let's talk

How should New York City teachers guide conversations about race and police violence?

PHOTO: Jamaal Bowman
Jamaal Bowman (center) with national leaders in Washington, D.C.

New York City educators are no strangers to the effects of racism, police violence, and poverty. But how to help students make sense of social injustice is often far from obvious.

So as America grapples this week with how to have conversations in the face of racism and violence, we checked in with teachers, parents, students, and school leaders across the city about how they approach those discussions.

School integration can lead the way to better race relations

Jamaal Bowman, principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx

The country’s history of racism and policing of communities of color should be baked into the curriculum, argues Bowman. But school integration and more teacher training to handle the experiences students bring into the classroom are also key.

“Many teachers, principals, and school personnel are not trained to have these discussions. The focus on academic achievement without the social/emotional components of learning is the reason for this lack of preparedness,” Bowman said. “If schools were integrated and different races learned together, schools can be the spaces to transform race relations for generations to come.”

Real-world discussions have a place in the classroom

Kalen Wheeler, guidance counselor at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School

It’s worth carving out some class time to have conversations about hot-button issues like race and policing, Wheeler said. She added that educators of color might feel a greater pull to make time for those discussion, even when that means putting their normal lessons on pause.

“If the teacher is obsessed with Common Core and getting students prepped for a test, they think there’s no time for this,” Wheeler said. “Or is the teacher going to stop whatever they’re on at the moment and prioritize this? I think in part that comes back to the importance of having people of color as educators.”

Talk alone won’t fix the problem

Tamika Johnson, parent of a 17-year-old at Boys and Girls High School and two students at P.S. 308 in Brooklyn

Some people are less confident that conversation can help solve these problems. Although she’s experienced police mistreatment, Johnson said she doesn’t plan to have long talks with her children about how to approach officers, nor does she think school discussions about the issue are likely to be productive.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of conversations they have with students [if] you can never guarantee what their interactions with the police will be,” she said. “We’ve seen people shot when they’re complying.”

The fight for fairness can start in schools

Antoinette King, former student at High School for Public Service, and youth organizer at the Urban Youth Collaborative

To have effective discussions about race, schools must first acknowledge the inequities that exist within their walls, said King, who graduated this June. When conversations about injustice do happen, they should be intentional.

Antoinette King
Antoinette King

“If we want to start the conversation, schools have to end the racist policies they have in place, like metal detectors and the constant police presence.”

Creating safe spaces takes time

Jason Feldman, incoming teacher at Urban Assembly Maker Academy in Manhattan

Teachers can’t create safe spaces for difficult discussions the day after a troubling event, Feldman said. Instead, they must begin before that by developing strong relationship with students, so that they feel comfortable talking about how these issues affect their lives in and out of school.

“Once you establish a relationship of trust and non-judgment, you can open up these conversations,” Feldman said. “You can walk into any public school and students will tell you who they can talk to about their lives. You can’t just say, “OK, well let’s talk about this.” That starts with admins and policy makers, and rethinking what schools are supposed to look like.”

Students need tools to interpret current events

Malik Lewis, assistant principal at West Brooklyn Community High School

Whether it’s the latest Kanye West music video or the police shooting of a black person, Lewis said that students today learn the news and react to it through social media. So Lewis encourages his teachers to bring in those online artifacts — say a satirical meme about racism posted on Twitter — and help students analyze them like any other document: What symbols do they use? Who is their intended audience? What biases do they reflect?

The goal is to show students how to apply skills and concepts they learn in school — literary analysis, historical context, critical thinking — to current events, not to interpret those events for them.

“I think educators should be sensitive to not telling students how to feel or how to react to these types of situations,” he said. “Instead, focus on helping them have the tools to understand it themselves and express their thoughts.”

Systemic problems demand systemic solutions

Hebh Jamal, student organizer, and Sarah Camiscoli, teacher and co-director, IntegrateNYC4Me

As a Muslim teenager who has watched police officers keep tabs on her mosque, Jamal said there is “100 percent distrust” between her community and the police. It is even worse for some of her black peers, she said, who post messages online about how to safely interact with officers when they are stopped — “step-by-step instructions on how to avoid death,” as she put it.

She believes the problem goes beyond individual police officers or even the criminal-justice system. That is one reason she joined IntegrateNYC4Me, a student-led advocacy group that promotes school integration and high-quality schools for all students.

“The education system is also complicit in the oppression of African Americans in this country,” she said. “If you attack this systematically, you can start to make a change.”

Camiscoli, who teaches at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, agreed that the problem is more systemic than individual. She pointed out that some safety agents at her school act as mentors and counselors for her students. The issue is the city and school-system policies that shape their work, she said.

“I’ve never heard a young person say, ‘I don’t want school safety agents,’” she said. “But I have heard young people say, ‘I don’t want metal detectors. I don’t want to be arrested and cuffed’” in school.

A better way

Parents and city officials hope to tackle inequity in gifted education, specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

District 9 in the Bronx is home to almost 18,000 elementary school students. Only about 55 of them were enrolled in gifted and talented programs last year.

A new task force launched by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents wants to dig into why that is — and what should be done about it.

New York City’s gifted programs are starkly segregated by race and class. A majority of city students are black or Hispanic. But those students make up only 27 percent of gifted enrollment. And while 77 percent of students citywide are poor, the poverty rate in gifted programs is about 43 percent.

With limited access to gifted programs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said it’s no wonder minority students are also woefully underrepresented in the city’s elite specialized high schools — another issue the task force will address.

The latest round of acceptance data for specialized high schools, released last week, shows that the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to those schools hasn’t budged past 10 percent.

“If they’re not in gifted and talented, then they’re not prepared to pass the exams that place you in specialized high schools,” Diaz said.

Admission to specialized high schools hinges on the results of a single exam — as does entry into gifted programs starting in kindergarten.

The city has tried to boost diversity in both areas, offering test prep for the specialized high school exam, and administering the test during the school day at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities. The department also recently opened new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without any: Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn.

But Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called the department’s diversity moves “a new coat of paint” that fails to address bigger problems.

“We have to dig deeper,” he said. “Lack of diversity is not going to produce the leaders we want.”

The borough presidents hope the task force will come up with recommendations beyond traditional solutions like offering test prep, and suggest ways to address systemic issues, such as offering gifted testing to all students in universal pre-K programs and helping parents better prepare their children for success in school.

Adams also said the department needs to figure out how to make sure all parents have access to information on how to enroll in the sought-after programs, especially in communities with large immigrant populations or where parents don’t have experience dealing with big bureaucracies like the Department of Education.

“They think, ‘Well this information is out there. Everyone has access to it,’” he said. “That is not true. Government is frightening for those who aren’t used accessing it.”

Not everyone is convinced gifted and talented programs will help address inequity. In an editorial in Quartz last year, researchers Halley Potter and Allison Roda, who have both studied equity issues in New York City schools, said the solution will require “radically reimagining gifted education, and eliminating separate G&T programs altogether.”

“New York City’s current approach to gifted education is founded on separation,” they wrote.

Yet despite the lingering disparities, Diaz said all children deserve access to programs like gifted and talented.

“Some of them are [English Language Learners], some of them have special needs. But some of them need to be challenged intellectually,” he said. “We need to do the best we can for every single one of our students.”

The first task force meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on March 20 at Bronx High School of Science, located at 75 West 205th St. The Brooklyn meeting has been rescheduled due to snow, and will be held at 6 p.m. on March 28 at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.

bad fit

‘It’s not a solution’: How a Harlem co-location proposal is highlighting disparities between two schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36, called for more resources at the school.

A plan to co-locate two schools in Harlem is drawing intense opposition from residents who say the city Department of Education has long neglected the host school, P.S. 36.

The city wants to temporarily move some students from Teachers College Community School into P.S. 36, which overlooks Morningside Park. But at a community hearing Wednesday, parents blasted the proposal and accused the department of letting P.S. 36 languish until its space became needed by a wealthier, whiter school community.

Valencia Moore, PTA president of P.S. 36, listed all the repairs and resources she says are needed at her school: new electrical wiring, stronger Wi-Fi, replacement desks and new bookshelves.

“Some of our teachers are using milk crates to store their books,” she said. “We’re short-staffed now, where we have parents coming in and volunteering.”

She added that parents have asked the city for years to make repairs to the school’s playground. City officials on Wednesday said they are planning to make the fixes and promised to look into another recurring request — to renovate bathrooms. For parents, the city’s response only exacerbated a sense of inequity many feel.

“Now, all of a sudden you can find money to fix the playground — because you’re bringing a wealthier school,” said Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of the local Community Education Council. “You have kids bullying other groups of kids because their school looks better. That’s going on in Harlem… We deserve better.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of Community Education Council District 5 in Harlem.

TCCS is a diverse school where fewer than half of the students are low-income. Meanwhile, most of the students at P.S. 36 are black or Hispanic, and almost 90 percent are poor. To meet their students’ needs, P.S. 36 has partnerships with eight community organizations, which offer health screenings, counseling and mental health services within the building.

The co-location proposal stems from a battle to create a middle school for TCCS — something the community has pushed for. Opened in 2011 through a partnership between the city and Columbia University, the school is poised to admit its first sixth-grade class in the upcoming school year.

The problem is there’s no room for the extra grades at the current TCCS campus on Morningside Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. So city officials have proposed moving TCCS’s younger students — pre-K through second grade — into the P.S. 36 building. The move is supposed to be temporary until the Department of Education can find a permanent home for TCCS.

Parents at TCCS have concerns of their own.

Laura Blake has a daughter at TCCS. She said parents are skeptical the co-location would work, and worry that staff and resources will be stretched thin across two campuses.

“It’s not a solution,” she said.

She echoed concerns from P.S. 36 parents that there simply isn’t enough room for more students — despite assurances to the contrary from city officials.

Moore, the P.S. 36 PTA president, worried the co-location would impede her school’s ability to continue to host community partners and serve its sizeable population — 31 percent — of students with special needs.

“We’re the little people,” she said. “We shouldn’t be bombarded by people who have money.”

According to the co-location proposal, only 64 percent of P.S. 36 is currently being used and students will still be able to receive the special education services they’re entitled to.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained why the move was necessary. “As demand for TCCS grows among families, we’re committed to providing its students and staff with the space and resources they need to continue thriving,” Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “This temporary re-siting will help ensure that the school can continue to grow enrollment and expand the grades it serves, as we work diligently to find a permanent home that meets the needs of the entire TCCS community.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at their regular meeting on Feb. 28.