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Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2002 (2002) 183-214

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Immigrant Children and New York City Schools:
Segregation and Its Consequences

Ingrid Gould Ellen
New York University

Katherine O'Regan
New York University

Amy Ellen Schwartz
New York University

Leanna Stiefel
New York University


IMMIGRANT CHILDREN REPRESENT a large and growing proportion of school children in the United States, especially in urban areas. An estimated 10.4 percent of the U.S. population is now foreign born, the highest percentage since 1930, and in central cities, the proportion has risen to 16 percent. 1 Yet we know surprisingly little about the experience or isolation levels of foreign-born students. While there is considerable research on the degree to which racial minorities are isolated in U.S. schools and on the disturbing consequences of this segregation, there is no parallel research concerning immigrants.

The goal of this paper is to examine this issue, looking at evidence from the New York City school system. In particular, we address two main questions: First, how segregated are immigrant students in New York's schools and how does that segregation vary across groups with differing language skills and from different regions of the world? Second, to the extent we do see segregation, how different are the schools attended by immigrant children (either overall or from particular regions) in terms of student characteristics, teachers, and funding levels? [End Page 183]

New York City is an especially apt place to study immigrant students because the city's public schools educate so many immigrants from more than 200 countries, speaking more than 120 languages. In addition, we have been able to assemble an extraordinarily detailed data set, which allows us to exploit the cultural richness of New York City's student population.

The paper is organized as follows: In the first section, we review the literature on school segregation and explore the ways in which segregation might affect immigrant students. In section two, we describe our data and provide a brief statistical portrait of immigrant students in New York City. In section three, we lay out our methods and hypotheses, while in section four, we present our analysis of segregation of immigrant students. We then present our conclusions in section five.

Theory and Previous Literature

It is worth discussing why we might be concerned about segregation in the first place. Through a variety of avenues, segregation may affect the educational and social outcomes of children. For example, many studies have found that a lack of interracial contact in elementary or secondary school can be harmful to black children, especially in the longer run. 2 Whether the same holds for immigrant children is not at all clear. The few studies that address this question find that ethnic isolation has either little effect or somewhat positive effects on immigrant children, but most of these studies rely on very small samples and use subjective assessments of either students or school personnel to describe the ethnic composition of peers. 3 Moreover, most studies of residential segregation find that immigrant families are not nearly as segregated as blacks, that they tend to assimilate over time, and that first-generation immigrants from a particular country or region are more segregated than their later-generation counterparts. 4 Therefore, even if segregation were [End Page 184] to have an impact, it might be much smaller for immigrants, and might disappear with time.

Nonetheless, the evidence on the significance of segregation for blacks and the many theoretical reasons we outline for why concentration might have an effect on immigrant students suggest that their segregation merits study. We discuss below three key ways in which school segregation might affect immigrant students: through peer effects, through differential resources, and through network effects.

Peer Effects

Whether and how much peers influence student performance has been studied extensively in education. 5 The hypothesis is that a student's decisions about how much to study, how to behave in the classroom, and what kinds...


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pp. 183-214
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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