First Person

Choosing a school for my son in a segregated state (after Nikole Hannah-Jones)

PHOTO: Courtesy Jose Vilson
The author's son, Ále

A few weeks ago, I attended my son’s prospective school’s fundraising fair in their backyard. They had the standards: a bouncy house, a ball toss, a face-painting station, and a plastic frog pond. They also had some unique features: a DJ that played black music standards like Shalamar, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, a raffle for a dinner voucher at Sylvia’s, a principal in a smock running around with the kids and parents in a playful manner.

As first time pre-K parents, we’re nervous for Alejandro, a boy who already counts to 100 and reads Dr. Seuss with clarity and regularity. Academically, he’ll be fine. His mother is an assistant principal and thoughtful educator. His father has taught for 11 years and waxes poetic about the latest education research and its ramifications for a well-read blog. He’s supposed to be fine.

But our question was, will the teachers like him?

I read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ latest piece shortly after the school fair. The article, focused on the confluence between her work as a reporter for the New York Times and her daughter’s schooling, tapped every nerve possible. In my mind, I’ve played Nikole’s words in my mind while trusting my child to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program. I believe in social justice. I believe that the choices each of us makes for our child affects other children thereafter. I believe my child will be all right regardless of what school he goes to. I don’t think public schools are all that public, but, as fate would have it, I live in the middle of Harlem/El Barrio, the heart of some of the most well known — or notorious, depending on who you ask — charter schools in the country, from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy 1 to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Not only did I openly resist these school options, I even winced at the Catholic school options. As a Catholic school graduate, I hoped that the schools we chose had open spaces, creative pedagogy, and a loving environment for Ále.

We’re trusting these institutions with our child.

These choices are ostensibly connected to the larger landscape of New York City, too. Even with the latest developments in the PS 307/PS 8 fight in Brooklyn, it still begs the question of school structure and, specifically, how many of our kids have voice in the ways and means that the school they send their child to. I’m fortunate that, as parents of color who are educators, Luz and I know what to look for when we choose schools. Within a matter of minutes, we already have enough observations to fill up a notebook. Not many parents have that fortune. For those that don’t want to think too deeply on this, schools that openly advertise their schools (and have the means to do so) seem attractive to parents. Some of my associates who send their students to the local charters extol the virtues of structure and discipline.

It’s as if these schools stripped the crosses off the walls, traded them in for public funding, and kept everything else intact, including the long hours.

But as I’ve said before, the will of white parents seems to dominate the New York City schools narrative. As an outsider interested in the intersections of race and education, these conversations seem to fall in my lap. A white educator gives a list of resources afforded to her Upper West Side school that’s slated to integrate with another less fortunate school, and a list of reasons why the other school shouldn’t have the same resources in coded language. A school choice advocate throws out how we shouldn’t begrudge all-black or all-Latino schools as incapable of doing the same work as predominantly white schools. A real estate agent displays a series of brochures with properties around “good” schools, code for predominantly white institutions. School officials change their tune around us when we tell them we’re long-time educators.

None of this deals with the issue of creating equitable schools. If anything, it reinforces the idea that, so long as our students are kept separate, their schools will be unequal. And should we integrate schools, we won’t get equity in power and policy, either.

To that end, I’m nervous. In most of the schools that had the pedagogy we desired, we saw names focused on markers for success like “gifted,” “magnet,” and “STEM.” We saw uniforms, school trips, partnerships with corporations and non-profits. We saw special grants and achievement statistics. We saw the current demographics of our son’s new school, predominantly black and Latino. I went to the open house, too, mostly white parents. We heard during other school fairs how this need for competition often means that schools can get gentrified, too. We heard the parents telling us to our faces that they appreciate diversity for their own children’s sake, but not too much because it signals a bad school. Parents of color rarely get the opportunity to have a well resourced school that doesn’t see the population shift from right under them.

The political will to get it right for my kid and every other kid is not there. We have segregation of our kids, their parents, and their minds.

After leaving the fair, I finished Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article, yelling at Luz with “THIS!” every few lines. As a father, I was angry for my child. As an educator, I was angry for the 1000+ students I’d ever taught and the millions I never did. As a reader, I saw Ále in Najya’s eyes. I know she’s going to be all right because I see her parents the way I see myself and Luz.

I’m just not confident that every child has parents who are that confident in their schooling prospects. Ultimately, that’s what I seek.

This piece originally appeared on José Vilson’s personal website.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

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.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.