support group

NYU’s David Kirkland explains the ‘transformation’ needed to integrate the city’s schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
David E. Kirkland, executive director of NYU's Metropolitan Center, in his office.

Even as calls for school integration grow louder across New York City, there has been no single place for advocates to turn for guidance and support. But that is about to change.

The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University recently landed a $50,000 grant from the New York City Council to launch a resource center to support grassroots organizers, interested school administrators and elected leaders.

In many ways, the work is already underway. NYU and New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues, have been organizing monthly meetings to allow advocates from across the city swap ideas and form action plans.

The Resource Center for School Diversity and Integration will build on that. It will be led by David E. Kirkland, executive director of the Metro Center, and Norm Fruchter, a former member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Chalkbeat sat down with Kirkland to discuss the new center and integration efforts in New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do we already know about K-12 integration? What does the research tells us?

The research suggests, over and again, that people who are exposed to differences are more open-minded and more tolerant. They’re more compassionate. They think more complexly. They’re capable of working out difficult problems.

Forget college and career readiness. Here we have civic readiness, the ability to participate in a multicultural democracy with people who are different than you are, in ways that inspire not tension but community and collaboration.

What this is, is an idea of democracy of access, democracy of opportunity. If my friends’ parents are doctors, the dream of becoming a doctor becomes tangible. It becomes far more legible, as opposed to when I live in communities where nobody gets to be a doctor, or nobody gets to be a lawyer, or judge. The seedling of that imagination becomes within reach.

It seems like advocates have been asking for something like this center to be created. Why is it needed?

In the past, I think equity work has been limited because we work in silos. It’s been important under my leadership at Metro Center to break down silos and create partnerships, broad coalitions and relationships, to solve some vexing problems that we have in schools — particularly New York City schools.

One thing that we know: We know that schools and teachers can’t do it alone. But we also know that one-off, siloed organizations can’t either, that social inequity is a deeply complicated and deeply entangled thing, and it deserves our collective attention.

We haven’t had a dedicated space to deliberate on this idea of integration and what’s necessary to achieve it, and even to argue whether or not it’s something that we want to achieve. I think it’s worth achieving, but I do think we need to have a conversation, and we do need to have a conversation about how to achieve it. We also need to have a conversation about what it is.

How do you define integration?

Our notion of integration is different than desegregation … It is an equity cause, and not just a diversity one. Because diversity is like being asked to a dance, right? And it’s more than just inclusion, too. So if diversity is like being asked to a dance, inclusion is like being asked to dance. But equity, and integration as equity, is giving people an opportunity to dance to their own song in their own way. It’s transformation.

So would a school have an idea and brings it to the center, and you’d help them implement it? Or are you going to try to spur ideas in the first place?

All of the above. The resource network is figuring itself out. We have people who want to support schools in helping them become more integrated. We have people who want to create policy, both at the education level and beyond it. We have people who want to do other types of grassroots organizing to inform parents in communities around a set of ideas. It’s certainly all of the above, and I think we need a broad and bold solution to inspire integration in New York City.

There are also systems of ideas that have worked. We can begin to construct a blueprint based on the variety of ideas that seem to work, like controlled choice [which factors student diversity into admissions among schools in a certain area.] And all of those ideas need to be in conversation and they need to sit somewhere, a central site or organization for New York City, so we can think more deeply about integration and bring integration to fruition within the city.

We exist as a support group to multiple municipal players — the mayor, the chancellor, the City Council — in order to support the integration of New York City schools.

What kind of relationship do you plan to have with the chancellor and the mayor? They’ve both been criticized for not doing enough to help this issue along.

I’m not divisive, because our kids can’t afford for us to be divided … I’m willing to support a direction of diversity and integration that is evidence-based, that is scientific, that is conceptually, theoretically sound.

And I’m willing to work with anybody who is willing to work on those ideas.

I’m curious to hear from you about the challenges — but also maybe the opportunities — that gentrification presents, and how that plays out in schools. 

This conversation about gentrification, let’s be clear: It’s not integration. But it is a reality of cities like New York. I think as a community plan, New York City needs to think about how to protect people from being displaced, how to protect people against gentrification if they truly want to integrate. So one of the threats to integration, to be clear, is gentrification.

We [need to] have community and collaborative engagement around community and school development, so that parents who have more power don’t necessarily overpower parents and community members with less.

There actually are many diverse neighborhoods, and — at the middle and high school level — we have lots of school choice. What will the center’s role be in trying to harness that? Are there opportunities there?

New York city is this really interesting place where young people don’t necessarily get out of their neighborhoods. They may have a choice, but they don’t necessarily feel it. It’s the caged-bird effect. You can open the door to the cage and say ‘Hey, there’s a world out there, bird.’ But if that bird has been behind the cage forever, the bird is not going anywhere because its mind is caged.

People don’t perceive the choice, if there is a choice. And that perception is necessary in order for there to be a choice.

going viral

With a late-night tweet, Carranza steps into emotional and divisive Upper West Side desegregation fight

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza greeted families outside Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on his first official school visit.

If there were any doubt that new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza would take a stronger stand on segregation than his predecessor, he shut it down with a tweet overnight.

Just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, Carranza tweeted a viral version of the NY1 video that shows Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

Parents and educators began responding as the city stirred awake this morning. Here’s one response from a high school principal:

And another from a middle school math teacher and founder of Educolor, an advocacy group for teachers of color:

Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

One early exchange on Twitter in response to Carranza suggested that any moves to desegregate schools could face resistance — and that he also would have support.

Carranza’s tweet came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his city budget would include $23 million for “anti-bias training” for school staff, something that some parent activists and some elected officials have been demanding.

It also came hours before he’s scheduled to visit a Harlem middle school, Hamilton Grange, that wouldn’t be part of the academic integration proposal because it is part of District 6, not nearby District 3 where the idea is under consideration.

Such a proposal would likely look different there, because just 28 percent of fifth-graders in District 6 — which includes some parts of Harlem as well as Washington Heights and Inwood — met the state’s standards in math last year, compared to 57 percent in District 3. The gap was similar in reading.

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.