First Person

First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works

Students in the program at the Bank Street School for Children.
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At the Bank Street School for Children’s graduation this June, no one was surprised when some of the eighth-graders used their final moments as our students to reflect on race.

A black student recounted a discussion with a black second-grader. “Does it get harder?” the younger student had asked. “Yes,” the the older student said. “Going forward there are things you’re going to have to face. But surround yourself with allies and you will be OK.”

A white student discussed affirmative action. “Racism was a system built for social and political oppression against people of color so that whites could benefit,” she said. “It is impossible to be racist toward white people — the nature of racism itself destroys any notion of such a thing.”

Students feeling confident enough to stand in front of an audience of 400 and talk about race is not something that happens without the considerable effort from teachers and staff. At Bank Street, the private school in New York City where I teach eighth grade and where I am a parent of two children who attend, we’ve learned that teaching about race requires a formal curriculum and “affinity” spaces that allow students to speak their minds.

We see this curriculum as an opportunity to create age-appropriate ways for children to engage with a topic that people too often pretend that children can’t understand. Our experience matches current research: even very young children do notice race, are able to discuss it, and are able to understand issues of inequality.

See more stories about how teachers talk about race in the classroom.

We, like educators throughout the country, feel compelled to engage our students around the complex issues facing our society, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, and gun control. Through our Racial Justice and Advocacy program, children have opportunities to explore the complex issues of power and privilege. They develop the tools needed to understand, process, and confront injustice.

As an example, classes of 6, 7, and 8-year-olds participate in a lesson where they are asked to suggest what to do if pre-kindergarten students aren’t interested in playing with dolls of color. The students offer a range of answers: “Buy more dark skin babies.” “Have a meeting about it.” “Have the teacher also play.”

While the children’s responses seem simple, through the repetition of themes and dramatic play, our children become adept at talking about race and working toward a more equitable society.

For nearly two decades, our school leaders have also recognized that to best support our students of color, we must hold affinity meetings for those students. Students of color come together with facilitators of color to discuss topics like how to express concern regarding an issue of equity, or current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. It is vitally important for students of color to have a space in which they can interact with each other unaffected by the presence of their white peers.

While some may find the practice of allowing students to self-identify and then engage in group discussion problematic, we know that providing affinity space is an educational best practice. As a white man, I am privileged to live in a society in which I am a member of the majority; the world is my affinity group. My students of color don’t share in this. Affinity groups allow them the experience of sharing a burden rather than carrying it individually. They also allow a group to share in the joy and strength derived from a feeling of belonging.

I consider myself lucky that Bank Street considers racial identity and racial understanding as important as science and social studies. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who are willing to tackle complicated questions with understanding and patience.

In a world where intolerant acts and declarations have become all too common, I consider myself lucky to send my children to Bank Street. Instead of accepting the status quo, they will be empowered to change the world.

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.

A better way

Parents and city officials hope to tackle inequity in gifted education, specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

District 9 in the Bronx is home to almost 18,000 elementary school students. Only about 55 of them were enrolled in gifted and talented programs last year.

A new task force launched by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents wants to dig into why that is — and what should be done about it.

New York City’s gifted programs are starkly segregated by race and class. A majority of city students are black or Hispanic. But those students make up only 27 percent of gifted enrollment. And while 77 percent of students citywide are poor, the poverty rate in gifted programs is about 43 percent.

With limited access to gifted programs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said it’s no wonder minority students are also woefully underrepresented in the city’s elite specialized high schools — another issue the task force will address.

The latest round of acceptance data for specialized high schools, released last week, shows that the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to those schools hasn’t budged past 10 percent.

“If they’re not in gifted and talented, then they’re not prepared to pass the exams that place you in specialized high schools,” Diaz said.

Admission to specialized high schools hinges on the results of a single exam — as does entry into gifted programs starting in kindergarten.

The city has tried to boost diversity in both areas, offering test prep for the specialized high school exam, and administering the test during the school day at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities. The department also recently opened new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without any: Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn.

But Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called the department’s diversity moves “a new coat of paint” that fails to address bigger problems.

“We have to dig deeper,” he said. “Lack of diversity is not going to produce the leaders we want.”

The borough presidents hope the task force will come up with recommendations beyond traditional solutions like offering test prep, and suggest ways to address systemic issues, such as offering gifted testing to all students in universal pre-K programs and helping parents better prepare their children for success in school.

Adams also said the department needs to figure out how to make sure all parents have access to information on how to enroll in the sought-after programs, especially in communities with large immigrant populations or where parents don’t have experience dealing with big bureaucracies like the Department of Education.

“They think, ‘Well this information is out there. Everyone has access to it,’” he said. “That is not true. Government is frightening for those who aren’t used accessing it.”

Not everyone is convinced gifted and talented programs will help address inequity. In an editorial in Quartz last year, researchers Halley Potter and Allison Roda, who have both studied equity issues in New York City schools, said the solution will require “radically reimagining gifted education, and eliminating separate G&T programs altogether.”

“New York City’s current approach to gifted education is founded on separation,” they wrote.

Yet despite the lingering disparities, Diaz said all children deserve access to programs like gifted and talented.

“Some of them are [English Language Learners], some of them have special needs. But some of them need to be challenged intellectually,” he said. “We need to do the best we can for every single one of our students.”

The first task force meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on March 20 at Bronx High School of Science, located at 75 West 205th St. The Brooklyn meeting has been rescheduled due to snow, and will be held at 6 p.m. on March 28 at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.