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. 

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.

By the numbers

New York City expands integration program, adding the prestigious Bard high school in Queens

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

New York City is once again expanding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-integration program, which tweaks the enrollment process at a few dozen schools to boost their diversity.

This year’s additions — which bring the total number of schools to 42, compared to 7 when the program launched in 2015 — include highly selective schools such as Bard High School Early College in Queens, where students earn an associate’s degree in addition to a high school diploma, and P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan, which only enrolls students who qualify as gifted based on the city’s entrance exams.

Also, for the first time, the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative is expanding to include a school in the Bronx: Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in Mott Haven.

The program affects a tiny fraction of city students and only a small number of the city’s almost 2,000 schools. It doesn’t alter system-wide policies that contribute to segregation, including the way most students are assigned to the school closest to their home. But it’s popular with individual schools, and has been one of the most tangible steps taken by the de Blasio administration toward addressing segregation in New York City, which is one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

Officials announced the latest expansion on Tuesday, two days ahead of a city council hearing on school diversity.

Among the added schools are all 16 traditional public elementary school in District 1. City leaders previously announced an intention to include all the elementary schools in the district, which spans the Lower East Side, East Village and some of Chinatown.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack called the initiative a “key part of our schools better reflecting the diversity of our city.”

“We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and are excited to see our Diversity in Admissions initiative expand,” he said in an emailed statement.

Integration advocates have been lukewarm about the initiative. Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said any progress is important but that advocates still want to see more systemic changes.

“This is in no way impacting all 1.1 million students,” he acknowledged. “But it is creating more access for students right now.”

He added: “Obviously that needs to be built into a larger framework and set of priorities to promote more integrated schools all over,” the city.

Schools that join the Diversity in Admissions program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The aim is to create or maintain a diverse mix of students by giving some an extra chance at being admitted.

The program sets targets for schools, but meeting those goals often requires outreach to ensure a diverse applicant pool. Most schools that have participated have met their targets when it comes to making offers for admission, according to education department figures.

Many schools in the program are located in gentrifying areas, where an influx of higher-income families has started to change the makeup of the local schools. The program can help stabilize the schools’ populations, so that they maintain a mix of students from different income levels.

For example, in Manhattan’s District 6, which is one of the city’s poorest, Muscota New School will set aside 30 percent of seats for students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch or live in temporary housing.

Principal Camille Wallin said the school — which is located in Inwood, a traditionally working class neighborhood where more families and young professionals have begun to settle — decided to join the initiative after noticing a significant drop in the number of needy students enrolled. For the 2016-2017 kindergarten class, only 19 percent of students qualified for meal assistance — down from 30 percent the previous year.

“Our belief system is that children learn from and with other children,” she said. “Widening the circle of people, and the experiences, and the social context of our school can only enhance the learning.”

The new batch of schools also includes P.S. 452 on the Upper West Side, which was at the center of a recent rezoning battle to relieve overcrowding and create more student diversity in Manhattan’s District 3. The school will first admit students living within the school’s attendance zone. For all remaining seats, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will have priority.

Schools have to apply to join the initiative, and some are setting aside only a small number of seats. At Lower Lab, for example, 12 percent of seats will be set-aside for students who qualify for meal assistance. Last year, only 4 percent of students were considered poor.

At Bard in Queens, students who qualify for meal assistance will receive priority for 63 percent of seats. About 42 percent of students last year were considered poor.

Advocates say changing student assignment policies is only one part of integrating schools. The city should also focus on creating welcoming environments within schools by training teachers in culturally relevant practices and making sure school staff reflect the diversity of students, they say.

“Integration can’t happen without one or the other,” said Hebh Jamal, a member of the student-led advocacy group IntegrateNYC.

Here are the latest schools to join Diversity in Admissions:

P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 12 percent of seats. The standard district Gifted and Talented admissions criteria still apply.

P.S. 452 in Manhattan – For any seats remaining after all in-zone students are admitted, those eligible for free or reduced price lunch will receive priority.

P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and those who are learning English receive priority for 60 percent of seats.

Muscota New School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 30 percent of seats.

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 75 percent of seats.

District 1 elementary schools in Manhattan – Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, are living in temporary housing or are learning English will have priority for 67 percent of seats. Those with disabilities will also receive a priority for kindergarten admissions. Students who do not meet those criteria will have priority for the remaining 33 percent of offers.

M.S. 260 Clinton School for Writers & Artists in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 17 percent of seats.

Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in the Bronx – Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 25 percent of seats: P.S. 1, P.S. 49, P.S. 154, P.S. 277, P.S. 359, P.S. 369. Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 15 percent of seats: P.S. 5, P.S. 18, P.S. 25, P.S. 29, P.S. 31, P.S. 157, P.S. 161

Boerum Hill School for International Studies on Brooklyn – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 40 percent of seats.

Bard High School Early College in Queens – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 63 percent of seats.