oral history

‘It was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’: Reflecting on efforts — past and present — to integrate P.S. 191

Students listened to their music teacher play violin at a P.S. 191 community event at Lincoln Center this spring. Fernando Taylor, a seventh-grade student who is the son of PTA President Charles Taylor, is seated far right. (Photo: Patrick Wall)

This summer, P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side will move into a new space inside a gleaming condominium tower overlooking the Hudson River. It’s an extraordinary new chapter for a school that has come to symbolize the city’s stark racial and class divisions and its halting attempts at integration.

The move follows a bitter debate over the city’s plan to reduce overcrowding at highly sought-after P.S. 199 by shifting some families to the zone of P.S. 191, which has lower test scores and was previously designated “persistently dangerous” by the state. The plan spotlighted the chasm between schools located just nine blocks apart: P.S. 199 is disproportionately white and Asian with a PTA that rakes in $800,000 annually, while P.S. 191 is overwhelming black and Hispanic and serves many children from the public-housing development across the street, called the Amsterdam Houses. The plan was approved in November, though it remains to be seen how many rezoned families will enroll at 191 or seek alternatives.

The rezoning battle was remarkable not just for its rancor, but also for how closely it mirrored the fight that erupted a half-century earlier when the city tried to integrate the same two schools. In 1964, the city proposed “pairing” the racially segregated schools so that students from their combined zones would attend 191 for the early grades and then transfer to 199. After opponents failed to block the plan, many white families abandoned the public schools entirely.

To mark the end of P.S. 191’s current chapter, Chalkbeat interviewed current and former parents, students and staffers to compile an oral history of its integration struggles, past and present. The interviews were conducted from fall 2016 to early 2017.

Just like today, the 1964 zone change was preceded by a series of public hearings. Most P.S. 199 parents railed against the pairing plan, but a small group of white families — many of them residents of the Lincoln Guild co-op building, like the women quoted below — supported it and sent their children to both schools.

Anita Stark: There were dozens and dozens of meetings. The pairing caused a great split in this neighborhood. Tremendous split. There were those who supported the pairing, and there were those who were ardently against it, and they just stopped talking to each other.

Bernice Silverman: All these upper-income articulate professionals would shout. They couldn’t control their anger; they couldn’t wait their turn. It’s not tolerated in kindergarten, but when you’re grown up you can do it.

Yvonne Pisacane: Once it was clear who was going to support it and who was against it, people didn’t talk to each other. You just didn’t talk. People walked past each other as if they didn’t know each other. I tell you the truth, it was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’.

Stanley Becker, P.S. 191’s principal from 1960 to 1980: You got the same situation with the pairing as we have now [with the rezoning hearings]. Parents from 199 got up at school-board meetings and said, “I bought this home for $200-, $300-, $400,000 dollars so I could watch my kid go to school and come home. I don’t want him on a bus going down to another school.”

Later, he said, he saw some of those same parents send their children on buses to private schools in other parts of the city rather than to P.S. 191.

Oh, so the parents who didn’t want their kids to go 10 blocks by bus to a local school had no objection to them going half an hour to the Bronx? You understand that this was just a guise. They don’t want their kids sitting in a school with black and Hispanic kids. That’s the bottom line.

Stark: There were a lot of white parents who really had some racist feelings about the pairing, but they were not going to admit to that. They were going to say there were 13 other reasons they rejected it.

Silverman: There were two things that white parents said: One, they didn’t want — if you mix levels of intelligence or acquired knowledge, it raises the level of the lower group — they didn’t want their kids to be the teachers, to be used as guinea pigs. And the other thing, I guess just fear of poor black people. I don’t know if people said it, but they were afraid there’d be thefts, that the black kids would beat up white kids.

The few white families who supported the pairing enrolled their children at P.S. 191. Students who were unlikely to have crossed paths outside of school became classmates. To help them bond, Principal Becker organized relay races during lunch.

Kenneth Birnbaum, who grew up in Lincoln Guild, said the relay races “transformed” his experience: Being pretty alone, feeling like a minority, scared a lot of the time, to sort of finding my way in this school and making friends with all these people. … The people I was scared of got to be some of my best friends.

Some of the students extended their friendships beyond school, including in the Amsterdam Houses community center.

Robert Stark, Anita’s son: So many of my friends were in the projects. We used to hang out, build models together [ in the community center]. I took a woodshop class there. We took dancing. … It was pretty racially mixed.

Valerie Washington, who grew up in the Amsterdam Houses, made friends with a girl who lived on Central Park West: I remember going to her house. Wow. She had a party. I’ll never forget that, I was impressed … Those apartments were huge. You took an elevator and it’s just your apartment on the floor.

Chris Pisacane, Yvonne’s son: I will say this, I know from going to those schools with those kids that it made me a better person. That I am 100 percent sure of. … Overall, it was a very good experience. And I think it would be a good experience now if it was like that.

The pairing is believed to have officially ended in the 1980s, but by that time white families had almost entirely stopped enrolling at P.S. 191. The school had returned to serving nearly all black and Hispanic students, many of whom lived in poverty.

Gladys Curet, a former 191 student, taught at the school from 1982 to 2011: I saw the change in the kids, and the lack of support from the system. The need for more and getting less. I say that money-wise, supplies, support … I remember once having 34 kids. I took it on. I said I could do this. … But it wasn’t fair to them. I literally had kids sitting on the windowsill.

Even as P.S. 191 struggled, its neighbor, P.S. 199, thrived. Today, it’s one of the city’s top-performing elementary schools and its PTA is among the highest grossing. Their students rarely interact, but last year fifth-graders at the two schools teamed up for a service project. They made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for hungry New Yorkers.

Aaliyah Santana, a P.S. 191 eighth-grader who’s graduating this month, with her mother, Joselin (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Stacie Lorraine, a P.S. 191 teacher: So everyone was just mixed up together and given this task. And they were all working together and having so much fun and really enjoying each other. These were kids who live in the same neighborhood. Some of them knew each other because they’d been to camp together or had seen each other in other places. And it was such a beautiful moment of what could be. … Then we all go home.

The city first proposed the P.S. 191-199 rezoning in October 2015. The subsequent hearings were dominated by parents in P.S. 199’s zone who opposed the plan.

Susannah Blum, a P.S. 191 teacher: At the last zoning meeting at our school, someone got up and said, “This is very unfair to have on a Saturday meeting.” I’m thinking, “My God, this is probably the only time that some of our parents can come.” … They’re fighting more for their survival and their lives and their financial stability than some of the families from 199.

Joselin Santana, a P.S. 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses and works as a home-health aide: I work 12-hour days, 7 to 7 … I come home, I do cooking, I have to watch if [her daughter, Aaliyah] has homework, if she does it. If I don’t tell her, sometimes she forgets because she’s too busy, she’s at basketball. I say, “No, no, no.” … I have to be sure she takes her shower, she’s eating, she does her homework, and everything.

Lorraine: I don’t want to speak for our families, but they probably feel marginalized in this whole process. When they do come to the meetings, they’re listening to people say only slightly concealed racist things.

Yvette Powell, a P.S. 191 grandparent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses: I heard one parent say they didn’t want their children with these children. They don’t want what these children do to rub off on their children. And I’m like, these are all children.

Charles Taylor, P.S. 191 parent and PTA president (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Charles Taylor, president of P.S. 191’s parent-teacher association: It’s saying, “We don’t want our kids with your kids.” That’s the message. It doesn’t matter how the message is packaged. That’s the message. It may not even be the intent. I can’t say what people are actually feeling when people are advocating for their own children. I can certainly understand that. But that’s not the way it sounds to the people that you don’t want your children to be with.

Lauren Keville, P.S. 191’s principal: The thing that was hardest for me to hear was when people made judgements about our kids. Because our kids are amazing. And so, you know, that’s hard to take. But what I would say to our parents, “This is not the opinion of all. … We know how great our school is.”

Fernando Taylor, Charles’s son, who is in seventh grade: There’s no bullying in our school. There’s no gossiping in our school. It’s just a really nice school.

Sandra Perez, P.S. 191’s assistant principal, said she warned her older students that outsiders might make assumptions about the school based on their behavior: That’s hard. They don’t understand that. They’re like, “I’m just being a kid.” Yeah, I’m sorry, but everybody’s watching us. For years that I was here, nobody ever looked at us twice. No one ever visited. No one cared. And all of a sudden, now schools are overcrowded, and they need our building. All of a sudden, we matter.

Powell said the rezoning battle reminded her of other interactions in the neighborhood.

Lauren Keville, principal of P.S. 191 (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Powell: I go to Riverside Drive [playground] and the kids start playing together. It’s the parents. The parents go, “Get over here.” My granddaughter’s like, “Why can’t she play with me?” I said, “Maybe they’re going home.” … I don’t want my granddaughter to know what’s going on yet. She’s going to know, but not yet.

Aaliyah Santana, Joselin’s daughter, who is in eighth grade: People get scared of other races. That’s probably because they haven’t been near other races. They’ve probably just been near their race. So when they go to a new job or a new school and there’s different races, they’re like, “Oh my God.” I think that would [get better] if there was more diversity.

Elena Nasereddin, a former P.S. 191 principal who left in 2003, said she hopes parents who were rezoned for 191 will consider enrolling: I would be ecstatic if this opportunity were to be seized by a group of parents who are progressive and who believe in equal opportunity. Who believe that black lives matter, that brown lives matter. Working together, they can make that a wonderful school.

Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

 

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.