'Teach Us All'

Netflix documentary on school integration spotlights New York City but troubles some activists

PHOTO: ARRAY

With a film crew rolling, Hebh Jamal boarded the subway before dawn to start her commute to Beacon High School in Manhattan’s Theater District — a ride that takes an hour and 20 minutes from her family’s apartment in the Bronx.

“It would have been nice if there had been options around me,” she tells the camera. “I didn’t feel like there were.”

With that scene, New York City’s school-integration movement is introduced to a national audience in “Teach Us All,” a documentary that traces segregation from the time the Little Rock Nine integrated an Arkansas high school to the present day.

The film, distributed by the collective founded by Ava DuVernay — the award-winning filmmaker behind the Civil Rights-era drama “Selma” and the documentary “13th” — includes a look at city schools that, for some advocates, is posing a dilemma.

While some advocates see the film as a platform to build support for integrated schools, others are uncomfortable with storylines that, in their eyes, take aim at teachers and elevate charter schools — which some critics say can exacerbate segregation. The film was released on Netflix in September.

“I think it undermines the work that we’ve done and the work we care about,” said Matt Gonzales, who works on school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

Gonzales, a consultant for the film, has essentially disowned it, dropping his support for a planned national effort to organize students after the film’s release. Among other issues, the film briefly features Eva Moskowitz, the controversial leader of Success Academy charter schools, who is fiercely opposed by many supporters of the city’s traditional public schools.

The filmmaker, Sonia Lowman, did not return a call for comment.

In the documentary, Lowman travels to Little Rock, Los Angeles and New York City to chronicle the history of segregation and focus on students who are leading efforts to dismantle it. Lowman highlights the work of IntegrateNYC, a student-led movement that was born in the Bronx and has expanded citywide.

The film has its share of supporters, who see it as a teachable moment for a cause they have long advocated.

Mike Hilton, who works on education policy for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, said the film serves as an important introduction to the pervasive issue of segregation. In that sense, he said, it could be a “Waiting for Superman” moment, referring to the documentary that fueled public consciousness about school choice.

“The general understanding of the condition of our schools and the segregated nature of them in the public, I think, is really poor,” he said. “So I think this film helps highlight that, and I hope people ask the question: ‘Oh my God. Do we have a problem with this?’”

But critics said the film features a cast of unlikely advocates for the cause.

In cities like New York, charter schools are often criticized for adding to segregation by enrolling almost entirely black and Hispanic students. (Their supporters note that they were created to provide new options for low-income families, many of them black and Hispanic — and that some charters are intentionally diverse.) Nonetheless, students in the signature orange uniforms of Success Academy appear throughout the film. Moskowitz is featured briefly to extol the importance of school choice.

“I would put my trust in parents before anything else,” says Moskowitz, who has argued elsewhere that charter schools can be a tool for integration.

The film also dives into the case of Vergara v. California, which argued, ultimately unsuccessfully, that teacher tenure laws disproportionately place ineffective teachers in schools that serve mainly black and Hispanic students.

“It was blaming the unions in California for students not getting an equal education,” said Gonzales, who was a teacher in Los Angeles at the time of the case. “The film seems to kind of prop that up as the problem. It tells the really terrible story of segregated schools, and then it goes on this tirade.”

After the film premiered last spring at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Gonzales said he and other advocates shared their concerns with the filmmaker, who made some changes — such as ending with student interviews, instead of Moskowitz.

“We want everyone to see it, but you should watch it with a very critical eye,” he said.

The film is meant to extend nationally the student movement to integrate schools. Sarah Camiscoli, a Bronx teacher who helped start IntegrateNYC, worked with the film company to write a comprehensive curriculum to go along with the documentary.

While she also found some of the themes jarring, she said the youth response has been markedly different from that of adults. She has fielded dozens of requests from students looking to get involved, Camiscoli said.

“On the student level, young people are saying, ‘Hey, I experience separate and unequal education. Can you help me think of a solution?’” she said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to expand our work.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a photo from the documentary. The original photo was attributed to the documentary but was actually part of promotion for the film. 

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.

going viral

With a late-night tweet, Carranza steps into emotional and divisive Upper West Side desegregation fight

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza greeted families outside Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on his first official school visit.

If there were any doubt that new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza would take a stronger stand on segregation than his predecessor, he shut it down with a tweet overnight.

Just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, Carranza tweeted a viral version of the NY1 video that shows Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

Parents and educators began responding as the city stirred awake this morning. Here’s one response from a high school principal:

And another from a middle school math teacher and founder of Educolor, an advocacy group for teachers of color:

Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

One early exchange on Twitter in response to Carranza suggested that any moves to desegregate schools could face resistance — and that he also would have support.

Carranza’s tweet came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his city budget would include $23 million for “anti-bias training” for school staff, something that some parent activists and some elected officials have been demanding.

It also came hours before he’s scheduled to visit a Harlem middle school, Hamilton Grange, that wouldn’t be part of the academic integration proposal because it is part of District 6, not nearby District 3 where the idea is under consideration.

Such a proposal would likely look different there, because just 28 percent of fifth-graders in District 6 — which includes some parts of Harlem as well as Washington Heights and Inwood — met the state’s standards in math last year, compared to 57 percent in District 3. The gap was similar in reading.