golden years

In Harlem, these elders devote their golden years to improving local schools

PHOTO: Council of Elders/Joe Rogers, Jr.
Harlem Council of Elders members volunteer to read to students.

On the eve of her 92nd birthday, Lottie Raukx wasn’t going to let the aches of arthritis or numbness of neuropathy slow down her fight for Harlem’s public schools.

Armed with a petition to demand that the education department staff her neighborhood’s school with librarians — as it’s required to — she collected pages of signatures from churchgoers and neighbors.

More than 18 months after the effort began, the city and community are at loggerheads over crucial data that has been requested to help local education advocates make their case. But Raukx and the group she belongs to — the Harlem Council of Elders — have not given up.

“You want to see the children get what they deserve and what they need,” Raukx said. “If you can do anything and be helpful in any way, you need to do so — no matter what the age.”

That has been the mission of the Harlem Council of Elders, a group of 20-or-so seniors who have dedicated their golden years to Harlem schools. They have held the education department to task for dragging their feet on public records requests and drummed up attention for the library issue with stories in the press, all while striving to serve as an example to students in Harlem schools.

“It’s a situation where the community needs to step forward and take responsibility for supporting education,” said Galen Kirkland, who founded the Council. “It’s just a fallacy that people can just leave it up to the Department of Education.”

Kirkland launched the Council more than two decades ago — well before he could join the AARP himself. His years of activism had afforded him a vast network of senior citizens who had similarly dedicated themselves to social causes.

“Older folks have an insight and an awareness about challenges and how to overcome them in this society that young folks just don’t understand,” he said. We can “guide young people about how you maneuver and succeed in a society that is often very hostile and not helpful.”

The Council’s goal is nothing short of “confronting and overcoming racism and classism,” Kirkland said. The elders do that by offering students in Harlem the benefit of their long experience, putting positive role models in classrooms and holding the country’s largest school system to account.

In addition to the longstanding campaign for librarians, the Council also organizes an annual event for seniors to read to children in Harlem schools, as well as monthly visits to schools by black professionals.

“We’re interested in our young people coming up and learning things the right way,” said James Allen, 76, who joined the Council after being recruited by a friend at church. “We try to let them know we came through the same way they’re coming up, and it wasn’t easy for us.”

Over the years, the Council has counted many well-known black activists among its members, Kirkland said. They have included former New York Supreme Court Judge Bruce Wright, who famously set low or no bail for black defendants; Alice Kornegay, who created a nonprofit to help secure financing for low-income housing; and Preston Wilcox, who led efforts to decentralize control of New York City schools. Even David N. Dinkins, the first and only black mayor of New York City, has been involved, according to Kirkland.

The organization runs on a small budget; members’ dues and an annual luncheon help support the cause. Meetings are held in free community spaces. Kirkland said its members are motivated by the inequities they see in community schools.

“We have a system today where there’s so much default going on,” he said. “We’ve done what we can to support educators and students, to fill the deficit that exists in the resourcing of community schools.”

The librarian issue is a case in point. With 87 percent of Harlem schools without librarians — compared with the overall city average of 50 percent, according to the latest available figures, from 2013 — the elders saw a cause that they could fight for.

Almost 10,000 students, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, are in Harlem schools that don’t have librarians, according to the council. That is despite a state law that calls for middle and high schools to be staffed with librarians part-time in schools with fewer than 700 students, and full-time employees in larger schools.

For the elders, librarians are a crucial missing link when it comes to building the reading and writing skills of Harlem’s students. In the neighborhood’s District 5, for example, only a quarter of students passed state English exams last year — compared to almost 41 percent of students across the city.

Librarians could “help them develop their online and print research skills, love of reading, and readiness for college, careers, and civic life,” the group says.

“It’s an important issue to the Harlem community in particular because the children are missing so much,” Raukx said.

The elders’ Change.org petition, and their outspokenness, has helped keep the matter alive. They have remained on the case as the District 5 Community Education Council submitted requests to the state and city for more detailed records on librarian assignments. The official responses to those requests have only clouded the issue more, with conflicting numbers and details provided.

The information provided by the city education department in August was “pitiful,” said District 5 education council President Sanayi Beckles-Canton.

“They list only two schools in the entire district with librarians,” she wrote in a text message. “If this was the case, why did it take them over a year to get the information to us?”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said there have been “challenges” when it comes to hiring librarians citywide. In fact, the state education department in 2014 ordered the city to start complying with the law after the United Federation of Teachers appealed to the commissioner over the issue. Mantell said the city has recruited 45 teachers in the last few years to pursue certification to become librarians.

“We will continue to take steps to encourage certification and hiring of school library media specialists in Harlem and across the City,” he wrote in an email.

Despite those assurances, the Harlem Council of Elders has been frustrated with the slow-moving response of the department when it comes to an issue that is “so basic,” Kirkland said.

That’s what motivates him to keep pushing. Some years ago, his activism brought him back to his old elementary school, P.S. 197. Talking with the principal, he learned the school needed money for books. It was a stark contrast to the “fabulous” education he remembers receiving all those years ago.

“It’s a painful thing to see,” Kirkland said. But, he added, “We feel really positive about the opportunities we’ve had to help fill those gaps.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct photo attribution. 

'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. 

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.