NYC educators demand reforms, and reevaluate their own classrooms, after George Floyd’s killing

Protesters took to the streets in Brooklyn to demand racial justice after the death of George Floyd. Teachers in New York City have joined calls for reform in the education department. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

With so much ground to cover in a typical year, U.S. history teacher Tracy Garrison-Feinberg doesn’t spend much time diving into uprisings that have helped shape the course of the country. 

Next year, she plans to change that.

As demonstrations have gripped the nation following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the seventh-grade teacher at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in Clinton Hill is thinking about making protests and rebellions her “theme” in the classroom. She wants her students to grapple with the contradictions of the nation’s founders, who pressed for independence while simultaneously oppressing others through slavery and taking indigenous land.

“I know that I want to spend a lot more time being a lot more complicated,” said Garrison-Feinberg. 

As protesters — including students and teachers — keep up demonstrations against police violence, many educators in New York City are also calling for a reckoning of how racism shapes what happens inside classrooms. Their demands are sweeping, from eliminating admissions policies that deepen segregation in the city’s schools, to recruiting teachers who reflect the diversity of their students, and reconsidering curriculum to make lessons more relevant to students’ backgrounds.

Shifting such practices could have very real consequences, research suggests. For example, ethnic studies courses can help improve attendance and grades, and integrated schools help reduce bias as well as boost test scores. Much of the change in New York City schools have been piecemeal, with school’s like Garrison-Feinberg’s, which commits to attracting and serving students who reflect the city’s diversity, leading the way. But as systemic shifts within the country’s largest school system inch along, the recent public awakening is inspiring individual educators to overhaul their own classrooms. 

“I think that this is going to have a lasting impact on what I teach and how I teach my students,” said Jacqueline Du, an art teacher at M.S. 35 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

Jacqueline Du, art teacher at M.S. 35 in Brooklyn. (Courtesy photo/Samuel Budin)

Virtually all of Du’s students are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families living in an area undergoing dramatic changes. White newcomers have flocked in recent years to the historically black neighborhood, sparking fear among some long time residents that the local culture is being erased. The demographic shifts have left the local school district in difficult straits. Enrollment is dwindling in District 16, with many families opting out of the neighborhood schools.

Du is aware of the neighborhood dynamics and is grappling with how to respond in her classroom. She recently thought back to one of the first lessons she did during remote learning. School buildings were closed to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, and Du asked students to give presentations to their classmates about a work of art they were familiar with. What followed was a stream of the expected — Picassos and van Goghs and other European masters. 

“It was clear to me that their heart wasn’t in it. They weren’t interested,” Du said. 

She has always made an effort to expose students to artists of color, something that Du, who is Asian-American, says she was often lacking in her own education. When young people don’t see themselves represented in their textbooks, “it’s something that I know can be limiting,” she said. 

Going forward, Du said she’ll double down, but also bring her lessons closer to home for her students. She wants them to know artists who they can relate to, not just because they are black or brown, but also because they’re making art or grew up in the same neighborhood. 

“I’m going to make sure that the content of the artwork that I introduce is relevant to my students present-day, to what they know has been going on around them, and to their personal experiences, and their futures,” she said. 

Though teachers feel increasingly compelled to address racism in the classroom, many feel ill-equipped to do so.

“Despite an increasing number of instructors bringing a critical analysis of racial injustice to their curriculum, many report challenges in teaching this content effectively,” researchers at Vanderbilt University wrote in a recent guide to teaching about race.

In New York City, the education department is taking some steps towards more systemic reform and grappling with the fact that the teaching force looks different than the student body. While more than 80% percent of New York City students are black, Hispanic, or Asian, the teaching force is overwhelmingly white. 

Last summer, the department made a public commitment to what is often called culturally responsive or sustaining teaching practices — making sure that all students are reflected in what is taught, and how it’s taught. This spring, after facing intense lobbying from parents, the city released a recommended reading list featuring authors and protagonists of color. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has also made a priority to make sure teachers receive anti-bias training, despite intense public backlash.

For Stephanie Carroll, the principal of P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, shifting teaching practices began before the recent protests unfolded. But watching the crowds pour into American streets has unleashed a new resolve — and a feeling of immense pressure — to serve her students well.

“What really scares me is that I could be sitting here having the same conversation five years from now. That can’t be,” she said. “Enough with the words.” 

P.S. 307 is no stranger to facing racism head-on, after a bruising battle in 2016 to redraw the attendance boundaries around the school, which has enrolled almost exclusively black and Hispanic children from the nearby Farragut public houses. Today, 10% percent of the roughly 370 students attending are white. 

As an integrating school, P.S. 307 has made it a point to engage its parents in conversations about race and class, but Carroll said it’s time for those to become deeper and more explicit. 

She also feels a new sense of urgency around developing new lessons that center the contributions of black people. For that, the school has been working with its best-known booster, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a parent there — and the New York Times journalist who won a Pulitzer for leading the 1619 Project, reframing the country’s history through the legacy of slavery. Carroll hopes to create a working group of educators within the school, district, and beyond, to get that work going in earnest. 

“This has definitely made it one of my top priorities to get that work done over the summer, to be able to engage our students in that rich curriculum,” Carroll said. 

Carroll said she has benefitted from the support of the local superintendent and others in the community who have seen the need for more integrated schools, a push that has also demanded that school communities bring race, and all the ways it affects educational opportunities, to the forefront. 

“It’s like permission to do this work, and that’s important when working in a large institution,” Carroll said. “Feeling empowered to do that is key. I’m not fighting the fight alone.”

Only time will tell whether individual schools and teachers can keep up their resolve to change their own classrooms after protesters have gone home — or whether the country’s largest school system will commit to more wide-scale reforms. Schools Chancellor Carranza proved early in his tenure that he was not afraid to shine a harsh light on city practices that fall disproportionately hard on students of color. 

Now educators are demanding equally forceful action. Hundreds of teachers marched in the streets this weekend, calling for more guidance counselors and fewer cops in schools. Hundreds more of the education department’s own central office employees released an open letter to the chancellor this week demanding the city “build an anti-racist educational system.”

“The time has come for our actions to align with our words,” education department employees wrote. “This is the moment to dissociate ourselves from institutional racism and to affirm that Black Lives Matter.”

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