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.

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!