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Daniela Figueroa stood in a line outside on a cold December morning, waiting to go through the metal detectors. She was worried the long queue would make her late — not for a flight, but for first period at Hempstead High School. 

After removing her gold-colored jewelry and passing through one of the only two metal detectors at the front of Hempstead High School, she then had to scan her student identification card to continue through the thorough process. Like every morning, the security guard then searched through her Snoopy book bag looking for potential hazards. 

She then walked towards her locker past a sea of 2,500 kids with caramel-colored and brown skin. She arrived 30 minutes early before first period, but still arrived three minutes late to her classroom.  This soon became the norm for Figeroa.

Her friends at school have always been Hispanic and Black — which also makes up the majority of the student population at Hempstead High School where about 3 in 4 students are Hispanic and 1 in 5 students are Black.

During her freshman and sophomore years, she would have to squeeze her way through over 35 students in a single classroom. That number soon dwindled as she said students would become involved in gang-related activities and eventually drop out. 

“There were fights every single day and at that point, it didn’t even faze the security guards because there were so many,” she remembered.

Comparing Hempstead High School to a mall, she said students would come from all areas of the school to see who was involved in the latest fight. The worst fight she ever witnessed was between gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for her. 

As a result of student expulsions and drop outs, she soon saw her rank go up and less and less students in the seats around her. 

She took honors and three Advanced Placement classes during her time there. About one in ten students at Hempstead High School take at least one AP exam, and half of those students pass the class. 

After class, she would gear up for badminton and volleyball practices. There were days when her team would share run-down gymnasiums with other teams because of a lack of space. 

Figueroa would find herself amazed at the “perfect uniforms” and brand new knee pads other teams would have. During away games, she remembers walking into a gymnasium and feeling the rush of cool air — something that her home gymnasium didn’t have or could even afford. 

Figueroa would return home and then get ready for her job at Planned Parenthood. This was one of her two jobs, which was a theme she frequently saw throughout Hempstead High School. 

This is a theme not too often seen in Garden City High School, which is about less than three miles away from Hempstead High School. The majority White school located in Garden City, NY is not only visually different from Hempstead’s majority Black and Hispanic school, but the funding vastly contrasts. 

About 18 out of every 25 students at Hempstead High School are eligible for free lunch, while only 1 out of every 25 students at Garden City High School are. Students from families with incomes at or below around $34,000 are eligible for free meals, which also indicate a sign of poverty. 

As a first generation student, Figueroa said she felt she had to support herself. She knew she was going to have to learn how to balance work, school and extracurriculars. She compared her day-to-day responsibilities to those of wealthier students from other districts who maybe didn’t need the money and could focus on their schoolwork and organizations. Figueroa said there were many students like her who deserved more opportunities, but couldn’t because of the school district they were in. 

“There are so many students of color that have the same abilities,” she said. “But they never even understand that they even have those abilities because they never get a chance to express it.”

Daniela Figueroa at her home in Hempstead, NY. Daniela is currently a student at Farmingdale State College and works as a tutor at Hempstead High School, her former high school.

Three miles away and two worlds apart 

All that divides Figueroa and students with more resources is a running train track. 

On one side of the tracks, you can find laundromats, bodegas and low-income housing. This side is home to a population in which almost half of its residents are Hispanic, the other half are Black and only one out of every 100 residents is White. On the other side is the town of Garden City, where you’ll find large department stores, a sea of trees and homes with multiple floors and drive-in driveways. Garden City has a population in which nine out of every 10 residents are White, three out of every 50 residents are Hispanic and only one out of every 50 residents are Black. 

The differences are physically evident as you move from one town to the next. 

“Once you pass by Clinton Street and you see the trees, you see everything is so different,” Figueroa said. “I feel like it never clicked to me what was going on. When I was younger, I always thought Garden City just has more trees and that’s why it’s called that.”

The 20-year-old current sophomore psychology major at Farmingdale State College said she now knows Hempstead and Garden City were designed to be that way.

Daniela Figueroa speaks on the divide between Hempstead and Garden City as she walks down on Clinton Street.

Two towns right next to each other dramatically differ in environment, demographics and socioeconomic status, but it doesn’t stop there. It is also evident in education. Hempstead and Garden City tell the tale of educational inequity on Long Island. 

The difference in economic power also has an impact on the money school districts receive and the quality of the education on both sides of the tracks. 

While Hempstead High School currently has a proposed budget of about $187 million minus tuition from charter schools for its 2,174 students, Garden City High School proposes about $122 million for its 1,209 students. Although Hempstead ultimately receives more funding, it isn’t equitable, as Hempstead received almost $18,000 per student last year, while Garden City received $28,000 per student — about $10,000 more. 

This extra money ultimately provides schools with more curriculum options, Advanced Placement classes, facilities and funding for sports, extracurricular activities and an adequate number of teachers. The less per pupil spending, the less resources a student will find at their school.  

Hempstead High School was given an overall grade of C-, while Garden City High School was given a grade of A+, according to Niche’s grading system which is calculated using public data sets and public reviews. Grades are assigned based on how each school performs compared to all other schools. Niche says about only 11 out of every 20 Hempstead students graduate every year on average, while 99 out of every 100 Garden City students have the opportunity to do so. 

Various districts in the eastern-most part of New York State lack a quality education, according to Marina Marcou-O’Malley, the operation and policy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, who has done work with Long Island schools. 

“A quality education means that students in schools and teachers have all the resources they need to reach the maximum of their potential, and where a Black student and white student can have access to the same kind of resources, so that they can both go to college if they so choose,” Marcou-O’Malley said. 

Out of the 16 school districts in New York State that have a student population where four out of every five students are more Black and Latino, 10 of them are located on Long Island. Not only are they racially segregated, but they are also economically segregated, as seven out of every 10 students in the 10 schools are economically disadvantaged.

On Long Island, it is evident that “the amount of access to college and career readiness can be limited by where the train tracks cut off the district” and students either prosper or struggle, Marcou-O’Malley said.

Housing discrimination has perpetuated educational inequity on Long Island 

Public education in New York state is funded with money coming from three places: the federal government, the State and some local sources. At the local level, cities fund their schools with property taxes. The more expensive the properties in a school district are, the more money their schools usually get. 

Wealthier districts have the money to fund their schools with local property tax revenue, while poorer districts are often unable to generate the same revenue. Even with additional funding from the state government meant to offset any differences, the budgets of low-income districts tend to fall short of reaching anything comparable to that of wealthier districts. 

This educational inequity is created by forms of housing discrimination that bunch people of color into specific communities thus producing pockets of poverty, as Black and Hispanic communities have two of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. One form of housing discrimination that is intentional is racial steering, or the process of pushing someone away from certain housing options based on their racial background and the demographics of the neighborhood. 

“When you have communities where steering is taking place and people who want to live in a good place coming from the city get steered to a community, and then that community because of its school district, doesn’t have the same resources as others, it has a systemic impact,” Frederick Brewington, Long Island civil rights attorney said.

This practice limits housing options for people of color. As communities of color are consistently steered towards the same towns, they also find themselves restricted to a handful of school districts — typically ones with less funding, resources and opportunities. 

This form and all other forms of housing discrimination including blocking buyers from purchasing homes, requiring unecessary forms or raising the prices for specific buyers, is illegal in the U.S., according to the Fair Housing Act. The act prohibits discrimination in housing because of race; color; national origin; religion; sex; familial status and disability. 

However, it still occurs under the radar. In a 2019 investigation, Newsday revealed that racial steering is still alive and prevalent on Long Island. The report found “evidence of widespread separate and unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers and minority communities on Long Island.” 

Black testers experienced unequal treatment almost half of the time, compared with 39% for Hispanics and 19% for Asian testers. White testers were often steered away from majority Black and Hispanic towns like Hempstead, Elmont, Roosevelt, Baldwin and Freeport.

The ongoing practice of housing discrimination has created housing patterns on Long Island that have widened the income gap between the region’s 124 school districts. Poor districts like Hempstead, Uniondale and Roosevelt, have to tax themselves more than wealthier districts like Garden City, Old Westbury and Jericho, in order to raise the same amount of money.

Fair housing laws have not been vigorously enforced and that’s still a major problem in the fact that housing discrimination persists to this day, Fred Freiberg, co-founder of the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination, said. Freiberg said the real estate industry continues to use private market discrimination, racial steering and other kinds of discriminatory practices, thus creating constant barriers. 

“We have to recognize that the foundation of our entire real estate industry had a racist beginning and that it was predicated on some assumptions of White supremacy,” Freiberg said. “And those have carried on to this day to one degree or another.”

The village of Garden City was involved in a yearslong lawsuit that ruled the community discriminated against Black and Hispanic people by denying them fair and affordable housing options as a result of a 2004 zoning decision. The village was sued by MHANY Management Incorporated after approving a zoning classification that would have prevented multi-family housing from being built. Many Long Islanders have compared the current housing in Garden City to “mansions” and see little evidence of low-income housing. 

The suit also forced Garden City to pay $5.3 million dollars in legal fees and relief, implement affordable housing requirements for all future building structures and join a group of Long Island municipalities that seek affordable housing funds — the Nassau County Urban Consortium. One of the goals of the consortium was to actively seek out housing projects in high opportunity areas and  to direct resources necessary to accomplish this goal. The village sought no funding through the group and left the consortium the same month the court order expired. Garden City was first sued in 2005 and the village finally settled in 2014. 

Freiberg said the community was intentionally blocking out affordable and low-income housing from being built within the village. He says the majority White community was sending a message showing they didn’t want people of color living in their community.

“Garden City knew they were keeping people who are different from the residents who live in Garden City now by keeping out all affordable housing,” Freiberg said. “This practice takes many shapes and forms in every community.” 

Elaine Gross has made it her life-long mission to expose, address and end housing discrimination. Since 2001, she has been publishing research reports, undertaking legal actions, advocating for policy changes or educating the public on the concept of structural racism. Gross is the founder and president of ERASE Racism, a Long Island organization that works to promote racial equity in housing, education and community development. 

She has led several efforts that have amended and strengthened local fair housing laws. In 2016, she started the statewide campaign that led New York to enact a ban on housing discrimination against people who depend on legal non-wage sources of income for their rent in 2019. Under her leadership, ERASE Racism filed lawsuits in Nassau and Suffolk Counties against property owners and management companies that were showing rental apartments to White applicants and not to African Americans. The nonprofit filed suits in Mineola and Commack. 

In a push for more “aggressive identification of individuals and companies that are discriminating,” Gross hopes it will create empathy for those who are being discriminated against. 

Gross explained where students live determines where they go to school and Long Island is severely racially segregated. As a result of continuing housing discrimination and affordable housing being placed in communities that are already racially segregated with concentrated poverty, Black and Brown students attend lower resourced schools.

“We know that Black and Brown students for the most part, do not have access to the same AP courses,” Gross said. “The reason for that is because most of the Black and Brown students are going to intentionally segregated schools and those are the school districts that are lacking in AP courses.”

While Garden City High School has more than 15 AP course offerings including European history, macroeconomics and statistics, Hempstead High School is just beginning to slowly roll out AP courses to students. In the 2016-2017 school year, Garden City High School had a total of 222 AP scholars. 

In addition to AP courses, students who attend under-resourced schools don’t have access to sports, extracurricular activities, college preparation resources and an overall excellent quality of education. 

Garden City High School offers about 49 clubs and activities to its students including the school newspaper, fashion club and video editing club — clubs that Hempstead High School can’t offer its students due to funding. 

While Hempstead students have an average SAT score of 1020, students in Garden City, on the other side of the tracks, have a higher average score of 1300. 

Figueroa was close friends with the valedictorian of Hempstead High School. She told her there were not enough AP classes at Hempstead because she would see other college students who she was competing against, and their averages were always “way above” hers. A student’s average at the end of the year becomes more weighted the more AP courses they take, resulting in a high average. Her best friend said it was hard to compete against the schools that had multiple AP courses and honors classes. Figueroa said it was hard for her to be on the same playing field. 

The debate on charter schools and their effects on school segregation 

Outside of public and private schools in communities, charter schools have also recently been built. Charter schools are independently-operated public schools that have freedom to design classrooms to meet their specific students’ needs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter schools are still publicly funded and operate under a contract that holds them accountable to following their charter and ensuring high student achievement.

Charters were created over 25 years ago in Minnesota, when City Academy in St. Paul opened its doors in 1992. The founders of the school wanted to create an opportunity for struggling students in their own schools who were primarily low-income. The country’s first charter school was “initially designed for students who have dropped out of school and whose homes were wracked by poverty or substance abuse,” according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

One of the main differences between charter schools and public schools is that charters have freedom to establish their own policies, design their own education program and manage finances. Families must also choose to send their children to them. 

Charter schools represent some of the most racially segregated schools in the country, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. The analysis found that about 17% of charter schools are 99% minority. 

Charter schools were also created to help promote improvements in public education by increasing competition among schools. 

They were also created to be places of innovation but ended up pulling away funding for other public schools in the area, Marcou-O’Malley, from the Alliance of Quality Education said. 

“That was another way of perpetuating inequities because if the State wanted to create something, they should have funded it already on its own without making parents compete against parents and students compete against students,” she said. 

During the 2020-2021 school year, New York had 326 operating charter schools serving over 150,000 students. 

Sheilly Martinez, a 19-year-old sophomore political science major at Stony Brook University, grew up in Hempstead and still lives in an apartment complex with seven other family members. In Hempstead, about 16 out of every 25 living complexes are apartments, while in Garden City, only 17 out of every 100 are apartments. Growing up in a community that is mostly made up of affordable and low-income housing always meant Hempstead’s public schools weren’t funded effectively. This affected the quality of her education throughout the years.

Martinez attended public school up until the eighth grade. Her parents didn’t want her to go to Hempstead High School due to its limited resources, the school having way too many students, they had heard that the students were violent and fought all the time and ultimately, its reputation. 

“My parents just didn’t want to put me on a wrong path because usually in high school, kids start to hang out with certain crowds,” Martinez said. “I also feel like it does get a bad reputation because there are students who do go on to these amazing schools from Hempstead and I feel like they also don’t really tend to get the recognition.”

For high school Martinez attended the Academy Charter School. Even though it is competitive, Martinez said her charter school still lacked resources. She said the school didn’t have many AP classes and many teachers didn’t understand that a lot of kids came from low-income backgrounds. This charter school has about 1,700 students and serves pre-K until 12th grade. 

“A quality education includes some very basic stuff like adequate number of teachers and a culturally responsive and sustaining curriculum in every school where students can feel welcomed and see a reflection of themselves, their culture and of their history within the teachings of the school,” Marcou-O’Malley, from the Alliance of Quality Education said. 

Marcou-O’Malley believes charter schools can sometimes prevent students from getting a quality education, and instead often segregates communities more. She said it is time to desegregate schools and fund school districts who truly lack the resources.

Figueroa recalls a packed PTA meeting at Hempstead High School about two years ago where parents, students and educators debated on expanding the Evergreen Charter School. The charter school currently educates students from kindergarten to eighth grade and proposed to also educate at the high school level.

She said Hempstead High School’s funding was going to be divided if the proposal was accepted by the State government. The PTA meeting revealed that some clubs and organizations would be cut, including sports.

“We were being told that if funding goes to them, everything we already had little of was going to be even less,” Figueroa said.

She also said that many Evergreen parents expressed concerns for their children in attending Hempstead High School over a charter school. She didn’t understand how Hempstead residents could be so against other Hempstead residents.

“They were saying that they didn’t want to send their kids to Hempstead High School because it wasn’t safe and it was dangerous,” she said. “It showed their prejudice.”

The proposal was later approved in 2021 and plans to go into effect by the 2023-2034 academic year.

65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, segregation thrives on Long Island today 

Just like Hempstead and Garden City, most schools on Long Island are indirectly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. 

“Honestly, Garden City people just don’t even want to be associated with Hempstead people at all and I feel like that’s the same way towards people who live in Hempstead towards Garden City, because they drew that barrier long ago,” Martinez, the student said. 

That barrier was drawn when lines in housing were drawn. 

“The segregation that was created by discriminatory housing policy and practices persists to this day,” Freiberg said. “We haven’t been able to undo the damage that has been done and the harm that has been caused. A lot of the practices that continue to this day are residual practices from that era.”

Freiberg says many majority White communities on Long Island still refuse to promote residential integration and equity.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, the practice of blockbusting exploded on Long Island. Real estate agents would warn homeowners that Black homebuyers were coming and that would lead to a drop in property values. Redlining, or the practice of not granting mortgage credit to communities of color, or making mortgage credit more expensive for communities of color, was also pervasive at the time in Long Island. These practices resulted in segregated neighborhoods and developed into fully segregated communities and towns. 

This ongoing selective placement of communities of color has a direct impact on education, indirectly segregating schools and entire school districts on Long Island.

Because regions are segregated by race and by income, the uneven distributions of both interact to create a pathway from segregation to inequality, Jacob Faber, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, said. 

“If you live in a rich area, you’re going to have rich schools and if you live in a poor area, you’re going to have poor schools,” he said. “That then feeds back into the housing market to inflate house prices of homes in already expensive areas and decrease house prices of the homes in already depreciated areas, and this is a cycle that reinforces itself over time.”

The segregation that housing has caused doesn’t allow for school integration. Children who attend economically and racially integrated schools have improved achievement, are more likely to grow up and live in integrated communities and neighborhoods and ultimately send their own children to integrated schools, a report from the National Coalition on School Diversity states.

White rich school districts have also opposed affordable housing by placing strict district lines that use where a person lives to determine which school district they will attend. 

School district lines often based on racial segregation lines lead to districts with the most resources, the best reputations and the best access. And those districts are precisely the ones that don’t serve communities of color, Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services Inc., said. 

“In terms of school districts interfering in housing decisions, that’s not their job,” Wilder said. “Their job is to educate every child in their district, period. Not to try and find ways to keep them out.”

Wealthier school districts often make it hard for Black and Brown families who live in the district to send their kids to their schools by creating school zones that leave out lower-income areas of the community and ask people who come from those areas to provide unnecessary documentation. Experts say that school district boundaries often encourage school segregation by intentionally separating students by race, ethnicity and class. 

Long Island is known to have blurry boundaries, as a resident can live in one town but their kids can attend a different school district depending on where the boundary is drawn.

“Whether it’s keeping them out by [making them fill out extra] unnecessary forms to try and prove that they live there, especially to children whose parents are renting, or to try and keep out affordable housing from their districts, that is not their place,” Wilder said.

A school district that defies the odds

Malverne School District, about four miles from Hempstead, has a student population that is almost half Black, 27% Hispanic and 18% White. Although it has similar demographics to Hempstead, the district receives adequate funding per student — about $30,000 per pupil. This compares to $23,000 per student in Hempstead and about $25,000 per student in Garden City. 

Malverne is also high performing and was designated a “School of Opportunity” in 2015 for maintaining a “success for all students” philosophy and for providing their 45% student population that is economically disadvantaged with the proper resources to bridge that opportunity gap. They received the gold standard for working to minimize opportunity gaps with outstanding education. In order for a school to receive this recognition, they must “strive to ensure that all students have access to rich, challenging and supports opportunities to learn,” according to their website.

The “Schools of Opportunity” sign on the side of Malverne High School. This gold seal is from the 2014-2015 academic year and Malverne High School was one out of five schools to receive the honor that year.

“Malverne is very unique because it’s high performing and it has a large demographic of students of color,” Lorna Lewis, the superintendent of the Malverne Union Free School District, said. 

The district offers various courses to students who want to prepare for college including multiple higher-level AP classes. More than half of AP enrollment is from minority groups, with 50% being African-American, according to Schools of Opportunity. Malverne also provides a college testing prep program that meets on weeknights and Saturday mornings in the summer, fall and winter.

“[Our district] fights like hell to keep our kids from going away to private school at the end of the eighth grade,” Lewis said. 

The same way Martinez didn’t attend Hempstead High School and went to a charter school instead, Lewis said many White students switch to a private school because they want as many resources as possible. However, she says that at Malverne, there is a sense of community between lower-income and wealthier students due to the equal access to opportunities. 

“Malverne has had a stable board, a board that believes in education,” Lewis said. And for her, this has made a positive impact on the district and the quality of education offered here. “You have a community, despite the fact that many of them will not come to our schools. They still support our district and our budget.”

People of color were hindered from owning homes on Long Island 

White picket fences, rolling green lawns, swimming pools and look-alike homes — this was and still is Levittown, which became the blueprint for suburbia in the 1950’s. What may be the “American dream” to some, wasn’t for all. 

Levittown was built for returning World War II veterans — as long as they weren’t a person of color. A clause in the town’s covenant prevented tenants from allowing non-Whites to use or occupy Levitt houses. The town justified it by stating that it maintained the value of the properties since the White community preferred not to live in mixed communities. 

Bruce Lambert, “At 50, Levittown Contends with Its Legacy of Bias,” The New York Times, December 28, 1997.

Theresa Sanders, president of the Urban League of Long Island Incorporated, remembers the story her parents told her of their journey to buy a home on Long Island following the war. When her parents were reading newspapers and going to open houses looking for a home after her father was being discharged from the military, the couple wanted to move out to Long Island, but was told by realtors that Levittown wasn’t for them. Her parents then moved into West Babylon and when hearing that story, Sanders learned Long Island was “purposely designed that way.”

When her family eventually moved to East Meadow, Sanders recalls being the only student of color in her class. “We were in a culture shock coming from New York City to Long Island,” she said.

Even though Levittown’s racist policies were more than 70 years ago, Levittown currently has a population that is about 83% White, 16% Hispanic and only 1% Black. Those same demographics translate to Levittown’s schools, which have two high schools available to students. 

“There’s a deliberate attempt to steer people to certain communities,” Sanders said. “And if you don’t have the power to find your own home, you live where people tell you to live.” 

Advocates push for change to reach educational equity and school desegregation

While only eight percent of all Long Island students attend high need districts, a little more than nine out of ten of the students in those high need districts are Black or Hispanic, according to an investigative report by the New York State Senate Standing Committees on Investigations and Government Operations; Housing, Construction and Community Development; and Consumer Protection, from last year. 

School districts that predominantly serve students of color received $23 billion less in funding than mostly White school districts in the United States in 2016, despite serving the same number of students.

Housing and education experts and social justice advocates are pushing for change so that Long Island schools can reach a level of equity. 

“It’s the systemic policies and intentional under-resourcing of the school and districts attended by students of color in areas of concentrated poverty that perpetuates segregation and negative educational outcomes for those students,” Janel George, the director of the Racial Equity in Education Law and Policy Clinic at Georgetown Law, said.

A podcast episode focusing on educational inequity and its effects on students of color. Maya Brown interviews Janel George, the director of the Racial Equity in Education Law and Policy Clinic at Georgetown Law.

School integration isn’t just about the movement of bodies, but the equalization of resources and experiences that students would have, George said. But she also believes that there is a large amount of evidence to support the promotion of school desegregation.

“We need to do something about these school districts and the school district lines,” Wilder said. “And that’s one of the things that hasn’t changed. We haven’t made changes in terms of rule zoning. We haven’t made changes in terms of school district lines. We haven’t made changes in terms of school district funding. We have systemic racism and it exists in every part of our society.”

Figueroa is looking to make a change and she is now studying psychology on the path towards becoming a teacher. She began working as a tutor at Hempstead High School in January of this year helping students prepare for high school and college. Her career inspiration came from one of her English teachers at Hempstead High School — Mr. Robert Amoroso.

“I want to be a teacher in hopes of one day spreading social equity and treating all my students how they deserve to be treated,” Figueroa said. “I want to be one of those teachers who help you understand that you’re different, but your difference can empower you.”

She said he consistently pushed his students to use their full potential and apply to any opportunities that were out there. Figueroa also took notice of how Mr. Amoroso did indeed see color and understood the hardships and trials students at Hempstead High School endured.

“As a teacher, he definitely created a change in that school,” she said. “He really pushed all of us to apply to scholarships and apply to things that we would have never thought of. And so I just feel like there needs to be more teachers like that and I hope I can be one of them.”

Daniela Figueroa at her home in Hempstead, NY. Daniela graduated from Hempstead High School in 2020 and plans to graduate from Farmingdale State College in 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in English.