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.

Brown v. Board

In her own words: Remembering Linda Brown, who was at the center of America’s school segregation battles

Linda Brown (center) and her sister Terry Lynn (far right) sit on a bus as they ride to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Linda Brown, whose name became part of American history through the Brown v. Board of Education case, died Sunday.

She became the center of the legal and political battle to integrate U.S. schools after she was denied access to an all-white school down the street in Topeka, Kansas in 1950. Her father and several other parents sued with the help of the NAACP, and their case made it to the Supreme Court.

When they won, it set a lasting legal precedent. Brown was attending an integrated junior high school by then, and she later recalled the initial desegregation of local elementary schools going smoothly. But over the course of her life, she saw the reality of school integration fall short, locally and nationally.

In Topeka, where Brown would send her own children to public school, some elementary schools remained disproportionately black. In 1979, Brown was part of a lawsuit to re-open the case, which eventually resulted in a 1993 desegregation order for the city’s school district. Across the country, schools remain highly stratified by class and race; in many districts, court orders have ended and schools have quickly resegregated.

Brown seemed ambivalent about the spotlight that came with her name, and some news articles recount failed attempts to reach her. But she often spoke at anniversaries of the 1954 ruling — and while she called it a victory, she wasn’t shy about expressing disappointment at just how much the Brown case itself didn’t achieve.

Here she is, telling her own story over the course of a lifetime.

“I was kind of afraid at first. I didn’t talk about it very much, I guess, because I was afraid it would get back to someone who would make trouble.”

“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions, and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in the history books!’”

— 1961 interview with the New York Times, when Brown was 17


“It was not the quick fix we thought it would be.”

— 1984 New York Times interview marking the 30th anniversary of the ruling

“Brown was a very necessary victory. It opened up doors to entertainment, housing, education, employment. All facets of black life was affected by Brown. After 30 years, yes, you do feel that Brown is still not fulfilled. Which is very disheartening to me. I find that after 30 years, desegregation of schools is still very much the issue of today.”

— May 1984 interview with ABC News, marking the 30th anniversary


“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all black school. Being a young child, when I first started the walk it was very frightening to me um, and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

— 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years


“It is very disheartening. We are still going through the old arguments.”

— 1989 interview, again in the New York Times, at age 46


“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”

— 1994 Washington Post story, “Ruling’s Promise Unkept In Topeka,” on the ruling’s 40th anniversary


“It’s disheartening that we are still fighting. But we are dealing with human beings. As long as we are, there will always be those who feel the races should be separate.”

— 1994 New York Times story, “Aftermath of ’54 Ruling Disheartens the Browns”

“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”

“I ran across a quote, in a new book by one of our black women authors — her name is Mildred Pitts Walter — that I believe says it all. ‘It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.’”

— 2004 speech at the Chautauqua Institution, near the ruling’s 50th anniversary

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.