In theory, it doesn’t take much to get a game going between friends. But without a gym, or a field, or a track, or a pool — precious resources in a space-strapped city — competitive sports are hard to organize. Across New York City, high school students are playing volleyball in dance studios, soccer in cafeterias, and using baby wipes to clean up in lieu of post-practice showers. It’s not just the story of a tight squeeze in a dense habitat, because access to space and teams in public schools is largely determined by a student’s race — by the city’s geography of segregation, and by the legacy of a movement for small schools that, in an attempt to attend to struggling students, has put mostly kids of color in scaled-down facilities.
The policies that allocate funds and support teams in the country’s biggest — and most segregated — school system mean that a small school with an overwhelmingly Black and Latino population goes begging for a badminton team, while a big school with mostly white and Asian students might field 44 options for healthy competition. The separate and unequal status quo is a complicated knot of race, space, and sports. For more than a decade, a growing coalition of teachers, students, and advocates has been trying to unravel it, demanding that the city equalize opportunities for team sports, and forging alternatives on their own. With a new schools chancellor committed to addressing segregation, and a class action suit on its way to settlement, their ad hoc attempts to transform the geography of sports might become the law of the land. But even a radical overhaul of policy will require major physical changes to level the playing field.
Talent, in basketball, looks like flying. In the grace of a perfect jump shot, it’s possible to forget that humans are earth-bound animals. But once sneakers are back on the floorboards, reality settles in. And in the gym at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, reality constrains. The court feels too small for the players’ bodies, the sidelines hemmed in close by cinderblock walls.
In fact, this middle school gym is about 25 percent smaller than the regulation size for a high school game. And the walls are, indeed, a touch too close, barely a foot away from the court boundaries in some places. For tonight’s playoff, red and gold balloons are taped at head-height along the walls, a festive border that might also serve as a cushion, should a power forward go crashing out of bounds. Spectators spill over two narrow ranks of bleachers and folding chairs, their feet breaching the edge of the court. At one point, the ball flies into the “stands,” knocking a young boy lightly on the head. But he laughs and the game carries on.
Bronx Letters is far from the only New York City school where students and teachers shoehorn sports and games into inadequate spaces. The story of this city as a tight squeeze, where no one gets as much as space as they need, let alone as much as they want, has the weight of common sense. However, rather than an unavoidable side effect of growing up in a dense metropolis, the scarcity of athletic space is a burden borne disproportionately by Black and Latino students in the country’s largest, and most segregated, school system. Since under current New York City Department of Education (DOE) policies, a school that wants a team needs to provide adequate space for that team to play, that burden can be the difference between would-be athletes getting in the game, and getting permanently sidelined.
In June 2018, two Bronx Letters students named Lisa Parks and Matthew Diaz, along with the youth-led activist organization IntegrateNYC and New York Lawyers in the Public Interest, members of the Fair Play Coalition, filed a class action lawsuit against the DOE. The average Black or Latino student in the city’s public schools has access to 15 sports teams, ten fewer than the average white student, the suit charges. Some majority-Black and Latino schools have no teams at all. (Bronx Letters, with its 96 percent Black and Latino student body, has five.) Meanwhile, the school with the highest number of white students boasts 44 official teams. The suit argues that by denying Black and Latino students funding and support for sports teams, DOE policy infringes on their civil rights. The stakes go beyond a child’s simple right to play: Access to sports leads to better health and academic outcomes, violence prevention, self-esteem, and even college funding. Importantly, the plaintiffs argue that race alone ultimately drives this pattern of discrimination. But in the geography of the school system, as in the city as a whole, race and space are bound together in a complex knot. Students have access to vastly unequal opportunities depending on the location and type of school they attend. And when it comes to competitive sports, for the city’s most vulnerable students, the reality is “separate and unequal.”
One educator has relentlessly demanded the DOE take responsibility for untying that knot, calling for a redistribution of the resources and opportunities that come with sports teams. Courtside at the Bronx Letters playoff, David Garcia-Rosen is all about the game: arguing with the ref, roaring after points, laying into spectators who cross the sidelines during play. As a dean and athletic director in Bronx public schools since 2011, Garcia-Rosen understands intimately how sports can help young people at risk. He also understands the ways in which the DOE’s physical and regulatory structures can deny many of the city’s young people that help when they might need it most. The current lawsuit represents the culmination of nearly a decade of activism largely initiated by Garcia-Rosen, and taken up by growing ranks of students, educators, and advocacy organizations.
With several dozen sixth graders joyfully flinging basketballs toward the ceiling nearby, Garcia-Rosen lays out their ongoing struggle for space. The gym is now even smaller, divided in half with an electronic partition to allow multiple physical education classes to run simultaneously. Bronx Letters is “co-located” with two other schools. Each maintains its own physical education program and sports teams, and together they are in constant contest for athletic space. Finding enough space and time for each of Bronx Letters’ five hard-won teams to practice is a nearly impossible dream when the school has to share facilities with the other schools’ teams, and with PE classes for nearly 1,500 students.
The three schools adapt as best they can with the space available. A “dance room” is used for volleyball practice (a bent barre and broken mirror attest to the risks involved). Long tables on wheels are pushed to the side to make way for soccer in the cafeteria. Outside, a small trapezoidal field allows for softball, soccer, and ultimate frisbee practice, but not games. Even practice can be hazardous; Garcia-Rosen recalls balls breaking school windows and frisbees flying onto Morris Avenue, and students running into the too-close chain-link fences at full speed.
Public school athletic directors and sports equity advocates draw a clear line between the school system’s history of segregation and the inadequate spatial resources of the schools that serve most of the system’s Black and Latino students.
The story of Bronx Letters is instructive. The building the school inhabits once housed only the Paul Robeson Middle School, closed for poor performance in 2002. City educational policy since the Giuliani administration has favored breaking up schools into small “academy”-style institutions, and created hundreds of new small schools across the city. The new paradigm is a mixed bag. Many parents, students, and teachers profess to love the personalized attention and robust sense of community enabled by small schools, and some studies show students at small schools have better test scores and graduation rates. But research has also demonstrated that the small school movement, alongside the growth of charter networks and the ascendance of a corollary principle of school choice, has increased segregation in New York City schools.
Whether small schools are a blessing or a trap, the city’s Black and Latino students are more likely to be in them. There are 213 high schools with fewer than 400 students, the consensus definition of a small school. According to demographic data from the DOE, Black and Latino students are disproportionately represented at nine out of ten of these, and they make up more than 90 percent of the student body (versus a systemwide average of 66.5 percent) at more than half. Conversely, at the 213 high schools with the highest enrollment in the city, while most are still disproportionately Black and Latino, one in three is not. The 17 largest high schools, including four of the city’s famed specialized high schools, are all disproportionately white and Asian. White and Asian students make up 60 percent or more of the student body (versus a systemwide average of 31 percent) at eleven of them.
The problem is that when it comes to establishing a sports team, size is everything. In order to receive resources and recognition for teams, the Public School Athletic League (PSAL), which oversees competitive sports, requires that schools provide practice space and funding for equipment. In order to be granted funding for a coach, the PSAL also expects, not unreasonably, that schools be able to fill out a roster with interested students. Some small high schools — particularly those sited on campuses — may have facilities at a scale to suit their needs, and can fill out a team and pool funds from multiple co-located schools. But many recently formed small schools cannot clear that bar of eligibility. When it comes to athletics at Bronx Letters, as well as other, similar schools, much is “wildly not ideal,” Garcia-Rosen says.
Besides the obvious disadvantage of having a smaller student body to draw from, small schools often serve high-need populations, which do not satisfy the PSAL’s academic eligibility and age standards. Most students at Manhattan Day and Night Comprehensive High School are recent immigrants. Mark Dorman, formerly the athletic director there, says his students relied on sports teams for much more than exercise — teams were a chance to forge community, adjust to culture shock, and even practice English. But PSAL policy closes these students out of the majority of competitive sports because they are over-age or lack academic credits.
Those small schools that can muster enough interest from eligible students struggle to find room for them to practice. At Manhattan Day and Night, sited in a historic school building on 15th Street, gym classes play table tennis and half-court volleyball, often simultaneously, in an ovular rec room — a ball from one game often disrupts the other. In March 2018, the City Council released a report detailing the space constraints faced by city schools, and found that close to 25 percent of all students don’t receive adequate physical education instruction during the day, often for reasons of space.
The School Construction Authority, which is responsible for building and renovating the majority of schools in New York City, issues guidelines for the minimum dimensions and ideal layout of school facilities. But many school buildings, especially those older than the SCA itself — historic buildings like Manhattan Day and Night’s, or modest ‘80s cinderblock constructions like Bronx Letters — cannot meet those guidelines. Other schools have been squeezed into spaces not originally intended for educational use. With assorted athletic spaces and a field of its own — even if one too small to host games — Bronx Letters is in an “elite class,” Garcia-Rosen says, naming three high schools without any athletic facilities in the South Bronx alone. One, sited in a former factory, has no gymnasium; to give students a chance to play basketball, even noncompetitively, the school runs a program in a nearby rec center in the early mornings before school. The coach once confided to Garcia-Rosen that he sometimes resorts to baby wipes for students to clean themselves up before class.
Schools without spaces of their own may use public parks and fields for practice, but these bring their own barriers to participation. The Parks Department, in the eyes of beleaguered athletic directors, allocates permits according to an opaque metric that privileges the privileged and provides no opportunity for recourse or appeal. A stated “grandfathering” policy advantages established permit-holders — a significant obstacle for recently established small schools —while unspoken policy seems to limit public schools’ use of fields and courts in favor of other groups. Randall’s Island, the largest group of public fields in the city, is a particular sore point. As public school students traipse across the Triborough Bridge on foot, private school athletes pass in chartered coaches, seemingly always, somehow, having secured more and better space on the fields.
The social and educational benefits of athletics could make a huge difference in the lives of the 430 students of International Community High School (ICHS). Roughly nine out of ten are Black or Latino; eight out of ten are English Language Learners; and nearly all are in poverty. When Garcia-Rosen joined the school as a Dean in 2010, his primary goal was to introduce restorative justice practices to a school that had recently witnessed a spate of gang-related confrontations. (In one horrifying incident, a student who escaped civil war in Sierra Leone was murdered by a local gang in the Bronx, with a machete.) Garcia-Rosen says he took the broadest possible meaning of “restorative.” What would give these students what they were missing, and keep them out of trouble? The answer was clear: sports. But, confronted with the labyrinthine policies that conspire against small schools, his efforts stalled.
Many of his ICHS students hailed from the Dominican Republic and West Africa; they loved baseball and soccer. But PSAL staff told Garcia-Rosen they had little chance of getting designated teams for those sports. Instead, the staff told him to apply for something more achievable, like badminton or cricket. Goal-oriented, Garcia-Rosen complied, drumming up enthusiasm among the students and investing in cricket equipment — it was a little like baseball, he told the students — only for his application be rejected without explanation.
Garcia-Rosen pooled resources and resolve with administrators at other, similarly constrained schools — including Manhattan Day and Night — to launch an unofficial Small Schools Athletic League in the fall of 2011, using principals’ limited discretionary funding to field soccer, baseball, and volleyball tournaments. Eventually, more than 40 schools would join up. As the league grew, exceeding the organizers’ capacity, they turned to the PSAL for institutional support. They got intransigence and antagonism instead — the start of a conflict which has culminated in a class action suit.
Open-minded at first, PSAL officials asked the SSAL to prepare a report detailing the unmet needs of small schools. But when Garcia-Rosen presented the result of a preliminary data analysis showing racial discrimination in the allocation of sports teams, he says, PSAL executives became irate. Students and educators went into activist mode, joining together under the banner of the NYC Let ‘Em Play campaign to pressure the administration to formalize the SSAL and expand access to sports teams for students at small schools. After a year of protests, petitions, and meetings, the Chancellor and the City Council seemed to take notice. In 2014, the city’s expense budget included dedicated funding for the SSAL.
But the sense of victory was short lived. By the start of the next sports season, the PSAL had dismantled the upstart league and redirected the new funding mainly to pre-existing programs. With the realization that they’d been played, students and educators planned further protests and petitions. Tensions escalated. The DOE issued warnings to parents that undocumented students could be deported if they participated in protests, and reassigned Garcia-Rosen to the “rubber room.” Though he would be released without charges after four months, in the meantime, collaborators lost their confidence and the NYC Let ‘Em Play campaign dwindled.
The problem persisted. Public records show in 2017, of the new teams funded under the nominal SSAL, more than half were on large campuses with more than 1000 students. Of the actually small schools that received teams, more than half were disproportionately white or racially balanced, despite the fact that four out of five high schools with fewer than 1000 students are disproportionately Black and Latino. But the efforts of NYC Let ‘Em Play would not go to waste. Two civil rights complaints Garcia-Rosen had filed with the Federal Department of Education caught the attention of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who reached out to offer legal help. Enlisting the support of an analytics firm, NYLPI set out to thoroughly document the discriminatory distribution of resources under PSAL policy. The resulting data analysis is the foundation of today’s lawsuit.
Matthew Diaz and Lisa Parks, the students who are named plaintiffs in the suit, share a key experience with Garcia-Rosen’s first group of students at International Community High School: They came from other places. Just as ICHS’s Dominican and West African students had yearned for baseball and soccer, Parks, a transfer student from Atlanta, was a talented runner on her old high school’s track team; Diaz grew up playing volleyball with his family in Puerto Rico. When Diaz started school in New York, it seemed there were only two sports to choose from: boys’ and girls’ basketball. “I thought it was just New York,” he says. But a one-day exchange program with a large, majority white high school in Brooklyn, organized by IntegrateNYC, shifted his perspective. After educators have spent ten years struggling against the system and engineering makeshift solutions, the suit makes empirically clear what everyone on the ground had already anecdotally known to be true: It’s not just New York. It’s racist.
Small schools are everywhere in the city, and that’s unlikely to change. A 300-student school with a single multipurpose recreation room can’t sustain 15 different sports teams on its own. So within the dense, disaggregated, and segregated landscape that exists, how could a more just system be structured?
Athletic director Suzy Ort puts it bluntly: “The DOE needs to fund school sports, and right now they don’t.” Looking for solutions on her own, Ort found power in pooling resources. Her ten-year-old East Harlem Pride program confederates five small schools into a neighborhood network. According to Ort, such an arrangement harnesses “the advantages of a big school without losing the power of the small school.” Ort says students have flourished within the larger community, and that the network has expanded to include non-athletic activities as well, like book talks and presentations.
The Fair Play Coalition has argued for a similar space- and student-sharing strategy as the official policy for all small schools, and a citywide pilot program based on the East Harlem Pride model is rolling out this spring, with 26 schools participating — including Bronx Letters. Garcia-Rosen is hopeful that it’s a sign of more change to come. IntegrateNYC and other anti-segregation voices have gained traction in the media, and recently appointed DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza has made a vocal commitment to tackling segregation generally and inequity in sports particularly. The suit plaintiffs are at last in preliminary settlement discussions with DOE, the terms of which will likely include substantial, permanent policy changes.
But much will depend on the ability of a new vision to permeate the bureaucracy. Melissa Iachan, the lead NYLPI attorney on the class action suit, says the PSAL needs “total systemic overhaul.” Even given an overhaul of the policies that make it more difficult for small schools to apply for teams and use existing spaces, and of an administration that has proven by turns negligent and malicious, inadequate and unequal facilities will remain a sticking point. “If you’re going to expand sports access, but you have nowhere to play, it’s still not equitable,” Garcia-Rosen says. “Telling Bronx students that their basketball program is real when they’re baby-wiping themselves at 7:30 in the morning, that’s not equitable. That’s not what’s going on in Staten Island.”
In the parking lot behind Bronx Letters, Garcia-Rosen paints a sweeping picture of the change he thinks the city needs. New, purpose-built, multi-floor athletic facilities could make equal access to all sports across the segregated city truly possible for the first time. And he intends to start at home. Noting the rapid encroachment of development in the surrounding neighborhood, Garcia-Rosen sees no reason that the field and parking lot couldn’t be built up into a three-floor extension for the building: regulation sized courts, parking underground, and a field on top. Already he has reached out to frequent DOE collaborator-architect David Kriegel, who has worked on a variety of athletic space projects including the Park Slope Armory. Kriegel provided a fee proposal; Garcia-Rosen is on the hunt for funding to perform a feasibility study.
In fact, the School Construction Authority is pursuing an ambitious capital agenda as part of the Universal Physical Education Initiative, begun by previous DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña following pressure from the Phys Ed 4 All coalition of parents, educators, health professionals, and school administrators. The Initiative recognizes that inadequate facilities and inequitable access are two sides of the same coin, and seeks to provide adequate PE space and staff to every school by 2021. The first phase of the plan focuses on 76 sites, renovating school building interiors and erecting free-standing gym facilities on the site of playgrounds or parking lots.
But this expansion will not address the problem raised by sports equity activists. The majority of the projects funded under Universal Physical Education benefit elementary schools and will not necessarily yield competition-ready spaces. What’s more, making space for student athletics will require a strong commitment that seems to fly in the face of current trends. School facilities that do exist are under increasing pressure in a city strapped for public space. Public schools are expected to open their buildings to use by “the community” after school hours, and new school designs must account for after-hours use by both public and private, non-educational entities, architect David Kriegel says — think elections, flea markets, and church groups. This is to say nothing of private and charter schools that may rent space in public school buildings to house the programming their own facilities cannot.
Space in this city is tight, and likely always will be. This city is deeply segregated, and likely will remain so for years to come. But that it is a fact of life does not make segregation a force of nature. For years, teachers at schools like Bronx Letters have watched institutions with power either neglect or deny their students’ needs, while investing heavily in the flourishing of others. This, at least, can change. With the city willing to dedicate nearly $400 million for new spaces for physical education, space to compete might not be far behind.