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.

Integration calculation

Critics say NYC’s progressive mayor isn’t doing enough to integrate schools. Here’s why he might be dragging his feet.

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

It was summer of 2016, and a school rezoning fight was raging on the Upper West Side. The battle over where kindergartners would attend school had, once again, dragged out an uncomfortable fact: New York City schools are starkly segregated.

Parents railed against the city’s plans, which would send more white, affluent students to a school that largely serves black and Hispanic children from a nearby public housing development. Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City’s unabashedly progressive mayor, visited the district. Faced with questions about segregation in the city’s schools, he promised that a “bigger vision” for integration was coming.

When it did — almost a year later — critics quickly blasted the plan as weak. Notably, the plan did not even use the word “segregation” and the mayor chose not to have a press conference when he released it. A recent study found that some of the plan’s goals could likely be met just through demographic changes already underway.

“I wish there was a bigger, stronger commitment,” Shino Tanikawa, an integration advocate in Manhattan’s District 2, told Chalkbeat at the time.

In the almost four years since de Blasio was elected, he has signed a paid parental leave policy, advocated against stop-and-frisk police tactics and called for more affordable housing. His education agenda has been similarly packed with progressive hallmarks, with the city pumping millions of dollars into struggling schools rather than closing them, and launching universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.

But while the city has taken some steps toward creating more diverse schools, de Blasio has poured little of his energy into integration. Why would a liberal mayor, who ran his campaign on a promise to tackle “a tale of two cities,” make only halting moves on an issue that seems core to a left-leaning agenda?

We spoke with a dozen parents, advocates, and academics, who say his constituents simply aren’t aligned on the issue — and he could risk losing their support if he tries a bolder approach. And despite the work of a growing network of activists, a notable advocacy gap means the mayor hasn’t faced intense pressure to act.

“It’s just a calculation that he’s made,” said Matt Gonzales, who works on school integration issues for the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “A lot of Democrats have been characterized as really progressive, but they commit all kinds of errors in their work.”

“People don’t want to give stuff up.”

Recent school rezoning battles are a prime example of why de Blasio might be hesitant to push for integration.

New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, a fact that was thrust into national headlines by a 2014 report by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. About half of all city schools are “intensely segregated,” with at least 90 percent of students belonging to a minority group, according to the report.

Some integrated neighborhoods offer opportunities to break that pattern. But when the city has proposed changes that would decrease segregation (as a byproduct of tackling overcrowding), resistance has been fierce.

Doreen Gallo, director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, spoke out against the Brooklyn rezoning plan. Photo: Patrick Wall

In Brooklyn’s District 13, when the city proposed funneling some children from one crowded school’s zone to P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, a school that had largely served black and Hispanic students, white and affluent parents fought back.

The same thing happened in District 3 on the Upper West Side when the local Community Education Council voted to change the boundaries around three vastly different schools. Two were jam-packed and high-performing: P.S. 199 and P.S. 452, which enroll mostly white and Asian students. The third, P.S. 191, enrolls mostly black and Hispanic children from public housing across the street.

Backlash was swift, well-organized, and persistent. Parents opposed to the plans for P.S. 199 and P.S. 452 packed public hearings. They sent letters from lawyers, calling the process “contrary to law.” Many affluent parents said they’d move, rather than send their children to a lower-performing school.

“There’s a serious problem in white liberalism in New York City,” said Emmaia Gelman, a white parent in District 3 who has advocated for integration policies. “Put to the test, it doesn’t hold up. People don’t want to give stuff up.”

De Blasio has signaled he agrees, having once said the city should “respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school.”

Threatening that sense of entitlement could cost him votes, Gelman said. City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who threw her support behind the Upper West Side rezoning, is now facing a competitive reelection race. De Blasio, on the other hand, is coasting toward a second term.

“The parents in my district are in survival mode.”

A fear of alienating white voters might be one concern for the mayor, but it’s not the only one. His black and Hispanic supporters aren’t necessarily pushing him on this issue either.

As the president of the Community Education Council in Harlem’s District 5, Sanayi Beckles-Canton ticks off the complaints about schools she often hears from parents. Some have safety concerns about their children who attend elementary schools co-located with charters that serve older students. Others have complained that their children receive special education services in a school hallway.

Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36 last school year, called for more resources at the District 5 school. Photo: Christina Veiga

School integration just doesn’t make the list of top concerns in this district, whose students are 90 percent black and Hispanic.

“Before we can really get to the subject of integration, the parents in my district are in survival mode for the basics,” she said. “‘I just want to make sure my child is educated … before I care about you bringing wealthier families into my building.’”

What she does hear, however, are concerns about neighborhood gentrification trickling into schools. With wealthier families moving into Harlem, schools could lose federal funding for high-poverty schools if their low-income populations fall below the required threshold. That money pays for after-school care, arts programs and music classes. Beyond budgets, families also worry about losing their influence in schools.

“Some of the parents in my community are not excited about the notion of integration because it means losing things for them,” she said. “Those families who had the power and leverage in their schools, they’re losing it now because you have the more educated, wealthier families who are taking over.”

Some activists would rather see the city focus its efforts on providing culturally relevant education — making sure all students are reflected and supported in what is taught — within existing school communities.

“He’s not working with the urgency needed, and to make people believe that this is the change he wants to make,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent advocacy group.

As reluctant as de Blasio may be to rile white parents, he also can’t afford to lose the support of black and Hispanic voters. Half of black voters approved of de Blasio’s handling of public schools and 47 percent of Hispanic voters did, according to a 2016 Quinnipiac poll. But 54 percent of white voters did not.

“When he was elected, he saw that white progressive constituency as very important. It’s less important to his reelection because of liberal disaffection and strong support among the black and Latino voters,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “Especially as he looks towards reelection, [integration] is not a pressing voter concern.”

“There’s not a massive movement for this yet.”

If voters haven’t clamored for integration, neither have most advocacy groups.

“If we want integrated schools, we need both real steps forward — real policy steps forward — and a much larger movement of people demanding it and choosing it,” said City Councilman Brad Lander who, along with Councilman Ritchie Torres, has been a vocal supporter of integration.

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students calling for school integration rallied at City Hall in May. Photo: IntegrateNYC4Me

The United Federation of Teachers has pursued its own desegregation strategies, such as allowing schools to bend city and union contract rules when it comes to student enrollment, as well as lobbying for admissions changes at the city’s elite specialized high schools. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was among a coalition of organizers that filed a federal complaint in 2012 targeting the specialized high schools exam.

The New York NAACP did not return a request for comment, but Hazel Dukes, president of the conference, was named to a city advisory group analyzing the school diversity plan. The teachers union defended its work.

“There are some people who want a louder voice. There are some people who don’t want us to speak about this at all,” said Janella Hinds, vice president for academic high schools at the UFT. “But I think we are chipping away at this issue in many different ways.”

The Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation is trying to bring together activists in a citywide movement, but it is a budding organization that is largely still figuring itself out. Made up of academics, parents, educators and others who have pursued integration in their own corners of the city, the group only settled on a name for itself in recent months. It has yet to attach that name to a list of policy goals and is still working out such basic questions as what its mission statement should include.

“There’s some legitimacy to the point that there’s not a massive movement for this yet,” said Gonzales of New York Appleseed. “You can still run around and talk to people on the street who have no idea that our schools are segregated.”

The advocacy movement that has sprung up is itself not that diverse, a critique that organizers say needs to be addressed before truly taking the cause mainstream. Naila Rosario realized the problem when serving as president of the Community Education Council in District 15, where parents have started working on a district-wide integration plan.

“I’m really a little frustrated that every time we have a diversity meeting, I’m the only Latina in the room,” she said. “If we do come up with a districtwide plan, I would like it to reflect the entire district — not just Park Slope and Cobble Hill.”

“If you try to do too much, people will flee.”

Another reason the mayor may be slow to act is the prevailing feeling that this problem is just too big to overcome. Before the city released its diversity plan, de Blasio cautioned it wouldn’t “instantly wipe away 400 years of American history and suddenly create a perfect model of diversity.”

He added: “Could we create the perfect model for diversified schools across the school system? No… Because you have whole districts in this city that are overwhelmingly of one demographic background. You would have to do a massive transfer of students and families in order to achieve it. It’s just not real.”

New York City schools have been segregated for a long time, and observers have noted that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein barely touched the issue. At a March meeting of educators, Klein laid out part of his rationale.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, flanked by former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in 2010

“If you try to do too much, people will flee,” said Klein, as reported on an education blog. “The experience I’ve seen with forced busing: When people fled to the suburbs, the bulk of black and Latino kids were bused to hell and yon. To prioritize desegregation would have led to less good outcomes.”

Advocates have managed to agitate the current administration into taking some action. The diversity plan released in June set specific targets for increasing the number of students in racially representative schools and decreasing the percentage of economically stratified schools.

“In terms of beginning a conversation that suggests that diversity in New York City matters and that diversity can be part of a comprehensive plan, I do think that the advocacy community has made a bold victory here,” David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, told Chalkbeat in June.

Lander, the city councilman, understands the frustration many progressives feel when it comes to integration. But he also said the city’s plan provides a way forward.

“It’s hard to be satisfied with incremental change. On the other hand, to me the options are incremental change or no change,” Lander said. “I haven’t heard anyone propose what more rapid, comprehensive change would look like.”

In response to questions, de Blasio’s office emailed a statement that said  “the Mayor believes students benefit from diverse and inclusive schools and classrooms.”

“That’s why we released a school diversity plan that says just that, and lays out a series of initial goals, policy changes and steps forward,” the statement read. “We know there’s lots of work to do, and the DOE is specifically inviting the feedback and ideas of community members and stakeholders… Feedback is central to the work of making our schools more diverse and inclusive.”

“A mayor who doesn’t want change”

In the places where advocates have tried to push harder or faster, the city hasn’t always helped. Take tiny District 1, for example, on the Lower East Side. The district of 12,000 students seems to have all of the ingredients to integrate its schools.

Parents have spent years building grassroots support to change elementary school enrollment policies there. And unlike many neighborhoods, the district’s demographics offer a real possibility to integrate students: 40 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent Asian, 18 percent white, and 16 percent black. District 1 also has the benefit of having no elementary school zone lines, with students assigned based on parent choice — meaning there are no attendance boundaries to fight over.

In 2015, the district landed a state grant to study and implement new enrollment policies to promote school diversity. They came up with a plan for “controlled choice,” which allows families to rank their preferred schools but also factors diversity into admissions.

Between that and de Blasio’s election, Naomi Peña, a parent on the education council, remembers feeling like the stage was thoroughly set for a change. “We were thrilled,” she said.

But Peña and other District 1 parents are still waiting. Rather than finding an ally in the mayor, Peña has accused the administration of holding their integration plans “hostage.” She blames bureaucratic delays that have held up grant payments and a general reluctance from the education department to approve enrollment policies that would deny parents their first choice for their children’s schools.

“What’s happening in our education department is an unwillingness,” Peña said, noting that their plan has been delayed until at least the fall of 2018. “I have a mayor who doesn’t want change.”

Questioning Columbus

What New York City students learned about Christopher Columbus when their own classroom was ‘discovered’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Mariana Souto-Manning flashed an image of a square with a diagonal line through the middle. The associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College asked a crowd of educators what they saw.

A box with two triangles? A couple of sandwich wedges? How about tally marks?

Souto-Manning explained this is how she learned to count by fives in Brazil: Instead of the hash-mark method used in American schools, students draw the four lines of a square. A slash through the middle signals a group of five.

Souto-Manning was making a point about the cultural nature of knowledge, and the need to be aware of that in diverse classrooms.

“We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative — as if that was the only story,” she said.

Across New York City, parents are calling for more racially and economically integrated schools. But for many, enrollment policies that mix students of different backgrounds is a just small piece of what’s needed to make schools more inclusive.

In order to truly integrate, advocates say educators need to take a close look at the lessons they teach. In other words, schools need to be adept in culturally relevant teaching — making sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught.

“Rethink who is the curriculum, who is the teaching, centered on?” Souto-Manning said.

Teachers College recently hosted educators from around the world to explore diversity in a way that goes beyond simple demographics. Among them were three New York City teachers who explained how they weave culturally relevant lessons into their practice.

Here is a glimpse into each of their classrooms.

Who discovered this classroom?

With Columbus Day nearing, Jessica Martell wanted her second-graders to take a critical look at the narrative that European explorers discovered America. Working with fourth-grade teacher Abigail Salas, she hatched a plan: The fourth-graders would swoop into the second grade classroom while the younger students were out for gym, taking over the new territory they had “discovered.”

A video clip shows that when the younger students returned to their classroom, they found the fourth-graders settled on a large rug. The second-graders stood frozen at the sight. One little boy elbowed his way to the front of the bottleneck, his chin dropping once he laid eyes on the scene. Someone declared she felt like crying.

“This is our room. It was empty,” Salas informed them. “We discovered this room.”

Students quickly made the connection to Columbus’ interactions with native people. They wondered how someone could be credited with finding a place that others already called home.

Among the questions students asked: “Why couldn’t the two groups just share?” and “How did Columbus communicate with the indigenous people? Did they speak the same language? If not, we know the story is untrue.”

For Salas, such critical questioning signals the lesson was a success.

“I wanted to get away from that story of the people in power,” said Salas, who works at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. “Story acting is a culturally relevant teaching tool because it helps students develop empathy and understand multiple perspectives.”

Going beyond birthday cake celebrations

Birthdays are a big deal for elementary school students — especially in Martell’s second-grade class.

Martell, who teaches at Central Park East II in East Harlem, makes it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday in a particularly personal way: She invites parents into the classroom to tell the story of the day their child was born. It’s a year-long project that includes family interviews and reading Debra Frasier’s children’s book “On the day you were born.”

“Each child has a history. That history is important,” Martell said. “How do we learn that history? Not from a cumulative file that we get at the beginning of every year, nor from an assessment binder.”

The visits impart valuable lessons about different places, periods in time and all the different forms a family takes. In one instance, an adoptive mother told the class about the tribe in Africa that her daughter was born into. Another time, a boy served as translator for his grandfather who communicates in American Sign Language. And in another case, a lesbian couple assured the class they were both “real” moms.

“Through these oral history projects, students come to understand the importance of each other, and what a treat it is to learn from and with families,” Martell said.

Learning how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly

One student in Carmen Llerena’s kindergarten class often needed extra reminders to follow directions. When she spoke with the boy’s mother about his difficulties in class, the mother cut her off.

“He always says ‘Mommy, my teacher doesn’t know my name,’” the mother said.

It turned out Llerena, a teacher at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, had been mispronouncing the student’s name. She apologized, and soon the little boy was much better behaved.

Llerena doesn’t make that mistake anymore.

“I am committed to pronouncing my students’ names in the manner in which their families do. This simple act conveys to students and their families that they are welcome in my classroom and that their identities are honored,” Llerena said.

Now, she makes an extra effort to learn how each child got his or her name. Every year, she makes a class book that tells those stories. Each student gets his or her own page, with a photo of the child and their “name story” written in their native language.

Making sure every family is included is key. Llerena starts with a letter home in backpacks, asking parents to write down their stories. But for those who don’t respond, Llerena seeks translators, conducts interviews at drop-off and pickup, and even involves older siblings if needed.

“Instead of blaming family members for not sending information back, we re-sent the notices and gave them ways to know to look out for them,” she said. “It made space for family literacies to be a central part of our curriculum and teaching.”