It was in part a study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which highlighted New York as the city with the nation’s most segregated school system, that compelled the city council there to explore options to address school poverty, Lander said. Just one-quarter of white students and more than three-quarters of black and Latino students attend high-poverty schools in New York City, according to Atlas data. “It's much harder for those schools to provide an excellent education for their kids even when resources are equal, which they often aren't, especially when you factor in PTA contributions,” Lander said. “It’s not impossible, obviously there are schools that succeed brilliantly in doing it, but it is so unfair to expect that schools with highly concentrated poverty can deliver the same level of educational support.”
It is indeed rare for a school serving mostly poor students to provide an environment where they can excel. Research shows, for instance, that only six of 102 high-poverty public schools in Allegheny County (the county surrounding Pittsburgh) can also be considered high-performing—scoring better than the state average on reading and math in one of two state exams in both 2013 and 2014. Those six schools have overcome the barriers of poverty by providing “the right support from the right teaching and the right culture,” said Rachel Amankulor, the deputy director of policy at PennCAN, an education advocacy organization that published the report.
Pittsburgh is also one of the country’s most highly segregated cities, according to Atlas data. As with other cities, its schools show major gaps between the shares of white and non-white students attending mostly low-income schools. A 56-point gap separates the share of all students of color and the share of white students attending a school where at least half of their peers are poor. That gap is even wider—a full 67 percentage points—between white and black students. Ninety-two percent of black students in Pittsburgh attend a majority-poverty school.
Even when high-performing schools are more integrated by income, they don’t necessarily educate all students equally, especially without adjusting teaching strategies to better serve the needs of low-income students, Amankulor said. “We’ve created a system that doesn't serve poor people well. Instead of looking at our system and saying, ‘What is our system doing wrong?’ we’re blaming poverty,” she said.
There are only five exceptions where fewer minorities than whites attend majority low-income schools, and in each of them whites are a small fraction of the overall school system: In Detroit, Newark, and San Bernardino, California, whites equal less than 10 percent of the total student population. The remaining two cities, Irvine and Fremont in California, have predominantly Asian student bodies; whites comprise 33 percent of students in the former, and 15 percent in the latter.