Questioning Columbus

What New York City students learned about Christopher Columbus when their own classroom was ‘discovered’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Mariana Souto-Manning flashed an image of a square with a diagonal line through the middle. The associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College asked a crowd of educators what they saw.

A box with two triangles? A couple of sandwich wedges? How about tally marks?

Souto-Manning explained this is how she learned to count by fives in Brazil: Instead of the hash-mark method used in American schools, students draw the four lines of a square. A slash through the middle signals a group of five.

Souto-Manning was making a point about the cultural nature of knowledge, and the need to be aware of that in diverse classrooms.

“We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative — as if that was the only story,” she said.

Across New York City, parents are calling for more racially and economically integrated schools. But for many, enrollment policies that mix students of different backgrounds is a just small piece of what’s needed to make schools more inclusive.

In order to truly integrate, advocates say educators need to take a close look at the lessons they teach. In other words, schools need to be adept in culturally relevant teaching — making sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught.

“Rethink who is the curriculum, who is the teaching, centered on?” Souto-Manning said.

Teachers College recently hosted educators from around the world to explore diversity in a way that goes beyond simple demographics. Among them were three New York City teachers who explained how they weave culturally relevant lessons into their practice.

Here is a glimpse into each of their classrooms.

Who discovered this classroom?

With Columbus Day nearing, Jessica Martell wanted her second-graders to take a critical look at the narrative that European explorers discovered America. Working with fourth-grade teacher Abigail Salas, she hatched a plan: The fourth-graders would swoop into the second grade classroom while the younger students were out for gym, taking over the new territory they had “discovered.”

A video clip shows that when the younger students returned to their classroom, they found the fourth-graders settled on a large rug. The second-graders stood frozen at the sight. One little boy elbowed his way to the front of the bottleneck, his chin dropping once he laid eyes on the scene. Someone declared she felt like crying.

“This is our room. It was empty,” Salas informed them. “We discovered this room.”

Students quickly made the connection to Columbus’ interactions with native people. They wondered how someone could be credited with finding a place that others already called home.

Among the questions students asked: “Why couldn’t the two groups just share?” and “How did Columbus communicate with the indigenous people? Did they speak the same language? If not, we know the story is untrue.”

For Salas, such critical questioning signals the lesson was a success.

“I wanted to get away from that story of the people in power,” said Salas, who works at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. “Story acting is a culturally relevant teaching tool because it helps students develop empathy and understand multiple perspectives.”

Going beyond birthday cake celebrations

Birthdays are a big deal for elementary school students — especially in Martell’s second-grade class.

Martell, who teaches at Central Park East II in East Harlem, makes it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday in a particularly personal way: She invites parents into the classroom to tell the story of the day their child was born. It’s a year-long project that includes family interviews and reading Debra Frasier’s children’s book “On the day you were born.”

“Each child has a history. That history is important,” Martell said. “How do we learn that history? Not from a cumulative file that we get at the beginning of every year, nor from an assessment binder.”

The visits impart valuable lessons about different places, periods in time and all the different forms a family takes. In one instance, an adoptive mother told the class about the tribe in Africa that her daughter was born into. Another time, a boy served as translator for his grandfather who communicates in American Sign Language. And in another case, a lesbian couple assured the class they were both “real” moms.

“Through these oral history projects, students come to understand the importance of each other, and what a treat it is to learn from and with families,” Martell said.

Learning how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly

One student in Carmen Llerena’s kindergarten class often needed extra reminders to follow directions. When she spoke with the boy’s mother about his difficulties in class, the mother cut her off.

“He always says ‘Mommy, my teacher doesn’t know my name,’” the mother said.

It turned out Llerena, a teacher at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, had been mispronouncing the student’s name. She apologized, and soon the little boy was much better behaved.

Llerena doesn’t make that mistake anymore.

“I am committed to pronouncing my students’ names in the manner in which their families do. This simple act conveys to students and their families that they are welcome in my classroom and that their identities are honored,” Llerena said.

Now, she makes an extra effort to learn how each child got his or her name. Every year, she makes a class book that tells those stories. Each student gets his or her own page, with a photo of the child and their “name story” written in their native language.

Making sure every family is included is key. Llerena starts with a letter home in backpacks, asking parents to write down their stories. But for those who don’t respond, Llerena seeks translators, conducts interviews at drop-off and pickup, and even involves older siblings if needed.

“Instead of blaming family members for not sending information back, we re-sent the notices and gave them ways to know to look out for them,” she said. “It made space for family literacies to be a central part of our curriculum and teaching.”

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.

By the numbers

New York City expands integration program, adding the prestigious Bard high school in Queens

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

New York City is once again expanding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-integration program, which tweaks the enrollment process at a few dozen schools to boost their diversity.

This year’s additions — which bring the total number of schools to 42, compared to 7 when the program launched in 2015 — include highly selective schools such as Bard High School Early College in Queens, where students earn an associate’s degree in addition to a high school diploma, and P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan, which only enrolls students who qualify as gifted based on the city’s entrance exams.

Also, for the first time, the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative is expanding to include a school in the Bronx: Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in Mott Haven.

The program affects a tiny fraction of city students and only a small number of the city’s almost 2,000 schools. It doesn’t alter system-wide policies that contribute to segregation, including the way most students are assigned to the school closest to their home. But it’s popular with individual schools, and has been one of the most tangible steps taken by the de Blasio administration toward addressing segregation in New York City, which is one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

Officials announced the latest expansion on Tuesday, two days ahead of a city council hearing on school diversity.

Among the added schools are all 16 traditional public elementary school in District 1. City leaders previously announced an intention to include all the elementary schools in the district, which spans the Lower East Side, East Village and some of Chinatown.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack called the initiative a “key part of our schools better reflecting the diversity of our city.”

“We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and are excited to see our Diversity in Admissions initiative expand,” he said in an emailed statement.

Integration advocates have been lukewarm about the initiative. Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said any progress is important but that advocates still want to see more systemic changes.

“This is in no way impacting all 1.1 million students,” he acknowledged. “But it is creating more access for students right now.”

He added: “Obviously that needs to be built into a larger framework and set of priorities to promote more integrated schools all over,” the city.

Schools that join the Diversity in Admissions program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The aim is to create or maintain a diverse mix of students by giving some an extra chance at being admitted.

The program sets targets for schools, but meeting those goals often requires outreach to ensure a diverse applicant pool. Most schools that have participated have met their targets when it comes to making offers for admission, according to education department figures.

Many schools in the program are located in gentrifying areas, where an influx of higher-income families has started to change the makeup of the local schools. The program can help stabilize the schools’ populations, so that they maintain a mix of students from different income levels.

For example, in Manhattan’s District 6, which is one of the city’s poorest, Muscota New School will set aside 30 percent of seats for students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch or live in temporary housing.

Principal Camille Wallin said the school — which is located in Inwood, a traditionally working class neighborhood where more families and young professionals have begun to settle — decided to join the initiative after noticing a significant drop in the number of needy students enrolled. For the 2016-2017 kindergarten class, only 19 percent of students qualified for meal assistance — down from 30 percent the previous year.

“Our belief system is that children learn from and with other children,” she said. “Widening the circle of people, and the experiences, and the social context of our school can only enhance the learning.”

The new batch of schools also includes P.S. 452 on the Upper West Side, which was at the center of a recent rezoning battle to relieve overcrowding and create more student diversity in Manhattan’s District 3. The school will first admit students living within the school’s attendance zone. For all remaining seats, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will have priority.

Schools have to apply to join the initiative, and some are setting aside only a small number of seats. At Lower Lab, for example, 12 percent of seats will be set-aside for students who qualify for meal assistance. Last year, only 4 percent of students were considered poor.

At Bard in Queens, students who qualify for meal assistance will receive priority for 63 percent of seats. About 42 percent of students last year were considered poor.

Advocates say changing student assignment policies is only one part of integrating schools. The city should also focus on creating welcoming environments within schools by training teachers in culturally relevant practices and making sure school staff reflect the diversity of students, they say.

“Integration can’t happen without one or the other,” said Hebh Jamal, a member of the student-led advocacy group IntegrateNYC.

Here are the latest schools to join Diversity in Admissions:

P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 12 percent of seats. The standard district Gifted and Talented admissions criteria still apply.

P.S. 452 in Manhattan – For any seats remaining after all in-zone students are admitted, those eligible for free or reduced price lunch will receive priority.

P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and those who are learning English receive priority for 60 percent of seats.

Muscota New School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 30 percent of seats.

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 75 percent of seats.

District 1 elementary schools in Manhattan – Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, are living in temporary housing or are learning English will have priority for 67 percent of seats. Those with disabilities will also receive a priority for kindergarten admissions. Students who do not meet those criteria will have priority for the remaining 33 percent of offers.

M.S. 260 Clinton School for Writers & Artists in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 17 percent of seats.

Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in the Bronx – Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 25 percent of seats: P.S. 1, P.S. 49, P.S. 154, P.S. 277, P.S. 359, P.S. 369. Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 15 percent of seats: P.S. 5, P.S. 18, P.S. 25, P.S. 29, P.S. 31, P.S. 157, P.S. 161

Boerum Hill School for International Studies on Brooklyn – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 40 percent of seats.

Bard High School Early College in Queens – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 63 percent of seats.