In offshoot of Black Lives Matter movement, students push for changes in New York City schools

More diverse school staff members, updated curriculum, more counselors, and changes to how school discipline issues are handled.

Those are the four issues that students across the city are calling attention to during  Black Lives Matter at School, an annual week-long series of workshops, rallies, and community conversations about racial justice in education in cities across the country.

The four demands touch on issues Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have also worked to address: to hire more black teachers, to mandate black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curricula, to fund “more school counselors not cops,” and to “end zero tolerance,” a reference to harsh discipline practices that research shows can disproportionately affect black students, with negative consequences.

“We’re here to talk, specifically, about how in our school, we have a very small amount of teachers that are black,” said Mario Vasquez, a senior at Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry at the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus in Manhattan, as he stood on the steps of the city’s education department on Thursday with roughly 200 other students, teachers, and activists, chanting and carrying signs.

Other gatherings this week have included events where attendees could make protest signs or score school curricula on whether they are “culturally destructive” or “culturally responsive” to black and Hispanic students, a response to an analysis in October that showed that several commonly-used English-language-arts curricula in the city had few authors, characters, or subjects of color.

A substantial body of research shows that students of color gain from being in classes with teachers who look like them, leading to better test scores and fewer suspensions and expulsions, among other benefits. Yet while absolute numbers of teachers of color have increased in recent decades, they still make up just 7 percent of the nation’s teaching force.

Vasquez, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, has experienced the absence firsthand. At his school, “only two of our 25 teachers are black,” he said, “when a majority of our students are black or Latino.”

Maya Lane, a senior at Essex Street Academy on the Lower East Side, was also at the rally. “There isn’t much injustice” at her school, she said, but as the president of its Black Students Union, she still feels “the system can be better.” In particular, she wants schools to include far more black history in her classes. “I’m more about learning about my roots,” she said.

In Lane’s view, too much of what’s taught about black history is about “oppression, how we had to fight our way to be equal, when we should be talking more about the kings and queens in Egypt, the people who got their first Ph.Ds or master’s degrees, or the first people who went to college—things we did, the adventures we made.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is looking into possibly revamping school curricula, in addition to making it more “culturally responsive,” but has not provided many details on what a broader overhaul might entail. Some of Thursday’s rally organizers have pushed for passage of a bill in the state legislature that would create a K-12 black history curriculum.

Two other students from Essex Street School, Khadija Dramé, and Khalyha Caleb, who are freshmen and friends, spoke about what drew them to the steps of the city’s education department, where they listened to speakers, students banged on upturned plastic buckets like drums, and passersby in cars honked their horns in solidarity.

Dramé, who is part of the youth-led activist group IntegrateNYC, has already visited Albany since the beginning of the year to lobby for a bill that would revise suspension rules and implement “restorative” discipline practices statewide but that has not previously gotten traction in the Assembly.

After years of declines, suspensions in New York City schools increased last year for the first time since Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014. An analysis showed that not only were black students more likely to be suspended, they were also more likely to receive harsher punishments than white students for the same categories of misbehavior, such as bullying or altercations.

“The reality is that black and brown students are targeted when it comes to suspensions,” Dramé said. “You can get suspended for up to 180 days, and that’s like a whole year, which can definitely take a toll on your education.”

Her view has some policymakers’ support. In October, a group of city councilors wrote a letter to the mayor and Carranza demanding, among other reforms, a cap on the length of suspensions. The mayor, who has already amended the city’s discipline code to reduce the number and length of such punishments, has said he’s asked the chancellor to take another “hard look” to see if more changes are necessary.  

Dramé sees replacing suspensions with “restorative” practices, a typically more collaborative approach to student discipline, as “tied together.” Mayor Bill de Blasio has also embraced the idea. But many educators and parents have contended that it has made city schools less safe. But the first rigorous, comprehensive study of the practice has countered this view, though it also showed that black students saw a significant drop in test scores in schools where restorative justice was implemented.

In addition, Dramé would like to see more black educators in schools, having only encountered three in her school career thus far, one of whom was a principal.

For Caleb, Thursday was her first time attending such a rally — and she liked it. “I feel like it’s empowering,” she said. “It’s catching people’s attention and helping them get involved and know what’s going on.” Her galvanizing issue is “having more counselors than cops,” she said. “A counselor is someone you can get personal with; a cop, you’re really not able to do that.”

The city has increased the number of school counselors, although the ratio of such support personnel to high-needs students still lags the level recommended by many experts.

Although Caleb said the security personnel at Essex Street were mostly friendly, “we had a random search with metal detectors,” she said in the fall. “It kind of made me feel like a criminal,” especially when “you get told to step to the side, and everybody else gets told to go forward,” she added. It turned out she had a spoon, which “got confiscated,” she said.

Another contingent of students at the rally were from M.S. 50 in Brooklyn and were all wearing a T-shirt with a graphic that organizers picked in the fall as the official design for the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in New York City. The creator was eighth grader Emma Pichardo, who knew her classmates would be in the T-shirts but could scarcely believe so many other people at the rally were wearing her design. “I was surprised,” she said, but also “excited.”

Events ahead  include a Friday evening forum on “Making Black Lives Matter in City Schools” and a Teen Conference and Open Mic Night on Saturday.

Vasquez, the senior from Maxine Greene, said he hoped that what people will take away from the week’s Black Lives Matter events is “that things can be more equal, just generally more equal, across everything in schools.”