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.

diversity plan

Advocates call on Chancellor Fariña to take ‘morally necessary’ steps to end school segregation

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall in District 3 in 2015. She is seated next to Superintendent Ilene Altschul, second from right.

The deadline is fast approaching for New York City officials to release their “bigger vision” plan to promote school diversity, and advocates are once again demanding more input on the final proposal.

In a draft letter obtained by Chalkbeat, a self-described group of “parents, students, educators, advocates and elected officials” pushes the education department to declare integration a priority, include the community in any plans that will be put forward, and to adopt “systemic” approaches to desegregate city schools.

“We do not pretend that it will be easy,” states the letter, which is addressed to Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “But we insist that it is logistically possible, educationally sound, and morally necessary.”

In April, Councilman Brad Lander presented a similar letter to members of the “New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation,” or ASID — a relatively new group of desegregation advocates from across the city.

Councilman Lander’s office declined to comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the education department have said they will release a plan to address school segregation by June. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, driven in large part by New York City, and advocates have been pushing for years for a large-scale remedy.

In 2015, advocates sent a similar letter to the department that included some of the same requests, including the adoption of a formal policy statement making integration a priority. When asked about that in an August 2016 interview, Fariña told Chalkbeat: “Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.”

A new element of the advocate’s proposal calls for integration efforts to start in pre-K. Parents can apply to any of the city’s universal pre-K sites, but pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens, according to a recent report. The letter also calls for the education department to set “measureable goals” towards desegregation.

In recent years, the education department has moved forward with some plans to increase diversity in schools, such as allowing schools to set aside a certain percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria. But advocates have criticized that approach as piecemeal and are eagerly awaiting the city’s broader diversity plan.

See full letter below:



Revised Letter to DOE 5 5 17 (Text)

By the numbers

NYC middle schools, pre-Ks meet diversity targets — and more high schools join initiative to spur integration

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

New York City middle schools participating in an admissions program designed to encourage integration met their targets in making offers to incoming students, Chalkbeat has learned.

Additionally, two more high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions pilot, bringing the total to 21 participating schools — still a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,800 schools across the city.

This is the third school year that principals could apply to the program, which allows schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a measure of poverty. In some schools, only a sliver of seats are set aside; at others, it’s more than half.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have come under increasing pressure to spur integration in city schools, which are some of the most segregated in the country. While the education department has been eager to tout the Diversity in Admissions program, many activists have criticized the approach as piecemeal, calling instead for wider-scale approaches. The city has promised a broader plan by June, and the chancellor recently hinted that changes to high school admissions could be a part of the proposal.

The four middle schools in the diversity program all met — or surpassed — their set-aside targets in making offers to incoming students, according to data provided by the education department. However, it’s not guaranteed that all students who are offered admission will actually enroll.

Two of the participating middle schools are in Brooklyn’s District 15, where parents and Councilman Brad Lander have called for enrollment changes. At M.S. 839, 42 percent of offers went to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At the Math & Science Exploratory School, 30 percent of offers did.

Two high schools will join the Diversity in Admissions program for the 2017-18 enrollment cycle: Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, and Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. Both will set aside 63 percent of seats for students who qualify for free lunch — a higher threshold of need. Currently, 83 percent of students at Williamsburg High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (rates for only free lunch were not immediately available). Only about 50 percent of students at Academy for Careers in Television and Film qualify for free lunch, according to Principal Edgar Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said he has seen the school’s population slowly change since it opened almost a decade ago. Television and Film was a Title I school when it launched, meaning enough students were poor to qualify for additional federal funding. The school has since lost that status, and Rodriguez said joining the Diversity in Admission pilot will help preserve economic diversity.

“We work very hard, in the four years we have students with us, to provide them a space that gives them a sense of the real world,” he said. “The school is already diverse as it is, and I think ensuring the diversity continues, and that it’s sustained over time and deepened, just enhances that experience overall.”

The education department also shared offer information for nine pre-K sites in the Diversity in Admissions program.

Most pre-Ks in the diversity program met their offer targets, except for the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. The school aimed to make 10 percent of offers to students who have incarcerated parents, but the school wasn’t able to make any offers based on the students who applied and priority status given to other students.

A recent report by The Century Foundation found that the city’s pre-Ks are more segregated than kindergarten classrooms. Testifying recently at a state budget hearing, Fariña seemed to chalk that up to parent choice.

“I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying,” she said. “This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K.”