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.