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.

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.

By the numbers

New York City expands integration program, adding the prestigious Bard high school in Queens

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

New York City is once again expanding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-integration program, which tweaks the enrollment process at a few dozen schools to boost their diversity.

This year’s additions — which bring the total number of schools to 42, compared to 7 when the program launched in 2015 — include highly selective schools such as Bard High School Early College in Queens, where students earn an associate’s degree in addition to a high school diploma, and P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan, which only enrolls students who qualify as gifted based on the city’s entrance exams.

Also, for the first time, the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative is expanding to include a school in the Bronx: Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in Mott Haven.

The program affects a tiny fraction of city students and only a small number of the city’s almost 2,000 schools. It doesn’t alter system-wide policies that contribute to segregation, including the way most students are assigned to the school closest to their home. But it’s popular with individual schools, and has been one of the most tangible steps taken by the de Blasio administration toward addressing segregation in New York City, which is one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

Officials announced the latest expansion on Tuesday, two days ahead of a city council hearing on school diversity.

Among the added schools are all 16 traditional public elementary school in District 1. City leaders previously announced an intention to include all the elementary schools in the district, which spans the Lower East Side, East Village and some of Chinatown.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack called the initiative a “key part of our schools better reflecting the diversity of our city.”

“We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and are excited to see our Diversity in Admissions initiative expand,” he said in an emailed statement.

Integration advocates have been lukewarm about the initiative. Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said any progress is important but that advocates still want to see more systemic changes.

“This is in no way impacting all 1.1 million students,” he acknowledged. “But it is creating more access for students right now.”

He added: “Obviously that needs to be built into a larger framework and set of priorities to promote more integrated schools all over,” the city.

Schools that join the Diversity in Admissions program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The aim is to create or maintain a diverse mix of students by giving some an extra chance at being admitted.

The program sets targets for schools, but meeting those goals often requires outreach to ensure a diverse applicant pool. Most schools that have participated have met their targets when it comes to making offers for admission, according to education department figures.

Many schools in the program are located in gentrifying areas, where an influx of higher-income families has started to change the makeup of the local schools. The program can help stabilize the schools’ populations, so that they maintain a mix of students from different income levels.

For example, in Manhattan’s District 6, which is one of the city’s poorest, Muscota New School will set aside 30 percent of seats for students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch or live in temporary housing.

Principal Camille Wallin said the school — which is located in Inwood, a traditionally working class neighborhood where more families and young professionals have begun to settle — decided to join the initiative after noticing a significant drop in the number of needy students enrolled. For the 2016-2017 kindergarten class, only 19 percent of students qualified for meal assistance — down from 30 percent the previous year.

“Our belief system is that children learn from and with other children,” she said. “Widening the circle of people, and the experiences, and the social context of our school can only enhance the learning.”

The new batch of schools also includes P.S. 452 on the Upper West Side, which was at the center of a recent rezoning battle to relieve overcrowding and create more student diversity in Manhattan’s District 3. The school will first admit students living within the school’s attendance zone. For all remaining seats, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will have priority.

Schools have to apply to join the initiative, and some are setting aside only a small number of seats. At Lower Lab, for example, 12 percent of seats will be set-aside for students who qualify for meal assistance. Last year, only 4 percent of students were considered poor.

At Bard in Queens, students who qualify for meal assistance will receive priority for 63 percent of seats. About 42 percent of students last year were considered poor.

Advocates say changing student assignment policies is only one part of integrating schools. The city should also focus on creating welcoming environments within schools by training teachers in culturally relevant practices and making sure school staff reflect the diversity of students, they say.

“Integration can’t happen without one or the other,” said Hebh Jamal, a member of the student-led advocacy group IntegrateNYC.

Here are the latest schools to join Diversity in Admissions:

P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 12 percent of seats. The standard district Gifted and Talented admissions criteria still apply.

P.S. 452 in Manhattan – For any seats remaining after all in-zone students are admitted, those eligible for free or reduced price lunch will receive priority.

P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and those who are learning English receive priority for 60 percent of seats.

Muscota New School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 30 percent of seats.

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 75 percent of seats.

District 1 elementary schools in Manhattan – Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, are living in temporary housing or are learning English will have priority for 67 percent of seats. Those with disabilities will also receive a priority for kindergarten admissions. Students who do not meet those criteria will have priority for the remaining 33 percent of offers.

M.S. 260 Clinton School for Writers & Artists in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 17 percent of seats.

Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in the Bronx – Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 25 percent of seats: P.S. 1, P.S. 49, P.S. 154, P.S. 277, P.S. 359, P.S. 369. Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 15 percent of seats: P.S. 5, P.S. 18, P.S. 25, P.S. 29, P.S. 31, P.S. 157, P.S. 161

Boerum Hill School for International Studies on Brooklyn – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 40 percent of seats.

Bard High School Early College in Queens – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 63 percent of seats.