uneven playing field

‘I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids’: New York City students sue for equal access to sports

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Lisa Parks and Matthew Diaz are part of a class action lawsuit claiming the city denies black and Hispanic students equal access to school sports teams.

At her Atlanta high school, Lisa Parks was a standout on the track team. But after moving to New York City, the junior doesn’t compete anymore.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to. It’s that her high school, Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, doesn’t offer the sport.

Nor does it offer boys volleyball, the game that Matthew Diaz grew up playing during summers spent with family in Puerto Rico. While his cousins have gone on to play professionally, Diaz only gets to spike the ball when he goes to visit them.

Parks is black. Diaz is Latino. And they say too many students like them don’t get the chance to play sports in New York City schools. Both are part of a class action lawsuit accusing the education department and the Public School Athletic League of discrimination by denying black and Hispanic students an equal opportunity to play on school teams, in violation of local human rights law.

“Our mission is to have sports equity in schools,” Diaz said.

Stats collected for the suit show that the average black or Hispanic student attends a school with about 10 fewer teams than students of other racial or ethnic groups. Schools serving the most students of color are five times more likely to have their application for a team denied, often with no response or clear explanation given as to why, the suit claims. And spending on sports for black and Hispanic students is about 14 percent below what other students get.

The lack of extracurriculars such as band or athletic teams at some schools is traced in many cases back to a movement to break up large campuses into smaller schools. While that tactic led to improvements in graduation rates, it also left many schools with too few students or too little money to offer athletics. But data crunched for the suit found that the disparity in sports holds even after controlling for school size.

In its response to the suit, lawyers for the city deny the allegations.

“We are dedicated to providing the maximum number of opportunities for all students to play on sports teams and take part in a transformative experience that strengthens school communities,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said in an emailed statement.

Both Parks and Diaz are activists with an organization called IntegrateNYC, which pushes for desegregation and equal resources in city schools. They form part of the Fair Play Coalition, which grew out of their efforts to bring sports equity in schools, and are being represented by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Both talked to Chalkbeat about the suit and their activism. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of athletics and getting students involved in decision making.  

How did you realize this was a problem that goes beyond your school?

Diaz: We gather students monthly to these [IntegrateNYC] meetings and we’ve seen a pattern of students saying they have less resources than other students. And we’ve seen studies and facts that schools with a majority of white students have better resources, more sports teams than students in majority black and Latino schools. And we found a lot of those students coming to our meetings, and they created that as our priority to make a policy for it. Specifically, my school asked for many sports teams, and we were denied.

Why did you decide to file a lawsuit?

Diaz: When I started this work, our athletic director was already fighting for this. He basically made our school have a lot more sports teams than it had before, but we were still fighting for more. And then he connected me (because of my activism) to the group of lawyers that we have today. We created this coalition called Fair Play Coalition, and from there we just went on to the lawsuit. We expanded this idea from me being in activism, from him doing his own work of activism in sports, to creating this coalition, and having more students and allies for this work of sports equity.

We’ve attended rallies. We’ve done emails to PSAL [the Public School Athletic League, which approves and supports school teams]. We’ve contacted everyone. And we still didn’t get a word back at all. So we saw we needed to take action.

There are many different ways that segregation and inequities play out in the school system. Why did you focus on sports?

Parks: For me, sports are really a big part of my life. I’m from Atlanta, so I’m used to playing every single sport. I had a dream. My dream is to go to the Olympics. And my mom is my biggest fan, so for her, knowing that I’m not playing sports is a big heartbreak because that’s something that I look forward to doing every single day — after school, before school. So coming to New York and not having a sport to play — the sport I want to play — was a big shocker, and it’s something that I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids to have.

What do you think you’re missing out on by not having the opportunity to play the sports you want?

Diaz: I’m missing out on a career. I’m missing out on college. I’m missing out on scholarships. As a person from a low-income community, it is pretty hard to get out of that cycle of being in a low-income community again. I feel like sports is a way out for a lot of students. Not having the opportunity to play volleyball, which is the sport I really want to play, kind of sucks.

What do you want from the education department and for students?

Diaz: Basically what I want is a straight way for youth to have enough power to communicate with the people who are in power. They do not have to go to school, and we do. So why not have our voices in the forefront? I want my little brother to play football. He’s in middle school, and once he goes to high school, he’s not going to be able to play football. I want him to have the chance to play the sport that he wants. And I want him to have the voice. If there’s no football, he could complain, and they would give it to him.

Parks: When I was in Atlanta, I would run track, and my sisters would look up to me. My friends would look up to me. Everyone in the stands would be cheering me on, and they were like, ‘I see you. I see you.’ So [I want] somebody to say that, and for people to really admire me and want to follow in my footsteps. And for middle schoolers, it’s like, ‘You can play sports. You can do it. Anybody can run. Anybody can do anything they could possibly want to do.’ Kids aren’t allowed to play the sports they want to play. It’s just really sad, and I want them to be able to be able to do that.

Why do you think that student voices are so important to include when it comes to naming this problem — and also fixing it?

Diaz: If we weren’t involved, then we would have the problem that we have right now. And if we weren’t involved, it would be this society that does not feel pressured to do anything. I feel like young people should be in the forefront, because we have to go to school and we have to go through not having sports that we want to play, and not having the resources that we need, or not having the guidance counselors that we need in schools.

What if nothing really changes? Will it have been worth it?

Diaz: I think it definitely changes a lot because it gives other students the hope that they have voices and they can do what we did.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.