In the fall of 1976, I started kindergarten by climbing onto a yellow school bus that wove its way through my tree-lined North Buffalo neighborhood and deposited me downtown near the edge of Lake Erie.
Waterfront Elementary – a new Brutalist-style building made of corrugated concrete – was anything but brutal on the inside. We had a swimming pool, a dance studio, and open classrooms where children from all over our otherwise segregated city came together to learn.
It was the first year of Buffalo’s new magnet-school program – part of the response to a federal court order to desegregate. The “magnets” drew families into schools voluntarily to contribute to racial balancing.
My best friend in elementary school was biracial and lived in the mostly black subsidized apartment complex next to Waterfront. When I visited Sondae Stevens’s place, she’d dare me to climb up with her on the low-slung roof of the school. When she visited mine, she enjoyed the novelty of playing in an attic. Our quirky personalities just clicked.
While we progressed through the grades, the magnet system grew into a national model. Before the desegregation order, 7 out of 10 Buffalo public schools were segregated – meaning more than 80 percent white or 80 percent minority. By the mid-1980s, that was down to 4 out of 10. The peak of school integration nationwide happened around 1988, when I was starting my senior year of high school.
It took less than 25 years for that progress to unravel. By 2012, some 70 percent of Buffalo schools were once again segregated. Courts had lifted many integration orders (including Buffalo’s) in the 1990s. Subsequently, a series of Supreme Court decisions limited the tools school districts could use to racially integrate.
On top of that, City Honors – a school for Grades 5 through 12 that I started attending in ninth grade – had become the centerpiece of a civil rights complaint in 2014, focused on the low rate of African-American students admitted to Buffalo’s selective schools.
When I came across this information as an education reporter, my heart sank. I had been largely out of touch with Buffalo since my parents had relocated in the early 1990s. Had it really so drastically changed?
“What’s at stake for Buffalo is equity and justice,” Jennifer Ayscue told me in a phone interview last spring. She visited with a team from The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles to craft recommendations after the 2014 complaint, and co-edited a new book about it. “The district ... regressed and resegregated ... [but] with political will, they could really make great progress and have more equitable schools,” she said.
I had always been proud of attending integrated public schools. The “integration generation” I belonged to isn’t immune from prejudice, but many of us feel as if our experiences better equipped us to combat it.
My African-American friend Ursuline Bankhead, who graduated with me in 1989 (and has since seen her daughter graduate from City Honors), puts it this way: “We ate together, we broke bread together, whether it was on a trip or in each other’s homes. There’s a certain level of intimacy that happens when you share a meal.”
But if I tested my rather nostalgic view through my reporter’s lens, what would the story look like?
I know long-standing patterns of racial discrimination require sustained effort to undo – and Buffalo has long been one of the most segregated metro areas in the nation.
The arc from desegregation to resegregation here mirrors what has been going on across the United States for decades. Many urban school districts that integrated in the 1970s and ’80s, through busing and other controversial methods, slowly retreated in the backlash – and demographic changes – that followed.
So I set out to see what was happening in the school system I attended – and whether Buffalo might once again hold lessons for one of the most pressing problems facing urban America: how to find creative ways to cut down on students’ racial and economic isolation, and the unfairness those conditions have historically produced.
While I was trotting off happily to Waterfront, Samuel Radford III was starting sixth grade. His dad had signed him up to bus from black East Buffalo to white South Buffalo, where he attended Hillery Park Elementary.
In the neighborhood, “people were not happy to have us,” Mr. Radford recalls as we stand outside the school, across from a low stone wall defining a quaint park.
Some locals threw rocks at the bus or chased black students down the street if they stuck around for after-school activities. “School went from this fun place to this tense place,” he says, and although he did fine academically, “it just was a struggle.”
Statistics show that African-Americans who attended integrated schools in the US in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s had better outcomes than those who did not, and the benefits persisted among their children and grandchildren. Isolating the effects of integration for that first generation shows that it “led to an increase of a full year of educational attainment, increased earnings by one-third, and ... large reductions in both the annual incidence of poverty and the likelihood of incarceration in adulthood,” Rucker Johnson, a University of California, Berkeley professor and author of the forthcoming book “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works,” tells me in an email.
But in talking with Radford, it’s clear that black students paid a price for those benefits that I as a white student didn’t.
I met up with Radford because he’s organized parents in Buffalo to fight for educational equity, and he helped file the 2014 complaint. He’s also president of the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), a group that aims to hold the school system accountable.
He’s a warmhearted man who loves to take selfies. Today, he’s decked out in a maroon plaid sport coat and diamond-patterned tie, and he slips on his sunglasses as he drives. Earlier I had looked at color-coded maps showing white and minority neighborhoods, the economic gaps between them, and historic examples of “redlining” that restricted investment in minority areas of the city. Now, as we’re driving, I can see the markers of racial inequality in three-dimensional reality.
The farther we get from Main Street going east, the fewer trees and the more dilapidated buildings we see. We drive on an overpass with railroad tracks below, and he announces that this is the line that divides the East Side from South Buffalo, home of manufacturing jobs and union halls – and still a place to which some black residents don’t feel safe venturing.
My childhood friend Ursuline, like me, has fond memories of her school days. But it isn’t difficult for her to call up incidents of racial bias.
We both attended a “gifted” magnet program at Olmsted (a middle school that has since moved into two buildings to span prekindergarten through 12th grade). When we applied to City Honors for ninth grade, Ursuline recalls, the white principal at Olmsted “told me I was not smart enough to get in.”
Ursuline went home crying, but she tested so well that she got in even without the principal’s recommendation. “Every time I would run into [that principal] in public,” she says, “I’d be like, ‘Yes, I got into City Honors. Yes, I got into Penn State. Yes, I have my master’s degree.’ ”
Wendy Mistretta, a white City Honors parent on the DPCC, tells me a more recent anecdote: A friend of hers, one month into teaching young kids at an East Side school, told her that because so few could read at grade level, “we should stop telling them they should go to college.”
After the 2014 discrimination complaint, the district dropped teacher recommendations from the admissions criteria for selective schools, and it’s been conducting training with staff to combat implicit bias.
A culture shift is under way to foster higher expectations and equity in the city’s classrooms. It has come in part since Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, took the helm in 2015, Dr. Mistretta and others say.
A “community schools” partnership now engages thousands of students and parents in after-school and Saturday activities in their neighborhoods. The program strives to offset the “extraordinary needs” Superintendent Cash has identified as affecting 9 out of 10 students – ranging from homelessness and trauma to a variety of mental and physical health issues.
New innovative high school programs stimulate students’ interests in promising local career paths. Test scores have been on the rise. And the percentage of students graduating within four years, which barely broke the mid-50s for about a decade, recently rose to 63 percent.
The Say Yes to Education program is also providing many families with new hope. Its college scholarships cover any tuition that Buffalo public school graduates can’t pay through other means. “We’re inching along in terms of progress,” Radford says.
We stop by the steps leading up to City Honors School at Fosdick-Masten Park. That’s the formal name of the massive 1914 building made of white-glazed terracotta, which sits atop a hill a few blocks east of the Anchor Bar on Main Street, where a national culinary staple – Buffalo wings – originated.
Radford tells me there’s still progress to be made when it comes to minority representation at City Honors and Olmsted, widely considered the city’s gems. At City Honors, for instance, blacks represented 31 percent of the student population in 1999 and now stand at just 16 percent. Currently, the school is 57 percent white.
In the district schools overall, by contrast, nearly half the 31,000 students are black and only 20 percent are white. Another 20 percent are Hispanic, and the remainder are Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, or multiracial.
Radford’s youngest son attends City Honors, but Radford isn’t satisfied with just his own child having that opportunity. He wants more to be done to counter the “very strong forces that have been around for a very long time in trying to maintain the status quo,” he says.
One way Buffalo schools are slowly improving outcomes is by focusing on the young. A few blocks from City Honors, the Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center stands as a place where disadvantage meets opportunity, where shimmers of brilliance emerge despite low average test scores.
On this day, Ming Yu is teaching third-graders Mandarin by concentrating on phrases related to time. When a boy constructs the Mandarin equivalent of “I get up at 6 in the morning,” Ms. Yu gives him a high-five.
The student population at the Makowski Center, which teaches children from pre-K to fourth grade, is about 70 percent African-American. But it attracts young people from around the city with its International Baccalaureate Early Years curriculum, which strives to infuse 21st-century skills and global perspectives. Test scores at the Makowski Center have been rising, but still fewer than 20 percent of the students score proficient in English and math.
The district recently won a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to phase in better teaching methods and expand enrichment opportunities instead of reserving them for “gifted” students. To address accusations of discrimination regarding admission to the district’s more selective schools, officials hold parent meetings to spread awareness about a test to try to qualify for Olmsted or City Honors. They have also made it convenient by offering the test at each school during school hours; previously it took place on a Saturday at a central location.
As a result, the number of district students taking the exam for fifth- or ninth-grade entry into City Honors and Olmsted has increased more than 10-fold. This fall 90 out of 141 Makowski fourth-graders took the test.
In one wing of Makowski’s cathedral-ceilinged building, Patricia Spasiano leads fourth-grade students through a lesson on complete predicates. “This is a conflict-free zone, right?” she reminds a few who are arguing, and then affirms, “You’re doing an awesome job.”
A tacked-up handwritten list of vocabulary words from a recent reading of “My Brother Martin” catches my eye. The first word: “Segregation – keeping two groups of people apart.”
The words “segregation” and “integration” don’t currently figure much into policy discussions related to education in Buffalo. The formal system that existed to racially balance schools no longer remains, but the value and belief system behind it “has stayed with us to this very day,” says William Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning, and community engagement. Students aren’t simply assigned schools based on where they live, but have choices throughout the city. In fact, many schools here roughly reflect the racial breakdown of the overall population that attends district schools.
Yet by some measures they are still segregated because, while students of color make up 80 percent of the school district, the city’s population of 260,000 is 48 percent white and Erie County is 80 percent white.
For a host of reasons, many families in Buffalo have chosen not to send their children to district schools. Roughly 9,000 students in the city attend private, parochial, or charter schools (public schools that operate independently from the district).
Some of these families tend to opt back in if their kids gain admission to Olmsted, City Honors, or a few other top-choice district schools. Such families, usually white, have been better at maneuvering within a system that often advantaged them, even if inadvertently. Many, for instance, would have their kids take the entrance exam and if they got in, the family would move into the district so the kids could attend the select schools. As a result, a few years ago 60 percent of students entering City Honors and Olmsted came from private, suburban, or other schools outside the district, Dr. Keresztes says.
The situation has prodded officials to have “honest discussions about race,” he says. “The purpose of City Honors is not to create an enclave for white families.”
The city has not implemented all recommendations stemming from the civil rights complaint. But it has undertaken a variety of reforms designed to maintain the admissions schools’ academic standards while broadening access. And it has stopped allowing people who live outside the city of Buffalo to take the admissions test, which school officials combine with grades and good attendance to create a formula that ranks applicants for the select schools.
The result is that today 60 percent of City Honors and Olmsted seats are being earned by students from district schools, Keresztes says. Yet he agrees more work is needed to address the low numbers of certain minority groups, especially at City Honors.
The high ceilings and the light flowing in from interior courtyard windows give me a familiar feeling as I walk the halls of my former high school, peeking into classrooms.
Then I spot a student clad in black from head to toe, except for an opening for her eyes, and I’m reminded how much more culturally diverse Buffalo has become.
Principal William Kresse has been leading City Honors since 2005, and in between making rounds in his bright blue sneakers, he talks about recent developments and controversies. “The African-American number needs to go up.... We’ve got to take this head on,” he says.
For years, he says, he was “yelling into a big giant empty cave” when he tried to talk with district officials about structural barriers families faced. But he’s encouraged that under the leadership of Cash and Keresztes, some barriers have “been blown up.”
City Honors does strong outreach throughout the city, and Mr. Kresse plans to create a summer program with the help of a group that prepares African-American students for competitive entrance exams.
In some ways the school seems more integrated now than in my day. Class levels used to track largely along racial and economic lines, for instance, with the advanced classes being disproportionately white. But Kresse oversaw the elimination of tracking. Everyone takes International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement courses. About half the students – regardless of their background – opt to pursue a full IB diploma.
I sit down in the “museum room” full of yearbooks and other objects of historical import to talk with 10 juniors and seniors. It’s quickly clear that they appreciate being in a school that stretches them both intellectually and socially.
“I’m exposed to the lives of other people who have nothing to do with me,” says Allen, an African-American who lives on the East Side. He’s got friends with Polish heritage and “friends who were talking about the Quran.... It’s so cool.”
Ellen, a white student, says, “I can learn about so many things that I will never learn about at home,” where “aerodynamics” is a typical topic at dinnertime.
Next to her, Daniel, from a Vietnamese family, says only a few others in his district elementary school were at the honors level, so coming here with advanced peers “gave me the optimism that I can shape my future.” He wants to be a surgeon.
Alexis, a science aficionado, feels both sides of the opportunity-gap issue. She’s black, and her dad was among the first to bus to integrated schools in Buffalo. One of her best friends is a white classmate she met at City Honors. In the African-American community, “I’ve been called Oreo ... as if striving for a good education is strictly associated with being white,” she says. But she’s also helped kids who attend less well-funded schools tap into resources she’s discovered through connections made here.
“Being surrounded by a decent amount of privileged Caucasian students, it can be rough at times,” she says, but she and the others agree the culture here fosters empathy and an ability to talk about differences.
As I watch children with colorfully beaded braids and heavy backpacks climb onto the buses at the end of the day at Waterfront, I’m wondering what their future holds.
I reached out to Sondae, my Waterfront friend, before my trip. We hadn’t talked in more than a decade, but we picked up as if no time had passed. She attended high school in Chicago, and now her son is doing the same. Up through eighth grade, though, she opted to put him in a private school that’s mostly white, because she didn’t see a public school offering what helped her thrive at Waterfront.
Cindy Ludwig, a white friend from Olmsted and City Honors, settled with her husband in Amherst, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb. Her kids’ schools are good but lack racial and economic diversity. “Everyone’s just like them.... Their whole experience is so homogeneous ... and it bothers me,” she says.
My children attend a nonprofit Montessori school in southern New Hampshire, so their public school experience is yet to come. They contribute to racial and international diversity – from my husband’s British upbringing and his parents’ roots in India and Mauritius. Still, I often wonder if we are doing enough to interact with people from a wider range of economic and racial backgrounds.
Without the pressure of civil rights requirements, “elementary and secondary schools are becoming more unequal,” Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project, told me last spring. “The problem isn’t curing itself.”
The next few years will shed more light on whether Buffalo is doing enough to spread opportunity fairly and make its top schools more racially balanced. But as I ride around town talking with Radford, I feel hopeful. He and others are keeping alive the idea that “it’s important for children to interact with each other across racial lines, across socioeconomic lines,” he says.
That’s one of the lasting legacies of Buffalo’s integration efforts: “Had we not broken through that barrier and got people to go to school together, get to know each other,” he says, “I think Buffalo in a lot of ways would be somewhere in the ’60s right now.”
This is story is part of an occasional series, Learning Together, on efforts to address segregation.