sorting the students

In one South Bronx class, students add their voices to growing school segregation debate

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students stay after class to talk about school segregation.

After her homework assignment, 17-year-old Leslie Sigaran would refer to it only as “that thing you made us hear.”

“It” was a podcast detailing a school integration effort near Ferguson, Missouri. Teacher Sarah Camiscoli played the audio again during class at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters earlier this year. As they listened, the students around Sigaran angrily shook their heads.

“They make race and ethnicity sound like animals instead of people,” one student said.

“You can tell she’s only heard stereotypes,” another chimed in, referring to a Missouri mother who called for metal detectors.

“They don’t see what they do to people,” said another.

The discussion happened in an elective class Camiscoli focused on school integration. The class is designed to take an issue relevant to South Bronx students and explain it using history and current events.

“Students are pretty clear on the fact that there are things that they want to transform,” Camiscoli said. The problem, she said, is that they often lack the terminology or historical context to articulate solutions.

The class’s loftier goal is to give these students a voice in the ongoing public discussion about race and New York City schools. That debate has intensified this year, as New York’s schools were named among the most segregated in the nation. But those conversations rarely involve high schoolers from the South Bronx.

Camiscoli’s students are trying to change that. Among other activities, the class will present findings at relevant council meetings and make a documentary with alumni of the Columbia Journalism School.

These students believe they have something important to add. Armed with an intuitive understanding of inequity, students want policymakers to change school segregation while respecting their deep loyalties to their school and community.

“We’re revolutionizing and starting a movement and changing things,” Amina Fofana, a junior, said.

In many ways, Camiscoli’s classroom is an unlikely setting for this discussion.

Her high school, known as Bronx Letters, is located in District 7 in the South Bronx, an area that exemplifies many of the roadblocks to creating diverse schools. The district has few, if any, affluent residents. Bronx Letters is unscreened and gives admissions preference to students from the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough. The student body is almost exclusively black and Hispanic, and 94 percent of students live in poverty.

Still, Bronx Letters is a high school, which means students from across the city can choose it. The school is small, with just over 600 students in both the middle and high school and and partners with the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit designed to help students prepare for success after high school.

For some students, segregation was crystallized last year when they took a trip, organized by Camiscoli, to a high school on the Upper East Side. Camiscoli dubbed the trip the “6 Train Exchange,” because the two schools are separated by only a few subway stops.

Samantha Ramos and Britney Soto were dazzled by the art, music, and technology available at the school on the Upper East Side. During one class students just “whipped out their violins,” Ramos said. In another, she said, students worked with pottery.

The class strives to add context to these moments, connecting students’ experiences to housing segregation and explanations of how schools are funded. The class will also study how different parts of the country have addressed school segregation. Ultimately, Camiscoli hopes students will have the skills necessary to help shape policy.

“We need to think about new solutions for the Bronx,” she said.

None of this is to say that students at Bronx Letters dislike their school. In fact, they are the first to defend it.

“It’s not about making ourselves look better, ‘cause honestly I don’t care what other people think,” Leslie said. “I would like other people to realize that just because the school’s in the Bronx and we don’t have resources doesn’t mean it’s not a good school.”

Earlier this year, students had yet to discuss the “how” of school integration. But the students shared a strong conviction that no solution should require them to abandon their Bronx school.

The mantra they repeated was: “Don’t move. Improve.”’

For Christian Rivera, that means helping students in all schools get computers with updated technology, more textbooks, and larger classrooms with space to study.

For Fofana, the goal is to help students of different races and backgrounds see the same potential she sees in her own school.

“Mostly I think it’s more important that students want, from other ethnicities, to come here,” she said. “White students shouldn’t be afraid to walk into a black school and be like ‘they’re dangerous’ or ‘they’re violent,’ cause we’re not.”

Though students are still learning how to accomplish these goals, the class is designed to transform convictions into action.

“This is about developing student advocacy skills,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, the principal of the school. “Segregation gets to be the focus of how we’re thinking and learning about how we are agents of change.”

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”