student perspective

New York City students share why they’re fighting for school integration

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Students from IntegrateNYC testified at a City Council education committee hearing. The group is made of students pushing for school integration.

Students filled the New York City council chambers earlier this month to share their experiences in segregated schools and offer solutions.

But they faced a mostly empty dais: Only two members of the council’s education committee stayed to hear the students’ testimony.

New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, and students are playing a growing role in the budding movement to do something about that. After much prodding from integration advocates, the de Blasio administration released a plan this summer to spur more diversity in city schools.

On Dec. 7, the city council’s education committee held its first hearing on school diversity since the plan was released. Here is testimony submitted by leaders and students from Teens Take Charge, a group of students fighting for integration.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“Northerners have been far more successful at maintaining segregation.”

Taylor McGraw is a former history teacher in New York City schools who now hosts a podcast called The Bell, which explores segregation from the eyes of students. He also helped co-found Teens Take Charge.

McGraw started his testimony by referring to New York City’s previous attempts to integrate schools, including a 1956 plan, born after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that was fought by white parents.

As far as I can tell, the difference between whites in the South and whites in the North is that the northerners have been far more successful at maintaining segregation. The biggest crime is that 60 years later, we teach students about what happened in Little Rock, but we don’t teach them what happened in New York City or Chicago.

Today, we are in a position that none of us would have chosen but all of us – including the mayor – must confront. The schools here are still segregated. And they aren’t segregated because of 400 years of American history – they’re segregated because segregationist policies continue.

We must teach students of color that these policies are the reason they have inferior resources in their schools. We must teach white students that these policies are the reasons they have outsized access to an elite education. Otherwise, students will continue to think that the conditions in their schools are normal, that if they get more they must be worth more and that if they get less they must be worth less. We must teach them that this is not a meritocracy, it is a caste system.

“I task you with spending a day in our shoes.”

Jederick Estrella is a senior at Victory Collegiate High in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He recalled the day a stray bullet punched through a classroom window, sending students scrambling.

It was December 20, 2016. This is 3rd period, and about a few minutes from class coming to an end. All I can hear are books being shuffled into bags and overall chatter. Then all we hear is a sharp crack and a slam. A bullet fires into the room and all of us collectively huddle under desks. Glass lands on the floor. Some kids at this point are commando crawling out of the room. I felt like I was on a battlefield. As if I had to prove to someone that this education was worth receiving. Like I was at war with something I couldn’t see.

That AP Biology teacher quit, and I wonder where she is today. I wonder if she’ll ever teach at a school like mine again.

I task you with spending a day in our shoes. Clear your schedules. Get testimony from students that go to these “bad schools.” Especially the ones you oversee in your districts that fall behind, because they need your help. They’re students just like me, going to schools just like me, trying to make something out of themselves just like me.

“We often have a shortage of calculators and some of them hardly even work.”

Dulce Marquez is a senior at New Heights Academy, a charter school in Upper Manhattan. She feels her school lacks the resources it needs for students to succeed.

This year I am taking calculus. In my high school, calculus is the most challenging math class available. Our calculus teacher shared with us recently a statistic from The Atlantic: “Despite the fact that Latino kids make up a quarter of all public-school students and black children comprised more than 15 percent of students that year, just a third of high schools where at least three-fourths of students were black and Latino offered calculus.”

As we allowed this to sink in, she continued, “We don’t have textbooks. The textbooks from last year were too broken and in such ugly state that they cannot be used. So hopefully our school will soon order our new textbooks.”

The majority of the students in my calculus class are girls and all of the students in the room are Latino or African-American. So, why did my teacher share this statistic with us? She also showed us a picture of a Calculus class at a more privileged school. The majority of the students in the class were boys, holding calculators and textbooks. In our class, we often have a shortage of calculators and some of them hardly even work.

“The admissions test for specialized high schools is flawed.”

Wyatt Perez is a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men. He submitted this written testimony, in which he reflects on why more students of color don’t make it into specialized high schools — an elite group of schools where admission is based on a single test. This year, only 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students, though they comprise about 70 percent of the student body citywide.

Every time I see large groups of Caucasian teenagers on the train, there are usually two reasons why: the Yankees are playing or the kids from Bronx Science have been dismissed.

On the hour-long trip from my public high school on the outskirts of the South Bronx to a college prep program in lower Manhattan, I see the Bronx Science students get off the train at 86th or 59th Street.

Later, after two hours of supplemental instruction in math and English, my friends and I will take the train back north and get off at 167th Street or Burnside Avenue. We might make it home by nine. All of this work is done with hopes of attending the same prestigious colleges as the Bronx Science kids – that is, if we receive enough financial aid.

Although the high school admissions process theoretically gives all students lots of choices, low-income black and Latino students end up clustered in the same schools year after year. Meanwhile, students at selective or specialized high schools are mostly white or Asian and affluent.

My school is 96 percent black or Latino and 82 percent of the students meet the requirements for free or reduced price lunch. The school promotes helping students of color from low-income backgrounds graduate and redefine statistics. But the inferior academic instruction at my school, layered on top of years of inferior instruction in elementary and middle schools, cripples students’ chances.
The admissions test for specialized high schools is flawed. Specialized high schools should take more factors, such as academic portfolios and personal statements, into consideration when managing admissions.

I’ll continue to make the most of the opportunities that have come my way. As I start my senior year of high school, I think of my competition, the Bronx Science kids of the world. I think of the kids who have grown up in the 86th Streets of other states and countries. For now, I may only see them on the train, but next fall, I’ll see them at freshman orientation.


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.