A recent report had unwelcome news for the Sewanhaka Central High School District: Among suburban school districts nationwide with the "highest black segregation," it ranked ninth. The ranking is largely based on the disproportionately African-American enrollment at the district's Elmont Memorial High School - 77 percent. But Sewanhaka officials say the report's broader implication, that its black students are being shortchanged, is misleading. "We're one of two public high schools in the nation with an above 90 percent graduation rate of our African-American males," said principal John Capozzi. Last June, according to the state, 96 percent of Elmont seniors graduated - compared to about 70 percent statewide. And 97 percent of the graduates went on to college, 17 points above the statewide average. "We're very proud of the fact that children in our district achieve across the board, regardless of race and ethnicity," said Dave Fowler, vice president of the Sewanhaka school board. The Sewanhaka findings are in a March 31 report by the Pew Hispanic Center on diversity in suburban school districts. Pew identified 25 districts with the highest segregation of black students among their multiple schools. The report's author and others say schools with a high percentage of black, Hispanic or Asian students often operate with far less money than majority-white schools. That, in turn, may mean weaker teaching and lower student achievement.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Benefits to society And they see societal benefits from racial diversity in schools. "You can't underestimate the importance of being prepared to live and work and be engaged with people of different backgrounds," said Anurima Bhargava, of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. "Promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation are compelling national interests." Now, 55 years almost to the day - May 17, 1954 - after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision striking down legalized school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Bhargava noted that many of the nation's schools, especially in urban areas, are becoming "resegregated." It's not a function of intent, as before Brown, she noted, but of communities' demographic shifts. And the demographics have shifted in Elmont. According to 2005-07 census estimates, the community is 41.3 percent black, 23.4 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic and 10.5 percent Asian. In 2000, whites were 38.7 percent; a decade earlier, 75 percent. "It's obvious that there is a difference in the racial percentages" at Sewanhaka's five high schools, said Sandra Smith, who is African-American. Her son Justin, 17, is an Elmont senior. But it's the "quality of education that is key." Smith, active in the Parent Teacher Student Association, added she doesn't see "any evidence" that Elmont is shortchanged on resources. Superintendent Warren Meierdiercks says Elmont "is not racially isolated, because it's part of the central high school district and the resources we have make it work." Elmont had a semifinalist this year in the prestigious Intel science competition, a first for the school in 30 years. Researchers cite the school's motivational teaching and "rigorous academics and curriculum," prompting visits by other districts. "We saw kids who were very focused," said Tony Marchio, superintendent of the 9,000-student Appoquinimink School District in Delaware.

"High expectations" Principal Capozzi said his school emphasized "high expectations of all students." Meierdiercks said there was no intent to steer black students into Elmont and that students attend schools based on where they live. The district's five high schools draw students from racially disparate neighborhoods. For example, the Census shows that New Hyde Park and Franklin Square, where two schools are located, are predominantly white - 82 percent and 92 percent, respectively. But critics see neighborhood schools as problematic. Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, an advocacy group in Syosset, said Long Island schools' racial makeup tracks long-standing segregated housing patterns. Given what Gross called "severe" racial isolation of Long Island's schools overall, she said the Pew report's focus on Sewanhaka seems unfair. Yet she faulted the district for a "missed opportunity" to capitalize on its overall diversity. Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center and author of the report, said many districts assign students by neighborhood. But some use magnet schools that draw from a larger area "to create more racially balanced schools." But ultimately, said Fowler, the racial composition of Elmont High is simply less important than how the students perform: "We do very well with a diverse population."