New York City students share why they’re fighting for school integration

Students filled the New York City council chambers earlier this month to share their experiences in segregated schools and offer solutions.

But they faced a mostly empty dais: Only two members of the council’s education committee stayed to hear the students’ testimony.

New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, and students are playing a growing role in the budding movement to do something about that. After much prodding from integration advocates, the de Blasio administration released a plan this summer to spur more diversity in city schools.

On Dec. 7, the city council’s education committee held its first hearing on school diversity since the plan was released. Here is testimony submitted by leaders and students from Teens Take Charge, a group of students fighting for integration.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“Northerners have been far more successful at maintaining segregation.”

Taylor McGraw is a former history teacher in New York City schools who now hosts a podcast called The Bell, which explores segregation from the eyes of students. He also helped co-found Teens Take Charge.

McGraw started his testimony by referring to New York City’s previous attempts to integrate schools, including a 1956 plan, born after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that was fought by white parents.

As far as I can tell, the difference between whites in the South and whites in the North is that the northerners have been far more successful at maintaining segregation. The biggest crime is that 60 years later, we teach students about what happened in Little Rock, but we don’t teach them what happened in New York City or Chicago. Today, we are in a position that none of us would have chosen but all of us – including the mayor – must confront. The schools here are still segregated. And they aren’t segregated because of 400 years of American history – they’re segregated because segregationist policies continue. We must teach students of color that these policies are the reason they have inferior resources in their schools. We must teach white students that these policies are the reasons they have outsized access to an elite education. Otherwise, students will continue to think that the conditions in their schools are normal, that if they get more they must be worth more and that if they get less they must be worth less. We must teach them that this is not a meritocracy, it is a caste system.

“I task you with spending a day in our shoes.”

Jederick Estrella is a senior at Victory Collegiate High in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He recalled the day a stray bullet punched through a classroom window, sending students scrambling.

It was December 20, 2016. This is 3rd period, and about a few minutes from class coming to an end. All I can hear are books being shuffled into bags and overall chatter. Then all we hear is a sharp crack and a slam. A bullet fires into the room and all of us collectively huddle under desks. Glass lands on the floor. Some kids at this point are commando crawling out of the room. I felt like I was on a battlefield. As if I had to prove to someone that this education was worth receiving. Like I was at war with something I couldn’t see. That AP Biology teacher quit, and I wonder where she is today. I wonder if she’ll ever teach at a school like mine again. I task you with spending a day in our shoes. Clear your schedules. Get testimony from students that go to these “bad schools.” Especially the ones you oversee in your districts that fall behind, because they need your help. They’re students just like me, going to schools just like me, trying to make something out of themselves just like me.

“We often have a shortage of calculators and some of them hardly even work.”

Dulce Marquez is a senior at New Heights Academy, a charter school in Upper Manhattan. She feels her school lacks the resources it needs for students to succeed.

This year I am taking calculus. In my high school, calculus is the most challenging math class available. Our calculus teacher shared with us recently a statistic from The Atlantic: “Despite the fact that Latino kids make up a quarter of all public-school students and black children comprised more than 15 percent of students that year, just a third of high schools where at least three-fourths of students were black and Latino offered calculus.” As we allowed this to sink in, she continued, “We don’t have textbooks. The textbooks from last year were too broken and in such ugly state that they cannot be used. So hopefully our school will soon order our new textbooks.” The majority of the students in my calculus class are girls and all of the students in the room are Latino or African-American. So, why did my teacher share this statistic with us? She also showed us a picture of a Calculus class at a more privileged school. The majority of the students in the class were boys, holding calculators and textbooks. In our class, we often have a shortage of calculators and some of them hardly even work.

“The admissions test for specialized high schools is flawed.”

Wyatt Perez is a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men. He submitted this written testimony, in which he reflects on why more students of color don’t make it into specialized high schools — an elite group of schools where admission is based on a single test. This year, only 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students, though they comprise about 70 percent of the student body citywide.

Every time I see large groups of Caucasian teenagers on the train, there are usually two reasons why: the Yankees are playing or the kids from Bronx Science have been dismissed. On the hour-long trip from my public high school on the outskirts of the South Bronx to a college prep program in lower Manhattan, I see the Bronx Science students get off the train at 86th or 59th Street. Later, after two hours of supplemental instruction in math and English, my friends and I will take the train back north and get off at 167th Street or Burnside Avenue. We might make it home by nine. All of this work is done with hopes of attending the same prestigious colleges as the Bronx Science kids – that is, if we receive enough financial aid. Although the high school admissions process theoretically gives all students lots of choices, low-income black and Latino students end up clustered in the same schools year after year. Meanwhile, students at selective or specialized high schools are mostly white or Asian and affluent. My school is 96 percent black or Latino and 82 percent of the students meet the requirements for free or reduced price lunch. The school promotes helping students of color from low-income backgrounds graduate and redefine statistics. But the inferior academic instruction at my school, layered on top of years of inferior instruction in elementary and middle schools, cripples students’ chances. The admissions test for specialized high schools is flawed. Specialized high schools should take more factors, such as academic portfolios and personal statements, into consideration when managing admissions. I’ll continue to make the most of the opportunities that have come my way. As I start my senior year of high school, I think of my competition, the Bronx Science kids of the world. I think of the kids who have grown up in the 86th Streets of other states and countries. For now, I may only see them on the train, but next fall, I’ll see them at freshman orientation.