'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. 

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

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.