are doing exemplary work advocating for greater racial and educational equity in NYC’s schools. By writing op-eds, testifying in front of the New York City Council, presenting the student perspective at conferences, and protesting on the steps of City Hall and elsewhere, they are proof of the power of young people to effect change. 


Teens Take Charge

Teens Take Charge was founded by Nelson Luna and Whitney Stephenson, two NYC public high school students back in 2017. The previous year, Nelson and Whitney had participated in a podcast about educational inequality in NYC schools and it made them want to create a platform so they could continue to advocate for change. Today, about 50 high school students from 30 schools around the city are involved with the organization. Some of these young people attend schools with lots of resources and a racial make-up that doesn’t reflect the city at large. Others attend schools that are highly segregated and under-resourced. They are united in their desire to make integrated, well-resourced schools accessible to all students.


Current projects of Teens Take Charge include advocating for the repeal of the Hecht-Calandra Act, a New York State law that says the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SSHAT) is the only factor that can be used to determine admission to the city’s nine specialized high schools. Teens Take Charge also has campaigns that target getting rid of “screened” admission to city high schools, and fought in summer 2020 to protect the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program from devastating cuts.



IntegrateNYC is a youth-led organization that advocates for schools that fairly and evenly reflect the racial diversity of New York City. The mission of the organization is “to develop youth leaders who repair the harms of segregation and build authentic integration and equity.” The organization was founded in 2014 by students in the Bronx in partnership with their English teacher. IntegrateNYC members draw upon their own experience as students in NYC’s schools to exchange information and to inform policy discussions with academics and politicians in NYC and even in Washington DC. 

In 2016, IntegrateNYC launched a city-wide youth council that yielded a policy framework called “The 5 Rs of Real Integration” (Race and Enrollment, Resource Equity, Relationships across Groups, Restorative Justice, and Representation). All of IntegrateNYC's campaigns are based on the “5R” framework.

Youth Activism


  • What unique skills can youth activists bring to the issue of inequality in schools?

  • What do you think the most urgent issues are facing schools right now? What would you want to fight for – or against?



Black and Latinx students who attend predominantly white institutions

Dominique Morisseau’s play PIPELINE features two characters, Jasmine and Omari, who attend an elite private boarding school where most of the students are rich and white. Jasmine is a young Latinx woman; Omari is a young Black man. 


Because the issue of Black and Latinx students attending predominately white institutions is central to PIPELINE, we decided to look at organizations that help students of color attend private schools. We also wanted to share the perspective of Yaania Bell, a young Black woman who grew up attending private schools in NYC.


The public to private school pipeline


In the play PIPELINE, Nya and Xavier are the divorced parents of Omari, a Black high school student. Nya, his mother, is a teacher at a large urban high school, where many of her students struggle academically and fights often break out. His father Xavier is a Black marketing executive. Omari’s parents decide to send him to a predominately white private boarding school.


Although Nya and Xavier are fictional characters, many real-life parents of Black, Latinx and Asian children decide the advantages of sending their kids to private schools outweigh the disadvantages. Some families base their decision on the greater array of resources that can exist in privately funded schools – anything from smaller class sizes to fully stocked science labs. Other families send their kids to private school because, like Nya and Xavier, they feel that their local school isn’t safe. 


Helping students of color attend private schools


In NYC, several organizations such as Prep for Prep and SEO Scholars identify academically talented students of color who attend public and parochial schools and provide them with the resources and guidance to attend elite, predominately white private day and boarding schools. These programs often start in 5th or 6th grade and provide participants with intensive academic preparation during the summers, after-school, and on weekends so that they are prepared to do the work at their new schools. The programs also provide mentoring or social and emotional support that is meant to help students of color thrive in private school. 


Many of these programs acknowledge the degree to which institutional racism shapes the American educational system, which offers different opportunities and outcomes to white and non-white students. Organizations like Prep for Prep aren’t offering a solution to the larger systemic problem. Rather, they focus on offering immediate educational opportunities to gifted Black and Latinx students by making it possible for them to attend private schools.


The idea is that both children of color and the private schools benefit from this work. Economically disadvantaged Black and Latinx students get expanded educational opportunities by attending phenomenally well-resourced high schools which, in turn, serve as pipelines to elite colleges. Organizations like Prep for Prep also enable predominately white private schools to address goals related to diversity and inclusion. 


Being a student of color in a predominately white institution


Being one of only a few people in a school who look like you, or share your cultural or economic background, can be challenging. The characters Omari and Jasmine speak to this difficulty in PIPELINE. Like in the play, many schools fail to live up to their stated values of diversity and inclusion by failing to adequately nurture their students of color or protect them from the racism within their walls. 


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Black and Latinx students at many elite private schools in NYC and across the country have shared deeply painful stories on “Black at…” pages on Instagram. On those pages, students and alumni have demanded that their schools acknowledge the harm that they caused, and commit to making changes to ensure the emotional and physical safety of present and future students of color.  


So, who wins and who loses with organizations like Prep for Prep? And what about the large number of academically gifted Black and Latinx students who aren’t able to participate in these programs? What happens to public schools when their most academically advanced students leave? What is the social and emotional cost to Black and Latinx students of being educated in largely white institutions?

Yaania Bell, filmmaker and activist

Yaania Bell is a filmmaker and graphic designer from Harlem. After attending several private schools from grades K-12, Bell created her debut documentary, Chosen, which follows six Black alumni from her predominantly white private high school as they reflect on their experiences as minority students. The larger narrative of her film comments on educational inequity, specifically in NYC. Currently, Yaania is a Film and Television major at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and has another documentary in works, centered around marginalized groups within the Black community, specifically Black femmes.

We asked Yaania:

  • What were the advantages and drawbacks of attending a predominately white private school?

  • When and how did Black students at your private high school decide to organize for change? How did you arrive at your demands? 

  • What are the top things you learned from that experience about your power to effect change? What do you think other young people could learn from your experience?

  • What motivated you to create a documentary about your experience? What do you hope people take away from your film?

  • What's next for you as an artist and as an activist?

Private Schools
Video: Meet Yaania


  • If you were a parent, would you send your child to private school? Why or why not?

  • In your experience, how has race been talked about in the classroom? What, if anything, would you do to structure that discussion differently?


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