New York’s Playing Fields Aren’t Level, Students Say

Lisa Parks and Matt Diaz are plaintiffs in a lawsuit saying that high school sports in New York City discriminate against black and Latino students, by not offering teams as their schools.

Fleet of foot, Lisa Parks moved to the Bronx last year, a dedicated runner at her old high school in Atlanta.

When she arrived in New York City, she sprinted head-on into the unintended consequences of reform.

“There’s no track team at my school,” Lisa, 16, said.

Over the last two decades, city officials have opened scores of smaller high schools so that young people would not get buried under the crushing impersonality of the old factory-style schools.

Those reforms have come at a steep cost: the advantage of scale — the ability of big schools to offer programs, such as science courses, music and sports, that often require large numbers of students.

Black and Latino students pay the price most heavily, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last week in State Supreme Court that says racial inequity in the sports programs of the public schools violates the city’s human rights law.

“On average, Black and Latino students have access to far fewer teams and sports, and the city spends much less per student than for students of other races,” the suit states. “Black and Latino students are twice as likely as students of other races to lack access to any public high school sports team whatsoever.”

The suit says that city records show that more than 17,000 black and Latino students attend schools without any sports, and that when their schools do field teams in the Public Schools Athletic League, there are fewer choices — 15.6 teams as opposed to 25 teams in schools attended by the average student of other races.

Miranda Barbot, a Department of Education spokeswoman, described playing team sports as “a transformative experience that strengthens school communities.” Ms. Barbot said the department was reviewing the lawsuit, but did not reply to a request for comment on the accuracy of the statistics it cited.

Matt Diaz, 16 and heading into his senior year at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, has been a fierce volleyball player since he was a boy. The school opened in 2003, and runs from sixth grade through high school. About 600 students attend the high school.

“I talked to the athletic director about volleyball,” Matt said. “He said there isn’t enough people in our school to do that.”

He was encouraged, he said, to speak about inequity in sports. “Not having volleyball in my school made me into an advocate,” Matt said. Now he is one of the four student plaintiffs in the suit, which was brought by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, along with the law firms of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler and Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady.

With the surge of new small high schools, it has become clear that the existing machinery to provide for sports is obsolete. The Public Schools Athletic League rations funding for teams based on a formula that includes the numbers of students who can take part, but the lawsuit argues that its reasoning for approving or denying new teams is often opaque. In 2011, David Garcia-Rosen, a dean at a small public high school, formed a small schools league with no funding from the city. Under pressure from the Fair Play Coalition — a group of teachers, coaches, students and lawyers — the Department of Education has provided funding. Ms. Barbot said the city has added 217 teams since 2014.

Students are not permitted under P.S.A.L. rules to play for a team not affiliated with their school. And pooling resources among smaller schools often depends on the energy of officials who already have their hands full.

“If you have an inspired athletic director or principal, they may be able to roam the streets and create a coalition,” said Hayley Gorenberg, the legal director for the public interest law group. “They are not going to be able to shoulder the burden for fixing this for tens of thousands of students. There is not a scaffolding to make that happen.”

New York City is home to the Armory Track and Field Center, one of the premier arenas in the country. Hundreds of high schools from the region and the country come to compete at the center.

Lisa Parks, now 16 and going into the 11th grade at the same school as Matt Diaz, reeled off the events she ran in Atlanta, before she moved to New York: the 300 hurdles, 4x1 relays, 4x4 relays, the 200, the 100.

Have you run at the Armory?

“What’s that?” Lisa asked.

A track and field center in Washington Heights, she was told.

“No,” she said. “I don’t know it.”

There was no point rubbing it in. So far, at least 50 meets have been held there this year — including the borough championships for the Public Schools Athletic League.

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