First Person

It’s not about quotas: The real story behind how two Brooklyn schools have begun to diversify

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Parents and community members at a Community Education Council meeting for District 13.

The Children’s School sits only a few blocks from the Gowanus Houses public housing community in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, but in recent years served virtually none of the students who lived there. Meanwhile, in nearby Fort Greene, the Academy of Arts & Letters could only watch as the racial and economic diversity of its kindergarten class began to vanish seemingly overnight.

But last year, this started to change — and if we care about making sure New York City’s students attend schools that reflect the city’s diversity, it is important to understand how it happened.

Both of our schools have a commitment to be diverse and inclusive. Both schools’ neighborhoods have also been affected by gentrification. Growing populations of affluent parents have moved into the diverse areas of Districts 13 and 15, but clustered in a relatively small number of schools, leaving very few seats available for anyone else. We’ve seen this firsthand as a principal, teacher, and parent at these two schools.

It wasn’t that low-income families didn’t apply to our schools (which don’t have traditional zones), and it wasn’t that we didn’t do outreach. The issue was that under the system of “blind” lottery admission we were required to use, affluent families dominated the applicant pools that were many times larger than the number of available kindergarten seats. Decades of research have shown that affluent families have enormous advantages in negotiating these kinds of school-choice systems that require parent participation.

In November, the New York City Department of Education allowed our schools to participate in a pilot program for school admissions. This past winter, parents and staffs were able to do outreach with confidence that families had a real chance of admission.

That’s because these plans provide a powerful boost to the chances of admission for applicants who are traditionally disadvantaged in school-choice systems — especially low-income students and English language learners.

At both of our schools, the numbers of students in those categories who were admitted for kindergarten shot up dramatically. And by limiting the disproportionate clustering of more affluent applicants at our schools, these plans have the potential to ameliorate segregation in surrounding schools.

Now, the city is about to allow all schools to apply to make similar changes to their admissions systems. That’s great news. Until the political will for comprehensive, borough-wide desegregation strategies exists, we need to direct our attention to boosting diversity at individual schools and in community school districts where change is possible.

Discussions about plans like ours often include mention of quotas. But that’s not how the plans really work, and as they expand, it’s important that they are understood.

Essentially, these admissions plans reserve a certain percentage of seats for a separate lottery only for those priority applicant groups. Importantly, if they don’t get in through this initial lottery, priority applicants have a second chance in the general lottery open to everyone.

So the nominal number of seats we set aside for the initial lottery is not a cap on the number of priority applicants, but a floor. That percentage also isn’t our goal or our target — an idea that is sometimes confused. In fact, our enrollment goals for those students are much higher than the percentage of seats we set aside, since we want to be representative of our communities.

We won’t reach our diversity goals in the first year. These plans are not designed to immediately achieve the goals, but to create a virtuous cycle that leads to long-term change. At our schools, the existence of the plan reinvigorated our recruitment efforts over the winter, yielding more diverse applicant pools than we had in previous years. Our admissions plans then bolstered these efforts to produce even more diverse kindergarten classes.

Meanwhile, our expectation is that a more diverse student and parent body will further enhance recruitment efforts and foster an increasingly inviting school culture.

This pilot is just a modest first step toward greater school integration, of course, and there is a long way to go. We hope that next year the number of schools pushing for ways to combat our very segregated New York City schools system grows exponentially. Stringing together a series of small victories for desegregation will build momentum to make the big changes that our schools need.

There are lots of incredible public schools here in New York City, and they should be truly open to all families. The seven schools in the department’s pilot program represent some of those great schools; before the pilot they were not truly open to all families.

And now, happily, they are getting closer.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.

First Person

I was a winner in an academically segregated school. Now, I’m driven to advocate for the other side

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

You notice many things walking the halls of your middle school: Some kids are bigger than you, some are a different gender, some have a different hair color.

At my middle school, it was as easy to notice some kids were not getting the same education as me.

I attended Hamilton Middle School in Denver for three years as a young teenager, and I was in what was known as the IPM Program, or the International Preparatory Magnet program. Essentially, it was the program for kids who were going to succeed.

But naturally, when some children are selected to succeed, others aren’t. At my school, they were the “TAP kids,” or the students in the Traditional Academic Program.

We were divided neatly, I’d even say segregated, along these program lines to the point where we had different classes on different floors. It did not take a patient observer to realize the main floor, where many eighth-grade TAP classes were held, was less resourced than the upper floor, where I had my classes.

When I compared notes years later with a friend in TAP, we realized how much more writing I did in my classes. One example: An outside program once gave every student at the school a box of energy-efficient lightbulbs and shower heads — but only the IPM kids were required to write essays about how to use them to save energy.

From grading standards to locker quality to college encouragement, IPM was clearly the part of the school the Hamilton faculty was paying attention to.

In the years since I attended, Hamilton has changed its programs. George Washington High School, where the International Baccalaureate program has been a popular destination for Hamilton’s IPM students, has opened itself up more, too.

Still, I wonder what happened to my TAP peers, many of whom were my friends, and most of whom came from poorer families.

It’s hard for me to imagine that, after being tracked into the TAP program, most of those students ended up prepared to graduate from college. I wonder how that contributes to the state’s high school graduation rate — one of the lowest in the country.

Now, as a grown man and voting citizen of the great state of Colorado, I’m asking, what can I do for those kids who have fewer resources and for years endure schools that don’t care about them?

For one, I have an electoral fellowship this summer to help lobby for better education policies and support local school board candidates. I have also been working to oppose cuts to federal student aid and rollbacks of civil rights protections for transgender students being proposed or implemented by Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education.

But while those federal issues really matter, it’s the local issues that first inspired me.

We need to look carefully at schools separating their students as fully as my middle school did, and encourage leaders to push for an equitable, challenging education for all, instead of being selective and pushing some students to the wayside.

Marcos Descalzi is a third-year student at the University of Denver studying public policy and a Colorado SFER Action Network summer fellow.