race matters

Aurora superintendent: Schools can’t fix nation’s race problem alone

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn, center, greets students at the Mosley P8 school on opening day with Principal Carrie Clark.

Coming off a tragic week that again exposed fault lines over race in America, one of Colorado’s only African-American school superintendents said public schools need to honor students’ experiences and work in tandem with the community to address societal problems.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn spoke to Chalkbeat on Friday about how schools — especially those that educate black students — should respond to ongoing racial tension across the United States. The district has the highest largest proportion of African-American and black students in the state.

Earlier this week, two black men, one in Minnesota and another in Louisiana, were shot by white police officers. Then in Dallas, five police officers were shot by a black man who said he was “upset with white people.”

In the interview, Munn also addressed the intersection of schools, the criminal justice system and race; the district’s relationship with the police force; and the district’s work to install equity in the classroom.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As the superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, which has the largest proportion of African-American and black students in the state, what goes through your mind when you hear of events that happened in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas?
In all honesty, I don’t think first about them as superintendent. For anyone who loves this country like I do, you can’t help but feel anger and sadness.

I’m a black man in America. That has some context in these stories. I’m the father of a young boy. That has its own context. And then I do think about it as an American and how it affects the children in my community.

The schools are part of the community. These aren’t school issues. These are larger societal issues. And schools tend to be a reflection of our society. It’s not as if it’s a direct correlation.

This is not the first time a black man has been shot by a white police officer and most likely not the last. How should these issues be discussed in the classroom?
In any classroom setting, our teachers and teachers everywhere need to be aware of the experiences of their students — both individually and collectively. Good teaching takes those experiences and helps put it into context. Good teaching helps students understand the world around them, and how they can affect change in the world around them.

A cornerstone of your work since you joined APS has been equity work in the classroom. For those who aren’t familiar, what does that look like and what impact do you believe it’s had?
The cornerstone of our work is that we can’t teach students unless we engage students. And you can’t engage students if you don’t understand who they are and how they experience the world around them.

We talk about engagement in three areas: affective, behavioral and cognitive. Unless you can engage students at all three levels, then you can’t get them to achieve higher levels of academic success.

The easiest example is if a student is distracted by what’s going on in their community, it’s not enough to ask a student to forget what’s going on outside and focus on their science project. You have to draw that line of relevance from what has their focus and that science project. But you can’t do that unless you understand what they’re focused on.

From the objective viewpoint, we’re starting to try to understand how we measure engagement. From a subjective standpoint, I’m hearing stories of teachers and students connecting in new ways that can help students achieve the outcomes we want.

There’s an intersection between schools, the criminal justice system and race. We know, African-American men are suspended far more than their white peers. That can often put them on a particular path. What should that relationship look like?
I think we’re becoming an example of what we want it to look like. I’m not going to say we’re there, but if you look at our discipline data from the last three years, we’ve had a dramatic — dramatic — decrease in behavioral incidents. Meanwhile, our climate is much better. And we’re starting to see positive trends in achievement data.

What we think it needs to look like is: behavior has a different context when students and teachers understand each other, when teachers understand the difference between disrespect and disengagement.

We started two years ago working with the Metro Center out of New York with Dr. Pedro Noguera and Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge. (Both men are considered experts in school equity issues.) And last year we partnered with the Cherry Creek School District to have Dr. Stembridge work here full time, to work with our teachers in both districts. We’ve gotten into a lot of schools.

We don’t see engagement separate from achievement.

I don’t pretend that we have solved all the problems. But we do feel very good about the trends and results we’re seeing preliminarily.

What steps, if any, has Aurora taken during the last year or two to change its relationship with the police department? Do you think there are unique challenges or benefits to being a more suburban school district?
I think we’ve quietly had a great relationship with the Aurora Police Department for a very long time going back to our former superintendent and police chief. I credit the relationship that was here when I arrived and I’ve done everything I can to keep it that way.

We in the Aurora community participate in a few different partnerships to keep that relationship. One example is a monthly meeting of first responders. And Police Chief Nick Metz, if there is any sort of issue in the community, sends out a blast that says “this is what’s going on and this is how we’re going on.”

(Metz regularly visits APS schools to speak with students, a district spokeswoman added.)

On a personal level, the facts that Chief Nick Metz and I are both new to Aurora and African American helped create a personal relationship. But I’d like to think whoever is in this seat and that seat recognizes we have shared outcomes to meet the needs of this community.

Taking a further step back, what if any role should public education play in the race conversation in this nation?
We are part of the community and we can’t be viewed separately. We’re not the solution to societal challenges. We’re often a reflection. So I think we have a responsibility to be part of the conversation, to be part of how the community takes on the issues. But we shouldn’t be the place for people to look to where this will be taken care of. Historically, that’s never been the case.

Schools and the education systems can’t do it independently. This is something the community has to say: “This is who we want to be,” and ask the schools to help. I don’t think anyone wants me, let alone any superintendent, to say I will decide what are the key cultural elements of our community.

If you look at the core value in our strategic plan, those are the values that our community chose. One of those is “diversity is strength in our community,” and that is imbued in all we do.

'Teach Us All'

Netflix documentary on school integration spotlights New York City but troubles some activists

PHOTO: ARRAY

With a film crew rolling, Hebh Jamal boarded the subway before dawn to start her commute to Beacon High School in Manhattan’s Theater District — a ride that takes an hour and 20 minutes from her family’s apartment in the Bronx.

“It would have been nice if there had been options around me,” she tells the camera. “I didn’t feel like there were.”

With that scene, New York City’s school-integration movement is introduced to a national audience in “Teach Us All,” a documentary that traces segregation from the time the Little Rock Nine integrated an Arkansas high school to the present day.

The film, distributed by the collective founded by Ava DuVernay — the award-winning filmmaker behind the Civil Rights-era drama “Selma” and the documentary “13th” — includes a look at city schools that, for some advocates, is posing a dilemma.

While some advocates see the film as a platform to build support for integrated schools, others are uncomfortable with storylines that, in their eyes, take aim at teachers and elevate charter schools — which some critics say can exacerbate segregation. The film was released on Netflix in September.

“I think it undermines the work that we’ve done and the work we care about,” said Matt Gonzales, who works on school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

Gonzales, a consultant for the film, has essentially disowned it, dropping his support for a planned national effort to organize students after the film’s release. Among other issues, the film briefly features Eva Moskowitz, the controversial leader of Success Academy charter schools, who is fiercely opposed by many supporters of the city’s traditional public schools.

The filmmaker, Sonia Lowman, did not return a call for comment.

In the documentary, Lowman travels to Little Rock, Los Angeles and New York City to chronicle the history of segregation and focus on students who are leading efforts to dismantle it. Lowman highlights the work of IntegrateNYC, a student-led movement that was born in the Bronx and has expanded citywide.

The film has its share of supporters, who see it as a teachable moment for a cause they have long advocated.

Mike Hilton, who works on education policy for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, said the film serves as an important introduction to the pervasive issue of segregation. In that sense, he said, it could be a “Waiting for Superman” moment, referring to the documentary that fueled public consciousness about school choice.

“The general understanding of the condition of our schools and the segregated nature of them in the public, I think, is really poor,” he said. “So I think this film helps highlight that, and I hope people ask the question: ‘Oh my God. Do we have a problem with this?’”

But critics said the film features a cast of unlikely advocates for the cause.

In cities like New York, charter schools are often criticized for adding to segregation by enrolling almost entirely black and Hispanic students. (Their supporters note that they were created to provide new options for low-income families, many of them black and Hispanic — and that some charters are intentionally diverse.) Nonetheless, students in the signature orange uniforms of Success Academy appear throughout the film. Moskowitz is featured briefly to extol the importance of school choice.

“I would put my trust in parents before anything else,” says Moskowitz, who has argued elsewhere that charter schools can be a tool for integration.

The film also dives into the case of Vergara v. California, which argued, ultimately unsuccessfully, that teacher tenure laws disproportionately place ineffective teachers in schools that serve mainly black and Hispanic students.

“It was blaming the unions in California for students not getting an equal education,” said Gonzales, who was a teacher in Los Angeles at the time of the case. “The film seems to kind of prop that up as the problem. It tells the really terrible story of segregated schools, and then it goes on this tirade.”

After the film premiered last spring at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Gonzales said he and other advocates shared their concerns with the filmmaker, who made some changes — such as ending with student interviews, instead of Moskowitz.

“We want everyone to see it, but you should watch it with a very critical eye,” he said.

The film is meant to extend nationally the student movement to integrate schools. Sarah Camiscoli, a Bronx teacher who helped start IntegrateNYC, worked with the film company to write a comprehensive curriculum to go along with the documentary.

While she also found some of the themes jarring, she said the youth response has been markedly different from that of adults. She has fielded dozens of requests from students looking to get involved, Camiscoli said.

“On the student level, young people are saying, ‘Hey, I experience separate and unequal education. Can you help me think of a solution?’” she said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to expand our work.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a photo from the documentary. The original photo was attributed to the documentary but was actually part of promotion for the film. 

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.