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.”

Play nice

Gov. Bill Haslam convened a ‘power meeting’ between Tennessee’s charter school and district leaders. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. John Forgety is chairman of a House education committee and has become the mediator of a dispute over Tennessee's 2017 charter school law. The Athens Republican is also a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent with McMinn County Schools.

There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.

As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.

And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.

The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.

“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.

One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.

“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”

Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.

Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.

“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.

But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”

Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.


Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information


Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”

A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”

But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.

“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try."Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.

“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.