'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. 

Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

 

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”

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.