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.

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.

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.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.