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.

bad fit

‘It’s not a solution’: How a Harlem co-location proposal is highlighting disparities between two schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36, called for more resources at the school.

A plan to co-locate two schools in Harlem is drawing intense opposition from residents who say the city Department of Education has long neglected the host school, P.S. 36.

The city wants to temporarily move some students from Teachers College Community School into P.S. 36, which overlooks Morningside Park. But at a community hearing Wednesday, parents blasted the proposal and accused the department of letting P.S. 36 languish until its space became needed by a wealthier, whiter school community.

Valencia Moore, PTA president of P.S. 36, listed all the repairs and resources she says are needed at her school: new electrical wiring, stronger Wi-Fi, replacement desks and new bookshelves.

“Some of our teachers are using milk crates to store their books,” she said. “We’re short-staffed now, where we have parents coming in and volunteering.”

She added that parents have asked the city for years to make repairs to the school’s playground. City officials on Wednesday said they are planning to make the fixes and promised to look into another recurring request — to renovate bathrooms. For parents, the city’s response only exacerbated a sense of inequity many feel.

“Now, all of a sudden you can find money to fix the playground — because you’re bringing a wealthier school,” said Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of the local Community Education Council. “You have kids bullying other groups of kids because their school looks better. That’s going on in Harlem… We deserve better.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of Community Education Council District 5 in Harlem.

TCCS is a diverse school where fewer than half of the students are low-income. Meanwhile, most of the students at P.S. 36 are black or Hispanic, and almost 90 percent are poor. To meet their students’ needs, P.S. 36 has partnerships with eight community organizations, which offer health screenings, counseling and mental health services within the building.

The co-location proposal stems from a battle to create a middle school for TCCS — something the community has pushed for. Opened in 2011 through a partnership between the city and Columbia University, the school is poised to admit its first sixth-grade class in the upcoming school year.

The problem is there’s no room for the extra grades at the current TCCS campus on Morningside Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. So city officials have proposed moving TCCS’s younger students — pre-K through second grade — into the P.S. 36 building. The move is supposed to be temporary until the Department of Education can find a permanent home for TCCS.

Parents at TCCS have concerns of their own.

Laura Blake has a daughter at TCCS. She said parents are skeptical the co-location would work, and worry that staff and resources will be stretched thin across two campuses.

“It’s not a solution,” she said.

She echoed concerns from P.S. 36 parents that there simply isn’t enough room for more students — despite assurances to the contrary from city officials.

Moore, the P.S. 36 PTA president, worried the co-location would impede her school’s ability to continue to host community partners and serve its sizeable population — 31 percent — of students with special needs.

“We’re the little people,” she said. “We shouldn’t be bombarded by people who have money.”

According to the co-location proposal, only 64 percent of P.S. 36 is currently being used and students will still be able to receive the special education services they’re entitled to.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained why the move was necessary. “As demand for TCCS grows among families, we’re committed to providing its students and staff with the space and resources they need to continue thriving,” Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “This temporary re-siting will help ensure that the school can continue to grow enrollment and expand the grades it serves, as we work diligently to find a permanent home that meets the needs of the entire TCCS community.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at their regular meeting on Feb. 28.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.