06/11/2014 07:57 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

Our Schools Truly Can Be Racially Diverse

In marking the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, First Lady Michelle Obama made what some might find a jarring declaration about our lack of progress in integrating our public-education system: "Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech."

It's true that we as a country have made substantial strides since Brown in advancing the cause of diversity and opening up opportunities for minorities. But the fact is that in too many places our K-12 schools are a very different story, especially here in New York. The UCLA's Civil Rights Project recently reported that the state of New York has the most segregated public schools in the nation -- so segregated, in fact, that many black and Hispanic students have virtually no white classmates.

Amidst this dispiriting picture, we can present two oases of success -- and a real cause for optimism that we can break down these barriers across our public-school system and realize the promise of Brown in our lifetime: In the past few years we have started a pair of Hebrew-language charter schools in Harlem and Brooklyn that, counter to the expectations of some, have quietly and quickly become two of the most integrated public elementary schools in the city.

At Harlem Hebrew Language Charter School, 45 percent of our students are black, 40 percent are white, and 15 percent are Hispanic; 57 percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, while other public schools in Harlem typically exceed 85-percent student-poverty rates and include populations of white students far below 10 percent of the total student body. At Brooklyn's Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, 40 percent of our students are black or Caribbean, 55 percent are white, and 4 percent are Hispanic; 64 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Our schools are more than statistically blended. At Harlem Hebrew and HLA, students from middle-income families learn alongside students who live in shelters or transitional housing, as well as with children from wealthy homes. Play dates across racial and socioeconomic lines are organized for afters chool and weekends. Parents and other caregivers arrange for drop-off and pick-up at each other's homes.

Compare this reality with that of other schools in the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, roughly 10 blocks south of HLA sits a district public school where 88 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, and where fully 100 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch; 10 blocks south of that sits a school whose demography is the inverse, with a 90-percent white student enrollment and with less than a third of the students from lower-income families.

What's the difference? It's not rocket science: It's mostly educational priorities.

We as a country have talked a great deal about education as a civil right in the half-century-plus since Brown, and especially in the last 20 years, as the unconscionable achievement gap between whites and minorities became unavoidable. But the fact is that the well-meaning reform efforts we have been pursuing in urban areas -- school choice, common standards, teacher accountability -- have rarely included an emphasis on remedying the effects of racial and economic isolation.

This lack of commitment was recently underscored when New York City missed targets set in a federal grant specifically designed to address racial isolation of schools in Manhattan's Community School District 3, which includes parts of Harlem and the Upper West Side. One of the schools in that program is a few blocks away from Harlem Hebrew. Despite being a beneficiary of the federal grant, 92 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and only 2 percent of its students are white.

We believe this lack of focus is a mistake, a missed opportunity to expand opportunities for children who need them the most. Decades of research tell us that students from high-poverty backgrounds learn better when they are educated in truly diverse environments.

So we have made integration an integral part of our educational program -- which is to say that we are diverse by design. We purposely located HLA and Harlem Hebrew in community school districts that include many different ethnic and racial communities. We have developed programs that are meant to appeal to and meet the needs of the full diversity of those communities. And we have worked hard to recruit diverse boards of directors as well as diverse applicants.

Our focus on diversity does not come at the cost of educational quality; our schools incorporate the best practices of many other successful schools, including student-centered learning, data-driven differentiated instruction, and a heavy emphasis on teacher professional development. That helps explain why we have long waiting lists for both Harlem Hebrew and HLA.

We don't claim to have found a magic bullet. Not only do we have an advantage being a school of choice, but more to the point, the roots of this problem run extremely deep. Achieving real integration in our public schools will require real patience and a commitment to creating schools to which parents across a wide range of incomes and backgrounds want to send their children.

But our experience strongly suggests that if you do build it -- and even more importantly, if you do the hard, smart work of designing, marketing, and recruiting for it -- they will come. And together we will come far closer to our goal of offering great schools for all children.

Reverend Assemblyman Karim Camara, Democrat from the 43rd District, chairs the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus and is a board member of the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) in Brooklyn and the Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC). Sara Berman chairs the boards for HLA, Harlem Hebrew, and HCSC.