The big buzz word in New York City education is: Diversity.
On October 26, 2017, yet another plan was announced, this time promising to bring diversity to Lower Manhattan’s District 1. District 1 is already a choice district, in that families are not limited to a local zoned school, but can apply to any school in the district. Placement is awarded via lottery. The new plan calls for setting aside varying percentages of seats for Free Lunch applicants, those living in temporary housing, and English Language Learners (ELLs). Alhough the stated goal is racial integration, specifically, assigning more Black and Hispanic students to top-performing schools because NYC cannot use race in its school admissions process, the above categories were used as substitutes. (However, you can obviously be white and homeless, Asian and Free Lunch, and wealthy and non-English-speaking.)
The usual pundits have weighed in on whether or not the scheduled-for-2018 changes will make any quantifiable difference. Not seems to be winning out at this point.
As someone who has been covering NYC education for multiple years, I’m concerned about the fact that there is no talk of actually improving the schools. The only proposed action is simply to move deck chairs around on the Titanic. Or, more sinisterly, as I observed about the rezoning in the name of racial integration that took place earlier this year on the Upper West Side of Manhattan’s District 3, it’s a way to mix the low-performers in with the high-performers, and deliberately obscure how the city is failing its neediest students.
But, as the mother of three African-American children, my concerns are more personal.
I must say, that, firstly, I have never been thrilled by the implication that brown children can only learn if they are sitting next to white children. Why would that be exactly? (I addressed effective, Black-only, Jim Crow era schools, here, as per Malcolm Gladwell… and my own father-in-law.)
But what really makes flames come out of the sides of my head (ala Madeline Kahn in Clue) is the following:
- In order to get white families’ buy-in for school integration, study after study has touted how learning in a more diverse classroom benefits all students. Mother Jones goes so far as to assert that white students benefit the most.
- As a result, more and more NYC parents have been pushing for integrated schools – in order to give their own children maximum advantage. (The same goes for Dual Language programs, created to help ELLs, but often coopted.)
I have no problem with this. I sent my kids to the schools I believed would be best for them, with no thought to racial composition. (Then again, my kids are Black and Jewish, they’ll be in the minority wherever they go, and so they might as well get used to it sooner rather than later.)
What I do have a problem with is the assumption that my – all – children of color are just another school enhancement, like field trips, art, music, and Mandarin lessons.
In 2011, a Politico piece on the integration of a Brooklyn school sent me into Madeline Kahn levels of rage when it described “the white Williamsburg parents who were willing to send their kids to school with Latino kids, unlike generations of parents before them. They saw themselves as progressives embarking on an experiment in integration.”
How very, very magnanimous of them.
They’re willing to do it, are they? Let’s have a round of applause!
And then let’s get one thing straight: White families are not doing families of color a favor by deigning to attend – and helpfully “improve” – their quaint, struggling schools, and Black and Latino families are not doing you a favor by adding a splash of color to Junior’s classroom.
My children are not props, and they are not tools. They’re not there for your benefit. We’re all here to learn. From each other. But not off each other.
Now that we’re clear on that, let’s start a dialogue about moving beyond cosmetic integration, and about how, together, we’re going to make all NYC schools better for all of our kids.