Last Monday evening, I attended an interesting event at Brooklyn Law School, “Opportunities and Challenges in Integrating NYC’s Public Schools.”
On the panel were City Council members Ritchie Torres and Brad Lander, who co-wrote an op-ed on the issue, and worked to pass the School Diversity Accountability Act in the City Council earlier this year; Clarence Ellis, a Superintendent in Crown Heights; Jon Rosenberg, a former civil rights lawyer and a charter network CEO; Kevin Young, a PTA President at PS 133; and Todd Sutler, a cofounder of Compass charter school. The panel was facilitated by Arva Rice of NY Urban League (who I later also saw at the Common Core Task Force hearing).
Here’s a quick overview of what I found to be key takeaways:
- Zoned schools are a barrier to integration
- Some possible tools are weighted admissions (at a school-level) and controlled choice (at a district level)
- Diversity is a necessity for quality at a systemic level
- Lenses for viewing diversity at a school-level can be socioeconomic, racial, language-based, and cognitive
- Advocacy needs to focus on changing legislation that prevents integration across districts
- We must be persistent and aggressive in advocacy, recruitment, and admissions
- Nurturing diversity within a school requires building a common language
Read on for further details.
Lander made the point that magnet schools are one important mechanism for integration, with a hat tip to This American Life episode 2. I agree — though let’s also be brutally honest — quality magnet schools cost money. And even with that money invested, as we can see with Hartford magnet schools, it continues to require a sustained and aggressive effort in recruitment and outreach.
After highlighting the work that PS 133 and 130 have done at a school-level (weighted admissions), and that BK Districts 1 and 13 have done at a district-level (controlled choice), Lander made the great point that we have a real need to “codify the tools” that can be used for achieving integration. The good news is that the School Diversity Act will begin measuring diversity in NYC, so starting this December 31st, we can more accurately begin talking about where and how tools (such as controlled choice and weighted admissions) should be applied.
Rosenberg highlighted the important point that when it comes to integration, “we need to be persistent.” He also highlighted, as did others at the panel throughout the evening, the fact that a major barrier to integration is that elementary schools are zoned.
Rosenberg delineated between a “blunt” method of integration: rezoning, and a softer method, which is either to create “something new” and to be “unburdened by history” (such as charter or magnet schools) to avoid battles such as those that playing out in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, and to work to protect those few, “fragile” existing schools and areas that are already integrated. However, Rosenberg later presented a challenge that charter operators face, in that even when they wish to work to diversify, they are confined by state zoning legislation, and end up perpetuating segregation. He presented the example of a school in district 2 in Manhattan unable to integrate students and families from district 4 in East Harlem (or vice versa) due to this legislation.
Torres grounded the panel in the more dire reality of the Bronx, pointing out that in districts heavily poor and segregated, there is little opportunity nor will to integrate, either socio-economically or racially. He pointed out that there is a palpable lack of political will in our country and city to integrate, and that segregation has been a public policy choice and mindset (Rosenberg also echoed this sentiment as well — and why his reminder to “be persistent” is important to bear in mind).
I appreciate Torres’ directness in evaluating the situation — he called out Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor Farina’s deliberate inaction on this issue as “disheartening.” He had what I thought was the money quote for the evening when he pointed out that while you can have quality schools without diversity, the reality is that “if you want quality at a systemic level — then you need diversity.”
Young brought some interesting within-school perspective on integration, pointing out that it can be a challenge at first, and that a common language must be built. But this also, as he suggested, provides an opportunity for students and staff to look at what is the same in our human experience, rather than focusing on differences and deficits. He then threw some oblique shade on Success Academy when he suggested that we can better attract diversity at schools that are “progressive,” rather than “test factories,” like the “charters in the news.”
Sutler brought in another aspect of “diversity” that is rarely discussed but I agree is important to mention alongside socio-economic and racial diversity: cognitive diversity — and that this work to include and integrate is the work of our schools and classrooms. This is an issue close to my own heart, as I work in the field of special education, and inclusion is a fundamental principle for me. Sutler urged the audience to push our legislators on this issue, and he also highlighted the critical need for a school to conduct outreach to achieve better integration.
Sutler later made the case that in terms of increasing diversity in the teaching profession, we need to 1) raise the bar for education graduate programs, 2) elevate the craft and profession of teaching, and 3) make aggressive recruitment efforts to attract people of color.
I’m leaving out a lot of other key points made, but these were the ones that most stuck out for me.
A few of my posts on integration: