'Teach Us All'

Netflix documentary on school integration spotlights New York City but troubles some activists

PHOTO: ARRAY

With a film crew rolling, Hebh Jamal boarded the subway before dawn to start her commute to Beacon High School in Manhattan’s Theater District — a ride that takes an hour and 20 minutes from her family’s apartment in the Bronx.

“It would have been nice if there had been options around me,” she tells the camera. “I didn’t feel like there were.”

With that scene, New York City’s school-integration movement is introduced to a national audience in “Teach Us All,” a documentary that traces segregation from the time the Little Rock Nine integrated an Arkansas high school to the present day.

The film, distributed by the collective founded by Ava DuVernay — the award-winning filmmaker behind the Civil Rights-era drama “Selma” and the documentary “13th” — includes a look at city schools that, for some advocates, is posing a dilemma.

While some advocates see the film as a platform to build support for integrated schools, others are uncomfortable with storylines that, in their eyes, take aim at teachers and elevate charter schools — which some critics say can exacerbate segregation. The film was released on Netflix in September.

“I think it undermines the work that we’ve done and the work we care about,” said Matt Gonzales, who works on school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

Gonzales, a consultant for the film, has essentially disowned it, dropping his support for a planned national effort to organize students after the film’s release. Among other issues, the film briefly features Eva Moskowitz, the controversial leader of Success Academy charter schools, who is fiercely opposed by many supporters of the city’s traditional public schools.

The filmmaker, Sonia Lowman, did not return a call for comment.

In the documentary, Lowman travels to Little Rock, Los Angeles and New York City to chronicle the history of segregation and focus on students who are leading efforts to dismantle it. Lowman highlights the work of IntegrateNYC, a student-led movement that was born in the Bronx and has expanded citywide.

The film has its share of supporters, who see it as a teachable moment for a cause they have long advocated.

Mike Hilton, who works on education policy for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, said the film serves as an important introduction to the pervasive issue of segregation. In that sense, he said, it could be a “Waiting for Superman” moment, referring to the documentary that fueled public consciousness about school choice.

“The general understanding of the condition of our schools and the segregated nature of them in the public, I think, is really poor,” he said. “So I think this film helps highlight that, and I hope people ask the question: ‘Oh my God. Do we have a problem with this?’”

But critics said the film features a cast of unlikely advocates for the cause.

In cities like New York, charter schools are often criticized for adding to segregation by enrolling almost entirely black and Hispanic students. (Their supporters note that they were created to provide new options for low-income families, many of them black and Hispanic — and that some charters are intentionally diverse.) Nonetheless, students in the signature orange uniforms of Success Academy appear throughout the film. Moskowitz is featured briefly to extol the importance of school choice.

“I would put my trust in parents before anything else,” says Moskowitz, who has argued elsewhere that charter schools can be a tool for integration.

The film also dives into the case of Vergara v. California, which argued, ultimately unsuccessfully, that teacher tenure laws disproportionately place ineffective teachers in schools that serve mainly black and Hispanic students.

“It was blaming the unions in California for students not getting an equal education,” said Gonzales, who was a teacher in Los Angeles at the time of the case. “The film seems to kind of prop that up as the problem. It tells the really terrible story of segregated schools, and then it goes on this tirade.”

After the film premiered last spring at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Gonzales said he and other advocates shared their concerns with the filmmaker, who made some changes — such as ending with student interviews, instead of Moskowitz.

“We want everyone to see it, but you should watch it with a very critical eye,” he said.

The film is meant to extend nationally the student movement to integrate schools. Sarah Camiscoli, a Bronx teacher who helped start IntegrateNYC, worked with the film company to write a comprehensive curriculum to go along with the documentary.

While she also found some of the themes jarring, she said the youth response has been markedly different from that of adults. She has fielded dozens of requests from students looking to get involved, Camiscoli said.

“On the student level, young people are saying, ‘Hey, I experience separate and unequal education. Can you help me think of a solution?’” she said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to expand our work.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a photo from the documentary. The original photo was attributed to the documentary but was actually part of promotion for the film. 

Brown v. Board

In her own words: Remembering Linda Brown, who was at the center of America’s school segregation battles

Linda Brown (center) and her sister Terry Lynn (far right) sit on a bus as they ride to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Linda Brown, whose name became part of American history through the Brown v. Board of Education case, died Sunday.

She became the center of the legal and political battle to integrate U.S. schools after she was denied access to an all-white school down the street in Topeka, Kansas in 1950. Her father and several other parents sued with the help of the NAACP, and their case made it to the Supreme Court.

When they won, it set a lasting legal precedent. Brown was attending an integrated junior high school by then, and she later recalled the initial desegregation of local elementary schools going smoothly. But over the course of her life, she saw the reality of school integration fall short, locally and nationally.

In Topeka, where Brown would send her own children to public school, some elementary schools remained disproportionately black. In 1979, Brown was part of a lawsuit to re-open the case, which eventually resulted in a 1993 desegregation order for the city’s school district. Across the country, schools remain highly stratified by class and race; in many districts, court orders have ended and schools have quickly resegregated.

Brown seemed ambivalent about the spotlight that came with her name, and some news articles recount failed attempts to reach her. But she often spoke at anniversaries of the 1954 ruling — and while she called it a victory, she wasn’t shy about expressing disappointment at just how much the Brown case itself didn’t achieve.

Here she is, telling her own story over the course of a lifetime.

“I was kind of afraid at first. I didn’t talk about it very much, I guess, because I was afraid it would get back to someone who would make trouble.”

“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions, and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in the history books!’”

— 1961 interview with the New York Times, when Brown was 17

 

“It was not the quick fix we thought it would be.”

— 1984 New York Times interview marking the 30th anniversary of the ruling

“Brown was a very necessary victory. It opened up doors to entertainment, housing, education, employment. All facets of black life was affected by Brown. After 30 years, yes, you do feel that Brown is still not fulfilled. Which is very disheartening to me. I find that after 30 years, desegregation of schools is still very much the issue of today.”

— May 1984 interview with ABC News, marking the 30th anniversary

 

“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all black school. Being a young child, when I first started the walk it was very frightening to me um, and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

— 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years

 

“It is very disheartening. We are still going through the old arguments.”

— 1989 interview, again in the New York Times, at age 46

 

“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”

— 1994 Washington Post story, “Ruling’s Promise Unkept In Topeka,” on the ruling’s 40th anniversary

 

“It’s disheartening that we are still fighting. But we are dealing with human beings. As long as we are, there will always be those who feel the races should be separate.”

— 1994 New York Times story, “Aftermath of ’54 Ruling Disheartens the Browns”

“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”

“I ran across a quote, in a new book by one of our black women authors — her name is Mildred Pitts Walter — that I believe says it all. ‘It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.’”

— 2004 speech at the Chautauqua Institution, near the ruling’s 50th anniversary

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.