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.

diverse charters

In launching new charter schools, former Success Academy lawyer aims for integration

Emily Kim at a 2015 academic forum in Washington, D.C.

Former Success Academy lawyer Emily Kim says integration will be a “key” aspect in the design of the charter chain she is aiming to launch.

Kim recently left New York City’s largest network of charter schools to start her own — and given her close ties to Success, Kim’s schools are likely to be closely watched. According to a new website and documents filed with the charter authorizer SUNY, she plans to launch Zeta Charter Schools in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

She also appears to be aiming for the schools to join the growing number of “intentionally diverse” charters. Realizing that goal will likely require substantial outreach to families, since the districts where Zeta has applied to open are overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic. The poverty rate stands at 87 percent in Manhattan’s District 6 and 93 percent in the Bronx’s District 12. The percentage of Hispanic students is 85 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Less than 3 percent of students in either district are Asian, and less than 5 percent are white.

“We believe a diverse student population enriches the school environment and raises the level and depth of learning,” the school’s website states.

New York City schools are largely segregated, and charters are no exception. In the city, 90 percent of charter schools are “intensely segregated,” with white students making up less than 10 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report. Across the state, charters often serve fewer students who are learning English or have a disability, according to a 2016 report by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

The lopsided enrollment is often attributed to the mission of many charter schools to target underserved students and neighborhoods. But since they admit students by lottery, rather than attendance boundaries, experts say charter schools in some areas have the potential to create diverse environments.

Kim has not yet filed full charter applications to SUNY for the schools, which would need to be approved by SUNY and the Board of Regents. The preliminary documents say the two elementary schools would launch in August 2018 and grow to enroll 675 students each.

haters gonna hate

Bronx borough president to high school grads: ‘Start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, or BASE, graduated its inaugural class on Wednesday.

The tech industry in New York City has a diversity problem. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering was launched to help solve it.

The high school, known as BASE, graduated its first class of seniors on Wednesday. With a curriculum that blends computer programming and social justice, the school will soon provide official Career and Technical Education certification, allowing students to graduate with an endorsement of their job-readiness.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson helped start BASE with the goal of creating a pipeline of talent for a burgeoning local technology sector, and ensuring the city’s diversity is reflected in hiring. In New York City, 53 percent of the population is black or Hispanic, but those groups make up only 20 percent of employees in the tech industry, according to a 2015 report by the Center for an Urban Future.

At BASE, about 30 percent of students are black and about 60 percent are Hispanic.

“The tech sector should look like you. All of you,” Wilson told the graduates. “I want to thank you for showing the world what’s possible … I want to ask you to go out into the world and take over the tech sector. I’m going to be rooting for you.”

About 81 percent of the inaugural class graduated, according to founding principal Ben Grossman. That’s well above the borough average of about 65 percent last year, and also beats the citywide average of about 73 percent. All of BASE’s graduates are college-bound, according to the school.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. — who has pushed for computer science education in Bronx schools, and to attract the technology sector to the borough — gave the commencement speech for BASE’s first class of seniors. Here’s why he almost didn’t graduate from high school — and his advice for defying stereotypes about what it means to be from the Bronx.

This speech has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

This is a celebration and a ceremony. It’s about a journey that you’ve already been through with your family, and one that you will continue to take as life goes on. I’ll try to not to belabor this, but let me give you a little bit of what you will perhaps encounter during that journey.

Number one: It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s all about where you finish. Why? Even though I’m the borough president, I, unlike you, did not walk and did not graduate during my high school graduation. The reason why I didn’t graduate is because I transferred my senior year, chasing love. I didn’t focus on my studies the way I should. So it took me a little longer. And we got pregnant afterwards — don’t try this at home.

We started a family. I did the best that I could to provide as a messenger for the New York City Council, my first government job. Then I went on and I ran for the New York State Assembly and, at the age of 23, I became the youngest legislator in the State of New York at the time.

So it doesn’t matter how or where you start. It’s how you finish.

But even when you believe that you made it, number two: There are going to be haters. Let them hate.

I say that because even when I was in the New York State Legislature, here I am being sworn-in, I’m 23-years-old. I have my wife and children. My mom and dad. A joyous occasion, just like today. And yet, a colleague of mine at the time, who was there for a long time, he says, “What school did you graduate from again? What college?” And I was still a college student at LaGuardia Community College. And he says, “Well, I’m Harvard. Yale Law.”

Nothing wrong with being Harvard, Yale Law. God bless him. But I just didn’t like the way he said it. He was being condescending. No me gustó. I didn’t like it.

It’s the way people sometimes look at you, about where you come from. And so I said, “Wait a minute. You’re Harvard, Yale Law. I’m LaGuardia Community College. And here we are, sitting next to each other. Either I’m a great success, or you’re just a terrible failure.”

He was trying to throw shade at me. You got to let the haters hate. You’ve got to understand that people are going to judge you because, perhaps you have an accent. Perhaps you did not go to MIT. Perhaps you didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. Maybe your parents aren’t affluent or wealthy. Or maybe just because you come from the Boogie Down Bronx.

You got to go out there, and you got to conquer. Do the best that you can and be representatives for yourself, your family, your community. And break the mold.

We’re at a place now where corporate America, the tech world, is looking at our borough, like they’re looking at other places, to try to find a home. This is where you come in. This is where you start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like.

There’s a sensitive time in this country, where even coming out of the White House, there’s this vilification of diversity. We come in all shapes and colors. We embrace them and we know that diversity is our strength. You go out there. You get your degrees. You conquer the world. And you represent BASE, you represent your family, and you represent the Boogie Down Bronx as well.

You represent evidence that, if you give a young man, a young woman from our community — with all of that swag — you give them resources, they’ll conquer the world.

Understand that you’ve already started in a better place than some of us. You’re already equipped with the backing and the love of a community — whether it’s your parents or your educators. You have the attention of giants in the fields that you want to go into.

Some might say you’re lucky. Luck is but an equation. Luck equals opportunity, plus preparation. I believe that BASE has prepared you to go out there and seize all the opportunities that will be presented in front of you.

Oh, by the way. That young lady I was chasing? Twenty-eight years later, she’s still my wife.