A full 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education was unanimously decided, New York City schools remain among the most segregated in the country.
To mark the Friday anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, those most affected by its unfulfilled promise — students — are demanding action.
Teens in every borough are taking to the streets to spread the stories of their own experiences with segregation. At City Hall, teens will sit down midday with top decision makers to push for changes to the high school admissions process.
“We can’t just ignore it,” said Joaquin Soto, a high school junior in Brooklyn and advocate with IntegrateNYC. “Real action needs to take place and it’s in the hands of the higher officials in this city.”
Young people in New York City have been a leading voice in a budding grassroots fight for schools that are more diverse and inclusive. Friday’s actions turn up pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to take more decisive steps toward integration just as he jumps into the 2020 race for the White House, touting his progressive credentials.
One persistent criticism, however, has been his reluctance to take on deeply rooted segregation in the country’s largest school system. His most high profile proposal — to help integrate the city’s prestigious specialized high schools by scrapping the exam that currently is the sole admissions factor — relies on the state legislature to act and has been mired in a legal challenge.
De Blasio also declined an invitation to meet on Friday with the students of Teens Take Charge, who will sit down with some of City Hall and the education department’s most senior officials to lobby for changes in how students are assigned to high schools. The mayor is scheduled to be in Iowa — his first campaign stop after officially announcing his presidential bid on Thursday.
Among the teens’ demands are for the city to provide more access to information for students navigating the sometimes byzantine high school admissions process, tweaking the city’s school assignment algorithm to encourage academic diversity, and making the city’s specialized high schools plan a reality.
“We find that diversity has been discussed and integration has been discussed, but generally that’s the only thing that has happened,” said Tiffani Torres, a high school junior and a member of Teens Take Charge. “We want action.”
While some teens lobby City Hall for changes, others will be hitting the pavement. Advocates with IntegrateNYC are handing out copies of a student-written newspaper during Friday’s commute that chronicles the need for integration from their own classroom perspectives.
They were inspired by an iconic photograph of Nettie Hunt, a black mother explaining the meaning of the Brown v. Board decision to her daughter while sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court in May 1954. In the photo, one arm is wrapped around her young daughter while she holds up a newspaper with the block-type headline: “High Court bans segregation in public schools.”
Sarah Zapiler, the group’s adult advisor, said students were struck by the hope portrayed in the photograph, given that decades later, the headlines aren’t as encouraging. They also felt like their own stories aren’t being told.
“So they were like, let’s make the news,” she said. “Something that’s really important to us is creating and shaping the narrative.”
After fanning out at transit hubs across the city to distribute 25,000 copies of the paper, students will head to the Red Steps at Times Square where they’ll throw a “retirement” party to say goodbye to school segregation.
Leanne Nunes, a high school junior in the Bronx who helped plan the event, says it’s also a way to highlight the progress already being made, even if it’s insufficient. She pointed to community-driven changes to middle school admissions in places like Brooklyn’s District 15 as something to be celebrated.
“This is a way for us to see a more hopeful future,” she said.