Achieving Diversity

New York Appleseed’s new diversity director wants to enlist more students in the push for integrated schools

Matt Gonzales, center, was recently named director of New York Appleseed's School Diversity Project. (Photo by Herman Van den Brandt)

Growing up in Inglewood, California, Matt Gonzales and his friends cracked jokes about their segregated high school — an island of black and Hispanic students in the middle of an affluent, white neighborhood.

Gonzales saw that same racial and economic isolation again when he returned to the classroom years later, this time as a special education teacher in California.

But it wasn’t until he worked his way into graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College that Gonzales started to delve deeper into the issue of segregation.

Now, it’s his full-time job. Gonzales was recently named School Diversity Project director for New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues.

Appleseed has already played an active role in the ongoing conversation about how to integrate New York City schools. Executive Director David Tipson helped shape the state’s Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, which offered grants to help boost struggling schools by making them more diverse. And in school Districts 13, which received a SIPP grant, Appleseed is helping lay the groundwork for integration plans.

With Gonzales on board, and a new school year starting soon, Appleseed is hoping to grow its impact. Gonzales has plans to forge new partnerships and bring together the various groups already working on school diversity issues. Most of all, Gonzales said he wants to give students a voice in the process, and is already working with a Bronx-based student group called IntegrateNYC4Me to do that.

Gonzales sat down with Chalkbeat on Thursday. Here is the interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Integration and segregation can take different forms: racial, economic, by disability status. When you talk about segregation, what do you mean?

When I talk about segregation, I think of apartheid schools … we think of separate but unequal school facilities for students, particularly those students of color, but also students from low-income backgrounds. So my priorities when I’m thinking about segregation and integration, are really racial and socioeconomic integration.

In general, I think what we know from academic research is schools that have high concentrations of poverty lack the resources that are needed to support and encourage those students to actualize their full potential.

The Department of Education has taken the stance that integration should happen “organically” rather than by a top-down mandate. Will that work?

I totally agree with that. As we saw in the last iteration of desegregation, top-down mandates don’t work. So, New York Appleseed fully supports school-by-school decisions and district-by-district solutions, and having that work come organically.

When we’re suggesting that the DOE set a vision and take a role of leadership, [it] does not mean that they have to do it top-down. I think the most effective mechanism I’ve seen for pushing new policies is for larger institutions to be a support mechanism. So we would like to see the Department of Education provide the guidance and support that all these school-by-school leaders want and need.

Part of the framing around the idea — that it’s either one or the other — I think is short-sighted, for sure. I think those things have to happen simultaneously in order for this to be successful, and that’s why we continue to pressure the Department of Ed to take a [formal] stance on this. And I think they’ll find there’s a lot more community support for this work than they think there is. And again, that will signal to the local actors who are really doing this work on the ground. It’ll reaffirm the work what they’re doing and support them.

What, then, can or should be done in places where parents or other people on the ground are resisting these efforts?

That’s certainly been a longstanding debate and discussion. We don’t want to force this on anyone. But I think what I want to try to do in those spaces is really try to help educate parents on both sides of the actual benefits of integration and diverse schools.

There is really excellent research on this that perhaps hasn’t been translated into accessible information for everyone. But going to a diverse school is associated with higher graduation rates, increased critical thinking skills. Employers — there’s a good study that the Century Foundation put out about the benefits of diverse schools — but employers want diverse workers. … So I think for parents that are resistant, it’s about really framing this as: “This is going to benefit your kids in really incredible ways that you’ll be able to see immediately, but also in the long-term.”

I think if you ask students, they’d be fully happy and totally for being in diverse schools. And that’s what I see working with students and getting to know the students from IntegrateNYC4Me. They want diverse schools. So I think we need to hear out parents, but we also need to highlight the voices of students and actually ask the students what they want, and try to help those students tell their parents what they think is the best way for them to learn. And I have a feeling that students will be able to articulate the benefits better than us, too. So part of it is going to be having students really raise their voices up.

Different integration ideas have been floated, such as “controlled choice,” which allows a district to consider factors like household income in admissions. Based on what’s happened elsewhere, or what we know from research, is there one practice that we know produces better results than others?

No. So I think there are a variety of ways to go about this and I think what we’re seeing with the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, the SIPP grants, is that … there are a variety of ways this could be done, and [the state] wanted them to be constructed by the local population.

Certainly we support controlled choice. We’ve seen there’s a lot of really excellent examples of where that’s been done — in Cambridge [Massachusetts] and upstate New York in White Plains. Ultimately, we’re certainly supportive of controlled choice but as long as the integration efforts are done authentically and are done with values that we think need to be part of an integration plan, we’re going to support it.

We’re not a one-size-fits-all type of group. And we just know that doesn’t work. So we want organic solutions — but we want the [New York City] DOE to actually set out a framework of what they think would be helpful, too.

So hopefully as these pilots in Districts 1 and 13 move forward — and I guarantee, I’m very confident that they’re going to produce some really positive results — perhaps the [New York State] DOE can look to those New York City examples, as well as national examples of what policies and what practices can and should be used. But we’ve never wanted to push one way of thinking about this.

As these policies move forward, how do you ensure that families with the means to pull out of the public school system, don’t — that they stay?

So that’s, I think, what the challenge that the previous iteration of desegregation had. What we’re seeing — and this is different across the country — the context of New York is such that we’re having affluent, white families move back into the city. So we’re actually trying to deal with how to ensure that communities that have been in schools for generations maintain some semblance of control and are still a part of the community and are not being pushed out of their community.

So I’m actually not worried about the idea of white flight at this point. That may happen, and if that happens, again, there’s benefits that those families are going to miss out on: the benefits of diversity and of diverse schools for their kids. And that’s unfortunate.

There seem to be really robust conversations going on right now in New York City about these issues. Why do you think this is?

Well, I think that’s for a handful of reasons, really. One, I think New York  City is a national leader in education policy — and I say that as a Los Angelino. And so, I think the country does often look to New York and we have an opportunity to set the pace for what’s going to happen.

I think also because there’s mayoral control, education policy itself is just more political. So I think that just lends itself to more of a robust discussion.

But I think the discussion around integration has really blown up over the last couple of years. [New York Times reporter] Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “This American Life” episode was really powerful. It had me to tears, coming to tears, a couple of times. I think that has led to a lot of media coverage. Then there’s been a rezoning in Brooklyn that has caused a lot of stir. The rezoning issues on the Upper West Side have also created, I think a more robust discussion.

It’s brought microphones into a lot more communities that weren’t there before, because this work has been happening for a long time. I think now, people are just starting to pay attention to it.

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.

side effects

After an early childhood overhaul, paying families are bringing diversity to some New York City child care centers

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen
A door at the Magical Years early childhood center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, welcomes families in four languages.

When New York City reduced funding for the Magical Years child care center in 2012, staff there lobbied to gain back the seats they would have to cut.

Their effort fell short, so they turned to another funding stream: families in the neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, who were desperate for high-quality child care spots and who could pay for it.

Today, Magical Years is a vibrant space with toddlers singing songs in Spanish, Chinese, and English, and with a waitlist numbering in the hundreds. At any given time, nearly two thirds of infants and toddlers come through the city’s child care system, bringing in as much as $425 a week in city funding; the rest are from families that pay $250 a week for their spots.

In a city where early childhood programs are highly segregated by race and class, Magical Years suggests that the city’s recent early childhood overhaul might inadvertently have laid the groundwork for integration.

Families who might otherwise never brush elbows actively mingle and learn from one another At Magical Years, said Ann Goa, the center’s former director, adding, “We can see the connection and communication that parents have” with each other.

The changes at Magical Years represent an unintended consequence of a massive overhaul to how the city manages early childhood education, known as EarlyLearn. While there have never been many slots for infants in subsidized child care centers, the initiative reduced those spaces even more. The city started sending more children younger than 3 into less expensive programs run out of providers’ homes and paying some existing child care centers for fewer spots.

Like Magical Years, a handful of other centers in that position who were also in gentrifying neighborhoods responded by actively recruiting local paying families to help supplement the lost revenue. As a result, some, but not all, have created rare oases of integration — something that research suggests benefits poorer students and doesn’t harm other students.

Across the city, it’s unclear exactly how many paying families are sending children to child care centers that are otherwise city-funded. The city does not track this number, which is likely to be small because there are relatively few subsidized centers that serve infants, and many of those are in very high-poverty neighborhoods with few families able to pay for care.

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen

But where this dynamic has played out, it has had an impact. At Magical Years, typically 14 of 42 seats are filled with paying customers, some of them employees at NYU Langone, the large health and social service organization that oversees Magical Years.

Magical Years places toddlers whose families pay privately in the same classrooms with children whose families are in EarlyLearn, paving the way for socioeconomic and racial integration.

But other centers funnel children from private-paying families into classrooms separate from their EarlyLearn classes.

At a Friends of Crown Heights center in the gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, a handful of  infant and toddler rooms are reserved primarily for “private pay” families. These rooms appear to be more racially diverse than other rooms in the center.

Center administrators — who operate 20 early childhood programs under a $42 million contract with the city — explain that the decision was largely driven by a desire to simplify bookkeeping. Different funding sources come with different regulations, they say, so it is easiest to group all children whose spots are paid in the same way together.

If a city representative wants to see the medical records of all the children in the EarlyLearn program, for instance, having those children in one classroom makes it easier for the center to comply, according to Hugh Hamilton, director of program development.

“It is for accounting purposes,” Hamilton said, adding that when the children at their centers play outside, staff at Friends of Crown Heights say, kids of all backgrounds come together.

To some researchers who study early childhood education, this approach is a mistake.

“Programs that are segregated by race/ethnicity and income are rarely, if ever, of equal quality,” write Jeanne Reid and Sharon Kagan of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University in their 2016 report, “A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.”

As the city takes an increasing interest in both early childhood education and integration, people who have experienced the wrenching changes that affected Magical Years are debating how spots for poor children should be handled.

Vaughan Toney, president of Friends of Crown Heights, says he’d like to see the city reinstate all of the subsidized infant slots lost during the EarlyLearn transition. Families with the means to pay privately, he says, have other options, while some low-income families that his organization serves have to travel to Friends of Crown Heights centers because their neighborhoods have no early childhood centers.

Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of NYU Langone’s community programs, has a different take. Though Magical Years’ private-pay slots reap far less revenue than the subsidized ones, Hopkins says the center wouldn’t want to switch those slots back to city-funded ones and risk losing the diversity that exists now.

“Families share strengths and assets and learn different cultural beliefs and value systems, and that just enriches the environment for the children,” she said.

Hopkins said she would rather see the center expand to make space for more of everything — more subsidized and more private slots. “Segregated centers are never a good thing,” she said.

This story is adapted from a forthcoming report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School that looks at subsidized infant and toddler child care.