how we got here

First Person: My local school didn’t teach my son the way I hoped it would. To tackle segregation, we need to talk about that, too

PHOTO: Reena Shah
The author's son.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” struck a chord. “This city has made integration the hardest choice,” she writes. Unfortunately, as both a parent and a teacher, I know that is true.

New York City schools are not just segregated by race and class, but also divided by pedagogy — how teaching and learning happens in a classroom. What often goes undiscussed is how how parents from different backgrounds often hold different beliefs about what learning should look like and choose schools accordingly, yet another factor fueling school segregation.

I spent years teaching in schools where most students came from low-income families and were black or Hispanic. I fought against the narrow and sometimes joyless approach to basic skill development that many school officials promoted as the best way to bridge the achievement gap. Even before I was a mother, I often asked myself if I would want my child sitting in my own classroom.

Still, there are pedagogical silos in New York, and the skill-and-drill approach is more prevalent among schools that serve mostly low-income families. As the city begins a few efforts meant to better integrate its schools, families and educators need to talk more about our often starkly different ideas about what makes a school “good.”

When Hannah-Jones and her husband chose P.S. 307, a school outside of their zone, she writes that she was fueled by her desire to play a part in integrating that school economically. She was also influenced by seeing that students there played musical instruments, had access to an advanced science and technology program, and benefitted from the school’s strong leadership.

My own story of choosing a school for my child is complicated and marked by some of the same impulses, though it didn’t work out the same way.

My son attended pre-kindergarten in a school that largely serves low-income students, especially in the upper elementary grades. We started the school year intending for him to remain there as long as our family stayed in the neighborhood. We liked the principal and thought it was important to support our zoned school — that such actions were in line with our ideals.

My child had a warm teacher who he loved, but the classroom environment proved to be a challenge. Though his teacher was aiming for a play-based environment guided by children’s questions, as a new teacher, she understandably struggled to set expectations for children’s behavior, and I wasn’t sure she was getting the support she needed.

The school was also still working out what kind of instruction it wanted to see. While some classrooms, like the science lab, showed signs of active use with meaningful student work on the walls, others showed few signs of what children were actually creating and working on. Looking ahead to kindergarten, I became increasingly concerned about the amount of time such young children spent filling in worksheets, the early introduction of homework, and the school’s preoccupation with testing.

Unlike Hannah-Jones’s description of her daughter during her first year in school, my son was not flourishing. By the spring, he no longer wanted to go to school.

I was torn, because I valued the school’s sense of community, the music program, and the administration’s openness to parents. But for my child, who often had difficulty focusing, the teaching practices weren’t working.

I eventually secured a seat for him at the school where I also ultimately took a job, a decision that left me relieved but also conflicted. Had my son’s experience been more positive, our choice would have been different. But when your child would benefit from a different kind of teaching, what are the right decisions then?

Of course, having the resources and knowledge to even ask this question has become a privilege in New York City, where navigating the system can easily become a full-time job. While many schools talk about their progressive practices, their interpretations range from children deciding on their own units of study to the repetitive skill-and-drill activities used by many large charter networks. Parents are asked to figure out what school environment will be best for their children amid a flurry of conflicting information.

This year, the Department of Education has allowed seven public schools, including the one where I work, to embark on a pilot program that alters admissions to promote integration. The program is a good thing, and has already diversified the incoming kindergarten classes.

These efforts also make it even more important to find ways to talk about what families expect. Some will want more recess. Some want more structure. Some want to take the state tests and others don’t. Some want to see more reading and writing in kindergarten, others find this developmentally inappropriate, and still others are unsure. These differences are shaped by our own experiences in school systems, our aspirations for our children, our backgrounds, and, in some cases, our individual children and their needs, strengths, and challenges.

Other assumptions about what makes a school good are destructive, especially the idea that the affluence of a school’s families can serve as marker of its quality. Hannah-Jones points to a few disturbing ideas voiced by parents who were rezoned from P.S. 8, the wealthy Brooklyn Heights school, to P.S. 307. Several parents seemed to believe that when a school serves poor children, that school is compromised and not as safe — a gross generalization.

Yet, for school integration to be successful, we have to find ways to talk about what does matter: our beliefs about what teaching and learning should look like in our children’s classrooms. We have to be willing to engage in these discussions as parents and educators without feeling defensive about what we believe to be right. We have to decide when advocating for our own child could support other children, and when it is potentially at the expense of other children. Once we learn how to do that, New York will be closer to having more integrated schools.

This post is part of a new series we’re calling How We Got Here, explaining how students and families chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. Interested in contributing? Email us here.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.