Then and now

Half a century after integrating a New Orleans school, Ruby Bridges says America is headed in the wrong direction

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
U.S. marshals escort Ruby Bridges to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.

At age 6, Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration as the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.

Today at 62, Ruby Bridges-Hall says the United States is going in the wrong direction on school integration.

The New Orleans school where she enrolled amidst protest from white families is now segregated again — this time with mostly black students.

And there’s a growing national trend of white suburban municipalities breaking off from their mostly black urban counterparts to form their own school systems. That’s what happened in Memphis in 2014 when six communities that ringed the city pulled out of newly consolidated Shelby County Schools.

PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Ruby Bridges-Hall claps during a May 20 student performance at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

With her own literacy-focused foundation, Bridges-Hall was in Memphis last weekend for a festival named after her at the National Civil Rights Museum. Chalkbeat sat down with her to talk about the state of school segregation today. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

How do you see school segregation today?

I’m a strong believer that if we are going to get past our racial differences, it’s going to come from the next generation, which is our kids. We all know that’s where racism starts. None of our babies are born knowing anything about disliking one another, disliking someone that looks different. It’s taught to them and handed down. So, if we can teach them to be racist, we can teach them not to be.

And I think that’s where I come in. My experience comes from that of a child having gone through segregation. So, I do feel like I can relate to today’s students better. And I think that they see themselves in my shoes in 1960 and that’s the reason they’re so drawn to the story.

Change won’t happen if we keep children separated. So it’s crucial that schools are integrated. We all have to come together to understand that it’s important that our kids grow up together. I think the best place for kids to get to know each other is in schools.

Can you expound on the moral obligation for integration to happen?

You have to want to do it. It’s about brothers and sisters and taking care of each other. That’s the moral obligation. That’s the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about. Now did we do it back then when he was talking about it? I don’t think so, which led us to where we are today. And now look how much worse it is. So, at some point we have to stop, think about that, and begin to come together for that moral obligation to one another as human beings.

Memphis schools are segregated. And recently an Alabama judge sanctioned the secession of a mostly white school district from a majority black one, despite the racial undertones. What’s your take on that trend?

They have the right to do that. I don’t know how that’s necessarily going to help the situation. I think eventually what they’re running from will run toward them. It’s affecting all of us, whether you live in the neighborhoods that that element comes from or not. That element comes out of that neighborhood and into yours. What they’re separating themselves from, they can’t run from that. I don’t think that’s the answer. And I think that’s what we’ve been doing since the civil rights movement. And it hasn’t helped at all. And it’s affecting all of us.

In what way?

It’s affecting all of us because, look at school shootings. I’ve gone into a school and later hear that someone’s gone in and shot 25 kids. So, what are you really running from? You can’t do that. I think that we think that we can, so we separate ourselves thinking that we’re going to isolate ourselves and we’ll be safe and we’ll be better educated and that sort of thing. And we see all around us that that’s not the case.

I don’t think that we think that deep. We don’t think about the moral issues. We just think “let’s start our own schools” and “we’re going to be safe” and “we’re going to be away from whatever.” No, that’s not happening. And segregation is happening all across the country. So, we have to come together. We can’t isolate ourselves, whether it be in schools, neighborhoods, churches, wherever.

What do you think it will take for us as a nation to move toward school integration again?

Wanting to — that’s it. You really have to want to. Because there’s no laws that we need to change anymore. You just have to want to. We’ve got to go back to thinking morally and being responsible for one another — the whole village coming together for our children.

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”

room for improvement

Digging into details of mayor’s diversity plan, critics see easy goals and iffy approaches

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students calling for school integration rallied at City Hall on Saturday, May 27

After waiting for almost a year, integration advocates finally learned what New York City plans to do about its severe school segregation. They were largely unimpressed.

“The tone the plan took was, ‘We encourage people to do this from the bottom-up.’ But the time for encouragement is over,” said Shino Tanikawa, a Community Education Council member in District 2 who has worked on school integration issues. “It’s time to start doing this work.”

Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor in the education department, said the city’s proposal, released Tuesday, is the beginning of “a more intense conversation.”

“We made some really concrete steps,” he said.

Among the city’s goals: increasing the number of students in schools that are racially representative of the city. But the city’s definition of “racially representative” raised eyebrows. While the city’s students are 70 percent black or Hispanic, the education department defines racially representative schools as those that enroll between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic students, which some advocates consider too low a bar.

Even if the city reaches its goal for reducing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent in the next five years, about 60 percent would remain segregated by income.

“The goals are negligible in comparison to the scale of the problem,” Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent who has worked on integration efforts, wrote in a comment on a Chalkbeat report.

Some elements of the plan call for doubling down on programs that have shown little impact so far. For example, the city is expanding test prep for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and administering the exam in more underrepresented schools.

Both have been tried, and yet there has been virtually no change when it comes to admissions offers made to black and Hispanic students. The expansion of these programs “will neither improve outcomes — just as they have not in the past — nor do they represent a public acknowledgement that the SHSAT is not the mechanism by which merit can be fairly assessed,” Lazar Treschan, who has studied specialized high schools for the Community Service Society of New York, wrote in a statement. Nevertheless, he called the department’s plan an “important” first step.

It’s unclear whether other larger-scale plans, such as eliminating the “limited unscreened” admissions method at high schools, will spur desegregation. Limited unscreened schools give admissions priority to students who express interest by attending an open house or high school fair, a system that advantages families with more time and resources.

Advocates were anxious to see how the city’s creation a School Diversity Advisory group will play out. The city has said this group will evaluate the city’s proposals thus far, come up with recommendations and help lead community engagement efforts in districts that are already working on diversity issues. The group’s recommendations are nonbinding and its representatives were selected by the city.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said the group could “have teeth.”

But Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said its success will “ultimately depend on who else is in that group.”

Part of the group’s work will be to make recommendations for the “long-term governance structure” for school diversity work within the education department. Miriam Nunberg, a parent in District 15 who has worked to make middle school admissions more equitable, said that will be important to watch as the city moves forward.

“The biggest thing missing is high-level, administrative oversight [by someone] who is financially empowered and accountable,” she said.

Tanikawa said she had hoped to see a requirement that individual school districts come up with their own plans to create and support integration.

“I wish there was a bigger, stronger commitment,” she said. “I know the chancellor has said she doesn’t like to mandate, but there are many mandates on schools. I don’t see why this can’t be a mandate that allows for a bottom-up, community-driven process.”

Hebh Jamal, a student activist with IntegrateNYC4Me, wants students to have a greater say as the city continues its work.

“We understand the problem. We see it every day,” she said. We’re going to continue to advocate for exactly the type of ideal school system we want.”