Then and now

Half a century after integrating a New Orleans school, Ruby Bridges says America is headed in the wrong direction

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
U.S. marshals escort Ruby Bridges to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.

At age 6, Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration as the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.

Today at 62, Ruby Bridges-Hall says the United States is going in the wrong direction on school integration.

The New Orleans school where she enrolled amidst protest from white families is now segregated again — this time with mostly black students.

And there’s a growing national trend of white suburban municipalities breaking off from their mostly black urban counterparts to form their own school systems. That’s what happened in Memphis in 2014 when six communities that ringed the city pulled out of newly consolidated Shelby County Schools.

PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Ruby Bridges-Hall claps during a May 20 student performance at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

With her own literacy-focused foundation, Bridges-Hall was in Memphis last weekend for a festival named after her at the National Civil Rights Museum. Chalkbeat sat down with her to talk about the state of school segregation today. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

How do you see school segregation today?

I’m a strong believer that if we are going to get past our racial differences, it’s going to come from the next generation, which is our kids. We all know that’s where racism starts. None of our babies are born knowing anything about disliking one another, disliking someone that looks different. It’s taught to them and handed down. So, if we can teach them to be racist, we can teach them not to be.

And I think that’s where I come in. My experience comes from that of a child having gone through segregation. So, I do feel like I can relate to today’s students better. And I think that they see themselves in my shoes in 1960 and that’s the reason they’re so drawn to the story.

Change won’t happen if we keep children separated. So it’s crucial that schools are integrated. We all have to come together to understand that it’s important that our kids grow up together. I think the best place for kids to get to know each other is in schools.

Can you expound on the moral obligation for integration to happen?

You have to want to do it. It’s about brothers and sisters and taking care of each other. That’s the moral obligation. That’s the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about. Now did we do it back then when he was talking about it? I don’t think so, which led us to where we are today. And now look how much worse it is. So, at some point we have to stop, think about that, and begin to come together for that moral obligation to one another as human beings.

Memphis schools are segregated. And recently an Alabama judge sanctioned the secession of a mostly white school district from a majority black one, despite the racial undertones. What’s your take on that trend?

They have the right to do that. I don’t know how that’s necessarily going to help the situation. I think eventually what they’re running from will run toward them. It’s affecting all of us, whether you live in the neighborhoods that that element comes from or not. That element comes out of that neighborhood and into yours. What they’re separating themselves from, they can’t run from that. I don’t think that’s the answer. And I think that’s what we’ve been doing since the civil rights movement. And it hasn’t helped at all. And it’s affecting all of us.

In what way?

It’s affecting all of us because, look at school shootings. I’ve gone into a school and later hear that someone’s gone in and shot 25 kids. So, what are you really running from? You can’t do that. I think that we think that we can, so we separate ourselves thinking that we’re going to isolate ourselves and we’ll be safe and we’ll be better educated and that sort of thing. And we see all around us that that’s not the case.

I don’t think that we think that deep. We don’t think about the moral issues. We just think “let’s start our own schools” and “we’re going to be safe” and “we’re going to be away from whatever.” No, that’s not happening. And segregation is happening all across the country. So, we have to come together. We can’t isolate ourselves, whether it be in schools, neighborhoods, churches, wherever.

What do you think it will take for us as a nation to move toward school integration again?

Wanting to — that’s it. You really have to want to. Because there’s no laws that we need to change anymore. You just have to want to. We’ve got to go back to thinking morally and being responsible for one another — the whole village coming together for our children.

Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”

moving forward

With critical parents now on board, New York City will move forward with district-wide diversity plan

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents and school leaders met on Oct. 19 to discuss the new admissions plan.

After a long and public battle over how to integrate schools on the Lower East Side, the New York City education department has finally won over some critical parent advocates — a crucial step as officials move forward with the de Blasio administration’s first district-wide diversity plan.

The plan creates a new admissions process for students entering pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the small, segregated district in Lower Manhattan with the goal of getting each school to enroll roughly equal percentages of needy students. The changes will take effect this fall as families apply to schools for the following year.

Last month, when the city first announced its proposal for District 1, which also includes the East Village, the local Community Education Council accused officials of not acting boldly enough and disregarding the community’s vision for what an integration plan should include.

Since then, the department appears to have eased some of their concerns. Most notably, it added students with disabilities to the list of student groups that each school must admit in proportions roughly equal to the district average.

As department officials held public meetings in each of the district’s roughly two-dozen schools over the past month to sell the plan to parents and get feedback, they also were more responsive to members of the education council, said Naomi Peña, the council president who had been one of the department’s most outspoken critics.

“There has been a major shift in the way the DOE has compromised with the community,” she said, adding that the council is now generally supportive of city’s plan. “I think they understand if you want to be successful you have to work with parent leaders.”

Whereas requests for information had previously languished without response, she said officials recently worked through the weekend to run enrollment simulations based on questions from parents. She also said department officials assured her that they will closely monitor the plan — and that they have agreed to make changes if the new system fails to show results.

“This is like when you’re in the last round of boxing,” she said. “However we get to a diverse community is what I’m looking for.”

District 1 elementary schools do not have zones that determine enrollment. Instead, families apply to any schools they choose. While overall the district enrolls a diverse mix of students, many schools do not reflect that. For example, the poverty rate at East Village Community School is just 22 percent — a fraction of the district average of about 70 percent. Meanwhile, virtually all of the students at P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente are poor.

Under the new system, students who are learning English, live in temporary housing, or qualify for free and reduced-price lunch will get first dibs on offers to about two-thirds of the seats in every school — a percentage meant to mirror the share of those students across the entire district. More privileged students who don’t fall into any of those categories will be given preference for a third of seats in each school.

Based on feedback from the public meetings, the city said Thursday that it will also consider whether a student has a disability when making enrollment offers as a way of ensuring that those students are evenly spread across the district.

“We know that all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and District 1 is taking an important step forward with their districtwide diversity plan,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

In another change, the city is urging — but not requiring — families to list five school choices on their applications. Families who do so will have a better chance of getting one of their choices. The idea is to encourage parents to consider a wider variety of schools so that parents of the same race and class don’t stick to the same schools.

The change comes after some wealthier parents voiced concerns that needy students from outside the district could get priority for seats over their children. Last year, about 47 percent of applicants to District 1 schools lived in other districts, according to the department.

“We moved here in part because of the quality of the schools in District 1 and the diversity,” David Hung, a parent whose son is entering pre-K next year, said at a recent community meeting that was held before the department’s final plan was announced. “So it’s both somewhat troubling and ironic that as a result of this policy — which I’m very supportive of — that we may in fact not be able to have our kids attend District 1.”

City and parent leaders hope that a new “Family Resource Center,” which opened this month and will provide parents with information about all the district’s schools as they fill out their applications, will expand the range of schools that parents consider.

The new system comes after two years of work by parents, district, and school leaders who landed a state grant to pursue integration strategies in the district — and follows a series of delays and false starts. Advocates had hoped to make these enrollment changes last fall.

Advocates say they hope the process there will serve as an example for other districts, as support for integration strategies grows across the city.

“This is a great way to show how a true community plan can be led, and fingers crossed can be a model,” Peña said.