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.

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.