Questioning Columbus

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students listen as their teacher gives a small group lesson at Indianapolis Public School's Center for Inquiry at School 27.

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.”

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.