Meet a top New York state policymaker working to integrate the state’s severely segregated schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting in 2016.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Regent Judith Johnson vividly remembers being the only student of color in many of her classes.

She was selected for gifted programs, which meant exposure to different students and new opportunities throughout her schooling experience. Meanwhile, she watched most of her African-American peers fall farther and farther behind.

“I get to move into the quote American middle class. My African-American friends did not,” Johnson said in a recent interview with Chalkbeat. “They are no different from me. It was this sorting process where a decision was made for them that they would not get the same educational experience.”

The unfairness of it all has stuck with her for years and is something she brings with her as she co-leads a New York State workgroup attempting to help spur school integration. The task is bound to be challenging: New York has the most segregated schools in the country, according to a widely cited UCLA report from 2014.

So far, Johnson’s workgroup has been reviewing research and talking to students and advocacy organizations. But in an interview with Chalkbeat, Johnson began to lay out her ideas for what the group can accomplish and talked about the challenges that lie ahead.

This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What in your own background makes this issue so important to you?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in…the Fort Greene housing project. Interestingly enough, in its origins, [it] was more about poor people than it was about poor black people. In my building, there were poor people: Irish, Italian and black. We all attended the neighborhood school.

New York City at that time segregated its classes from 1 to 10 [by ability level]. And that’s where it began. So we might all have come from the same project, but when we entered that building, we didn’t go into the same classrooms.

I don’t know what I did on this test, but I ended up in the [gifted] class, which meant no [other] kids of color in this class. I went through school the only kid of color in most of my classes. I had a high school experience where the high school was integrated, but it really wasn’t. The integration stopped at the door.

What was that like?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Judith Johnson
Regent Judith Johnson

I can live in both worlds, which is a real advantage that not everyone has. I can move in different circles with different groups of people. Why can’t all children do that? And why would you make a decision based on one test to put a kid into a class that everyone else of the same ethnic background didn’t get into? Bottom line: I get to succeed. I get to move into the quote American middle class. My African-American friends did not. They are no different from me. It was this sorting process where a decision was made for them that they would not get the same educational experience that the kids in this [gifted] class would get.

With that experience in mind, what is the problem that you are trying to solve with this workgroup?

 We are a nation of diverse people, [but] we all aspire to something called the American Dream. I don’t know where that originated, by the way, but it does exist in the minds of people. If you would ask people, ‘What is the American Dream?’ you’d get to a common answer. We don’t have that in terms of every person having the same opportunity to succeed. That’s the problem we’re trying to address. How do we put together an educational system where success does not depend on your ethnicity, your zip code, your socioeconomic status?

 What do you think this workgroup can do to help?

 You can incentivize schools and say if you can determine how best to integrate your schools, we’ll incentivize schools with programs or funds or some combination. You can implore schools to understand the importance and use moral will to get parents to understand it is morally correct to have integrated settings and you can find opportunities where that will happen.

If moral will and incentivizing are two important things, the third is the civil rights laws that have to be adhered to. The first step is to present civil rights laws to school districts and see if we can get the understanding that, if they’re violating the law, they need to address it.

Do I encourage the lawsuits against school districts? They’re very, very expensive. I would hope we could avoid that. But I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. It is not something that I am recommending at this time. But we’ll probably leave the door open and say we can’t allow districts to violate civil rights laws. So, [we want to look into] what are the voluntary efforts we can undertake to address any violations without having to go to the courts? But if we have to, the courts are definitely there.

Before the state looks to the courts, you talked about voluntary plans and incentivizing integration. What might that look like exactly?

Revive and rethink in the 21st century this concept of magnet schools and magnet centers. There are some schools that are theme-based that all parents want [or] that a group of parents wants to send their kids to because of its potential and that usually attracts a very diverse crowd of people. So that’s one option. Another option is encouraging regional high schools, where it makes sense.

Another way to look at this is in terms of…competitive grants. [The state could provide] extra points if [schools or districts] have an integration plan in their competitive grant. So if a group is applying for money for an educational program and has a component that says we’re going to ensure that this is an ethnically diverse population…they should be incentivized for that. I feel very strongly about that one because it’s voluntary and it gives you resources and money.

Encouraging magnet schools, requiring schools to have an integration plan when the apply for grants, going to the courts, those seem like long-term solutions. What are you looking to do in the short-term with this group?

I do think one of the earliest things we can do, and it’s beginning to happen if we can define it well, is creating classrooms for teachers that understand there are multiple ways to deliver a lesson. …We need to have relevancy to the kinds of materials we use, so kids can see themselves in the lessons. …We can change the concept of what assessment looks like. We can invest in professional development of teachers, which I think is what we need to do.

Those are three things we can do almost immediately. So as we develop our budgets for next year, we can set aside funding for the professional development needs of teachers, we can rethink our resource budget, whether or not we have instructional materials that are culturally relevant to kids.

At the last meeting you talked about meeting with civil rights groups and also having a convention to talk about these issues. Is that definitely going to happen or are these ideas still tentative at this point?

I need to find the funding to make it happen. Yes, I would like to bring civil rights groups to the table in New York because they’re advocacy groups….I have not yet reached out to the civil rights organizations as a formal group. We do need some funding to do that. Yes, it’s in the works.

It seems like you, as a group, are really interested in tackling the issue but half the problem is figuring out where to start since it’s such a big issue.

It is. It’s huge.

We can identify the many places and the many journeys that probably need to be taken. We can’t take them all. That’s true. We can’t. So we’ve got to decide, where are we going to put our energies and our efforts? And I gave you some ideas early on in this conversation about things I feel we can do as an education department. And we can’t do everything.

Do you think these are all things that fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents? Or do you think you will need help from the legislature, the governor and local school districts?

I think we need to be the bully pulpit that starts the conversation. And then, I think the conversation needs to be picked up in every single region in this state and I think it needs to become a conversation in the legislative body and a conversation that the governor has.

What specifically do you think the Board of Regents can do to be the bully pulpit?

I think that has to come from that workgroup before I try to answer that question. I think the group working with thought leaders, and civil rights organizations, and community leaders needs to answer that question.

You referenced this in the last meeting, but has this been more difficult than you thought?

It is a challenge. It’s a challenge I would readily take on because I’m a product of having been in a system that gave me access to resources and I want that for every kid. To grow up in a housing project where there were no doors on the closets — because it’s housing projects, you give people the bare minimum. I didn’t have a shower in my room. I didn’t even know what a shower was until I was about 18. I said, “What the hell is this water that comes out of the wall?” I had no idea that a shower is something that people had. You don’t even know that you’re poor until you go into another world and go, oh, this is another way of living.

I can’t help that my parents were not educated and had jobs that gave them minimum salaries. I can’t help that. But they wanted more for their child. Every parent wants more for his or her child. So it’s a huge task but is it not the role of a Board of Regents to put in place a system that ensures every child has the opportunity to succeed in life? That’s our role.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.


Testing, vouchers, and pre-K: Tennessee legislature’s new ed leader weighs in

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Mark White is the new chairman of Tennessee's House Education Committee, a legislative gatekeeper for hundreds of bills dealing with public education. The Memphis Republican has served in the House since 2010.

With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.