As America’s students grow more diverse, a leading researcher explains how schools can adapt

PHOTO: Teachers College
Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Ready or not, America is watching its student population grow more diverse.

For the first time in the nation’s history, the overall student population is now less than half white. And while many schools remain deeply segregated, others are growing more mixed as Asian, black, and Hispanic families move to the suburbs and whites settle in gentrifying urban neighborhoods.

But there is a difference between diverse schools and ones that are integrated, says Amy Stuart Wells, a Teachers College professor who has long studied race and education. History has shown that seating students of different colors side by side isn’t enough — real integration requires schools to adopt inclusive curriculums, teachers to reflect on their own biases, and students to learn how to interact across race and class lines, she says.

To help with that work, Stuart Wells has put together a four-day conference that will feature talks with titles like “How could I possibly have a positive racial identity!? I’m White!” and “When Celebrating Diversity Just Isn’t Enough.”

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Stuart Wells about what it takes to create diverse schools and about the conference, which she said is one of the first of its kind. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Chalkbeat: Can you start by explaining what inspired this conference?

Amy Stuart Wells: I’ve been studying school desegregation for a long time: the history of it, what happened, and what didn’t happened when we first desegregated schools in the middle of the 20th century. We basically focused on student-assignment plans and made sure there was racial diversity at least within buildings, if not within classrooms, and then kind of left it for the educators to deal with or not.

I know from my research on those schools and that history, talking about race was a taboo. Nobody talked about issues of race. It was basically an assimilation project, where you bring in students of color to schools that were usually predominantly white. And the whole project was about assimilating them into these white middle-class norms and ways of seeing the world.

We see now that there’s so many ways curriculum can reflect issues around race. And as we’ve seen last week and throughout the last year, race clearly matters, and policing and responses to policing.

So I think we’re right to start to realize now that we’re not colorblind and that race matters in schools.

In past cases you’ve studied, what were some of the challenges that arose when schools became more diverse, but they didn’t really address that?

Several things. Race is often this elephant in the classroom that no one’s talking about, but everyone’s aware of. Oftentimes students of color felt that their voices and perspectives weren’t valued in that context.

But also white students wanted to talk more. All of a sudden the population of their schools and their classrooms changed and there was no place for them to talk about that either. The students were living with race every day in those schools, but nobody was talking about it.

The adults in the building: I don’t think they felt equipped, and they didn’t feel like that was part of what they were supposed to be doing — to help students deal with that or reflect those different racial perspectives and histories in their curriculum.

Most of this was happening in the 70s and early 80s. We’re now several decades ahead and we’ve gone through this era of K-12 school accountability and colorblind ideology. And what I think we now realize that those ways of thinking about K-12 education are not serving our students well, and certainly not preparing them for the universities and larger society where there’s ongoing racial tension.

Moving forward to today: When a school is really trying to foster a diverse and integrated community, what are the best practices for doing that?

A lot of it begins with the hard work teachers need to do around their own racial biography.

For white teachers — and there will be several sessions around this at the institute — to really think about how race does matter even though they are white. How it matters to their own identity, how it matters in their interactions with students and their understanding of students’ abilities. [It’s] broadening out what we know and how we know it, and allowing for students to grapple with meaning and deeper questions and challenge each other and their understandings and interpretations.

It’s this deeper, richer learning that we should all be doing anyway, but it’s really important in these very diverse classrooms.

One of the sessions at the conference will focus on science instruction in diverse classrooms. Something like science or math seems very straightforward, so how do you factor in diversity or culturally responsive teaching?

The title of Chris Emdin’s talk is called “Reimagining Rigor.” He’s challenging these notions that by using hip-hop pedagogy it’s not a rigorous way of teaching science. It’s going to be really powerful.

It’s a common theme, whether it’s science or math, and certainly with literacy and social studies, is giving students ownership and allowing them to interpret and reinterpret in their own language some of the scientific data and information that we talk about in one way. That’s so important in the real world. You ask any scientist and they say that’s what we do.

There’s an effort happening now to get a more diverse teaching force. I could imagine someone saying that this type of training is a Band-Aid, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of diversity among teachers.

I’m all for getting more teachers of color. But I doubt there’s going to be a day anytime soon in this country where we’re not going to have a large percentage of white teachers, and we’re not going to have a large percentage of teachers teaching students whose race is different than theirs.

Hopefully we’re going to have an increase in teachers teaching in racially diverse classrooms, which is challenging no matter what your racial/ethnic background is.

And hopefully we’ll have a more diverse teaching force. And hopefully this kind of institute and thinking about race within schools will be helpful when we do.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”