support group

NYU’s David Kirkland explains the ‘transformation’ needed to integrate the city’s schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
David E. Kirkland, executive director of NYU's Metropolitan Center, in his office.

Even as calls for school integration grow louder across New York City, there has been no single place for advocates to turn for guidance and support. But that is about to change.

The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University recently landed a $50,000 grant from the New York City Council to launch a resource center to support grassroots organizers, interested school administrators and elected leaders.

In many ways, the work is already underway. NYU and New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues, have been organizing monthly meetings to allow advocates from across the city swap ideas and form action plans.

The Resource Center for School Diversity and Integration will build on that. It will be led by David E. Kirkland, executive director of the Metro Center, and Norm Fruchter, a former member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Chalkbeat sat down with Kirkland to discuss the new center and integration efforts in New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do we already know about K-12 integration? What does the research tells us?

The research suggests, over and again, that people who are exposed to differences are more open-minded and more tolerant. They’re more compassionate. They think more complexly. They’re capable of working out difficult problems.

Forget college and career readiness. Here we have civic readiness, the ability to participate in a multicultural democracy with people who are different than you are, in ways that inspire not tension but community and collaboration.

What this is, is an idea of democracy of access, democracy of opportunity. If my friends’ parents are doctors, the dream of becoming a doctor becomes tangible. It becomes far more legible, as opposed to when I live in communities where nobody gets to be a doctor, or nobody gets to be a lawyer, or judge. The seedling of that imagination becomes within reach.

It seems like advocates have been asking for something like this center to be created. Why is it needed?

In the past, I think equity work has been limited because we work in silos. It’s been important under my leadership at Metro Center to break down silos and create partnerships, broad coalitions and relationships, to solve some vexing problems that we have in schools — particularly New York City schools.

One thing that we know: We know that schools and teachers can’t do it alone. But we also know that one-off, siloed organizations can’t either, that social inequity is a deeply complicated and deeply entangled thing, and it deserves our collective attention.

We haven’t had a dedicated space to deliberate on this idea of integration and what’s necessary to achieve it, and even to argue whether or not it’s something that we want to achieve. I think it’s worth achieving, but I do think we need to have a conversation, and we do need to have a conversation about how to achieve it. We also need to have a conversation about what it is.

How do you define integration?

Our notion of integration is different than desegregation … It is an equity cause, and not just a diversity one. Because diversity is like being asked to a dance, right? And it’s more than just inclusion, too. So if diversity is like being asked to a dance, inclusion is like being asked to dance. But equity, and integration as equity, is giving people an opportunity to dance to their own song in their own way. It’s transformation.

So would a school have an idea and brings it to the center, and you’d help them implement it? Or are you going to try to spur ideas in the first place?

All of the above. The resource network is figuring itself out. We have people who want to support schools in helping them become more integrated. We have people who want to create policy, both at the education level and beyond it. We have people who want to do other types of grassroots organizing to inform parents in communities around a set of ideas. It’s certainly all of the above, and I think we need a broad and bold solution to inspire integration in New York City.

There are also systems of ideas that have worked. We can begin to construct a blueprint based on the variety of ideas that seem to work, like controlled choice [which factors student diversity into admissions among schools in a certain area.] And all of those ideas need to be in conversation and they need to sit somewhere, a central site or organization for New York City, so we can think more deeply about integration and bring integration to fruition within the city.

We exist as a support group to multiple municipal players — the mayor, the chancellor, the City Council — in order to support the integration of New York City schools.

What kind of relationship do you plan to have with the chancellor and the mayor? They’ve both been criticized for not doing enough to help this issue along.

I’m not divisive, because our kids can’t afford for us to be divided … I’m willing to support a direction of diversity and integration that is evidence-based, that is scientific, that is conceptually, theoretically sound.

And I’m willing to work with anybody who is willing to work on those ideas.

I’m curious to hear from you about the challenges — but also maybe the opportunities — that gentrification presents, and how that plays out in schools. 

This conversation about gentrification, let’s be clear: It’s not integration. But it is a reality of cities like New York. I think as a community plan, New York City needs to think about how to protect people from being displaced, how to protect people against gentrification if they truly want to integrate. So one of the threats to integration, to be clear, is gentrification.

We [need to] have community and collaborative engagement around community and school development, so that parents who have more power don’t necessarily overpower parents and community members with less.

There actually are many diverse neighborhoods, and — at the middle and high school level — we have lots of school choice. What will the center’s role be in trying to harness that? Are there opportunities there?

New York city is this really interesting place where young people don’t necessarily get out of their neighborhoods. They may have a choice, but they don’t necessarily feel it. It’s the caged-bird effect. You can open the door to the cage and say ‘Hey, there’s a world out there, bird.’ But if that bird has been behind the cage forever, the bird is not going anywhere because its mind is caged.

People don’t perceive the choice, if there is a choice. And that perception is necessary in order for there to be a choice.

on the move

City panel approves controversial move of P.S. 452, part of Upper West Side rezoning

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents attend a previous District 3 meeting.

The Panel for Educational Policy voted Wednesday to approve the move of P.S. 452, an Upper West Side school whose planned relocation helped fuel a debate over school segregation.

The move is just one part of a larger plan, already approved by the local Community Education Council, to rezone a number of schools in Manhattan’s District 3. CEC members and the city Department of Education say the changes are needed to relieve overcrowding and improve student diversity.

Along with the move, the attendance zone around P.S. 452 was changed to include more students who are low-income, black and Latino. Currently, P.S 452 is made up largely of white and wealthier students.

Parents of students at P.S. 452 have been split over the move, which would put the school about 16 blocks south of its current location and across the street from public housing. Some opponents say the distance will be burdensome and that they have been wrongly branded as not wanting a more diverse school. Supporters of the move say the new location will give P.S. 452 — which currently shares its campus — much-needed space, along with a more racially and economically integrated student body.

Achieving Diversity

Is large-scale school integration possible in New York City? New report lays out steps to help it happen

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It took more than a year of bitter fighting to change school zone lines to better integrate just a few schools on the Upper West Side.

With that in mind, tackling school segregation on a larger scale may seem like an impossible task. But a report released Wednesday by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs lays out ways to jumpstart integration citywide.

“We think the city can create conditions under which more parents can choose, voluntarily, integrated schools,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the report’s authors and the founder of the school review site InsideSchools.

The city could offer extra funding to diverse schools, for instance, or open magnet programs to attract families beyond regular school zones, she said at a panel held  at the New School on Wednesday.

The report suggests that desegregation efforts should start early: in the city’s pre-K centers. Funding for pre-K comes from different sources, depending on a family’s income. Red tape associated with those different funding streams can make it difficult to mix children of different socioeconomic backgrounds in the same classrooms.

Though the city has taken steps to change that, the report notes that many pre-K directors are still unaware they can “blend” classrooms.

The city should also find ways to break up concentrations of homeless students in some schools, according to the report. Children who are homeless miss school more often and often have greater needs than peers in stable housing, and the rates of homelessness varies from almost zero at some schools to more than 50 percent at others.

Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor who oversees diversity efforts for the Department of Education, pointed out at Wednesday’s panel that some schools with high populations of homeless children have built effective programs to meet their needs.

“It could be an open question for us to wrestle with, as to whether you want to break that up,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a one-size-fits-all solution here.”

The report also calls for moving ahead with a new enrollment proposal called “controlled choice” in District 1 on the Lower East Side. The district won a state grant to help integrate its schools, but local parents have been frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles that are likely to delay the plan by at least a year.

Hemphill cautioned that controlled choice, which ensures an economically diverse student body, may not be a solution in all districts, especially in areas where parents aren’t happy with their public school options.

“You have to have an aggressive plan to improve school quality before you institute controlled choice,” she said. “You have to be careful how you work the formula so you don’t scare away the parents you need to make the schools integrated.”

Councilman Brad Lander, who was also on the panel, said it will take time to get integration policies right. While recognizing the need for citywide action, Lander said it will take “step-by-step” approaches to lay the groundwork for broader plans.

“Because there’s a stark moral reality to how awful it is to have this segregated a school system, there’s a desire to fix it immediately, with a big solution that will solve it tomorrow,” he said. “I actually think that it is the step-by-step work, making it work in lots of individual schools, bridging that up to the district level … that’s going to be successful.”