let's talk

How should New York City teachers guide conversations about race and police violence?

PHOTO: Jamaal Bowman
Jamaal Bowman (center) with national leaders in Washington, D.C.

New York City educators are no strangers to the effects of racism, police violence, and poverty. But how to help students make sense of social injustice is often far from obvious.

So as America grapples this week with how to have conversations in the face of racism and violence, we checked in with teachers, parents, students, and school leaders across the city about how they approach those discussions.

School integration can lead the way to better race relations

Jamaal Bowman, principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx

The country’s history of racism and policing of communities of color should be baked into the curriculum, argues Bowman. But school integration and more teacher training to handle the experiences students bring into the classroom are also key.

“Many teachers, principals, and school personnel are not trained to have these discussions. The focus on academic achievement without the social/emotional components of learning is the reason for this lack of preparedness,” Bowman said. “If schools were integrated and different races learned together, schools can be the spaces to transform race relations for generations to come.”

Real-world discussions have a place in the classroom

Kalen Wheeler, guidance counselor at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School

It’s worth carving out some class time to have conversations about hot-button issues like race and policing, Wheeler said. She added that educators of color might feel a greater pull to make time for those discussion, even when that means putting their normal lessons on pause.

“If the teacher is obsessed with Common Core and getting students prepped for a test, they think there’s no time for this,” Wheeler said. “Or is the teacher going to stop whatever they’re on at the moment and prioritize this? I think in part that comes back to the importance of having people of color as educators.”

Talk alone won’t fix the problem

Tamika Johnson, parent of a 17-year-old at Boys and Girls High School and two students at P.S. 308 in Brooklyn

Some people are less confident that conversation can help solve these problems. Although she’s experienced police mistreatment, Johnson said she doesn’t plan to have long talks with her children about how to approach officers, nor does she think school discussions about the issue are likely to be productive.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of conversations they have with students [if] you can never guarantee what their interactions with the police will be,” she said. “We’ve seen people shot when they’re complying.”

The fight for fairness can start in schools

Antoinette King, former student at High School for Public Service, and youth organizer at the Urban Youth Collaborative

To have effective discussions about race, schools must first acknowledge the inequities that exist within their walls, said King, who graduated this June. When conversations about injustice do happen, they should be intentional.

Antoinette King
Antoinette King

“If we want to start the conversation, schools have to end the racist policies they have in place, like metal detectors and the constant police presence.”

Creating safe spaces takes time

Jason Feldman, incoming teacher at Urban Assembly Maker Academy in Manhattan

Teachers can’t create safe spaces for difficult discussions the day after a troubling event, Feldman said. Instead, they must begin before that by developing strong relationship with students, so that they feel comfortable talking about how these issues affect their lives in and out of school.

“Once you establish a relationship of trust and non-judgment, you can open up these conversations,” Feldman said. “You can walk into any public school and students will tell you who they can talk to about their lives. You can’t just say, “OK, well let’s talk about this.” That starts with admins and policy makers, and rethinking what schools are supposed to look like.”

Students need tools to interpret current events

Malik Lewis, assistant principal at West Brooklyn Community High School

Whether it’s the latest Kanye West music video or the police shooting of a black person, Lewis said that students today learn the news and react to it through social media. So Lewis encourages his teachers to bring in those online artifacts — say a satirical meme about racism posted on Twitter — and help students analyze them like any other document: What symbols do they use? Who is their intended audience? What biases do they reflect?

The goal is to show students how to apply skills and concepts they learn in school — literary analysis, historical context, critical thinking — to current events, not to interpret those events for them.

“I think educators should be sensitive to not telling students how to feel or how to react to these types of situations,” he said. “Instead, focus on helping them have the tools to understand it themselves and express their thoughts.”

Systemic problems demand systemic solutions

Hebh Jamal, student organizer, and Sarah Camiscoli, teacher and co-director, IntegrateNYC4Me

As a Muslim teenager who has watched police officers keep tabs on her mosque, Jamal said there is “100 percent distrust” between her community and the police. It is even worse for some of her black peers, she said, who post messages online about how to safely interact with officers when they are stopped — “step-by-step instructions on how to avoid death,” as she put it.

She believes the problem goes beyond individual police officers or even the criminal-justice system. That is one reason she joined IntegrateNYC4Me, a student-led advocacy group that promotes school integration and high-quality schools for all students.

“The education system is also complicit in the oppression of African Americans in this country,” she said. “If you attack this systematically, you can start to make a change.”

Camiscoli, who teaches at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, agreed that the problem is more systemic than individual. She pointed out that some safety agents at her school act as mentors and counselors for her students. The issue is the city and school-system policies that shape their work, she said.

“I’ve never heard a young person say, ‘I don’t want school safety agents,’” she said. “But I have heard young people say, ‘I don’t want metal detectors. I don’t want to be arrested and cuffed’” in school.

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.