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I had a pretty hard time relating to my students eight years ago, when I began teaching fifth-grade special education in a “self-contained” classroom in the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx.
These students had a hard time relating not only to me but also to the academic content I attempted to teach them. This wasn’t only because I’m a white guy from San Diego. It was also because my students were segregated from the world at large.
The students were separated into a classroom apart from most of their peers for all academic periods.
They attended a school where most students are of color and in a free or reduced-price lunch program; they came from a community in which more than half the population lived below the poverty line and fewer than 40 percent were high school graduates.
Preparing for a distant future in college was therefore an abstract concept for my students. They didn’t know many other people with whom they could relate and learn about the realities of college.
Only one in five students from the lowest income bracket make it through college. Consider the hurdles students will encounter when first entering a college or a career outside of their isolated neighborhood. They may not have a network of peers or family who can support them when they struggle with finances or challenging academic workloads. They may need to learn to assume a new manner of speaking, navigate a new culture and demonstrate new behaviors.
This is what happens when our schools perpetuate segregation, rather than cultivate diversity.
How can a democracy effectively function without citizens who are able to learn, live and work with others who are different than them? How can we truly build a shared set of values and understanding?
If public schools are to advance the future interests of all Americans, then it must be considered a civic imperative to engage our students with a far wider diversity of other backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.
In the state of New York we are fortunate to have an abundance of opportunities to expose our children to diversity. Yet we need policies for increasing diversity in our schools: A 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project report announced that New York State operates the most segregated schools in the nation, with the heaviest segregation occurring in New York City. But this segregation doesn’t exist only in New York City. In 2016, EdBuild released a report on the most segregating school boundaries. Rochester, Syracuse and Utica placed New York as number six out of the states with the most segregating districts. Beyond metropolitan areas, furthermore, the upstate rural districts of New York are isolated majority white areas.
In response to this, in 2014 the then-State Commissioner John King and then-Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status.
In 2015, the City Council of New York City passed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which requires the city’s Department of Education to publish school-level diversity numbers. Most recently, City Council member Ritchie Torres introduced a bill to create an Office of School Diversity, and the NYCDOE has proposed rezoning on the Upper West Side to address segregation.
But beyond these efforts, not enough has yet been done to systematically address, through state-level policy and leadership, the extreme segregation that pervades schools across New York. We need to expect more from our civic institutions and from one another. What are our legislators and State education department leaders planning to do to address this issue?
I eagerly wait to learn more about our state’s plans. In the meantime, here are a few ideas for how we can make school diversity a priority in New York:
First, state legislators should elicit input from experts and communities across the state and create a report with relevant models and guidelines. Their report can serve as a guide to local districts on how to promote diversity in their schools.
Second, the state education department should make increasing diversity in schools a clear priority by publishing a policy statement.
Third, we can then monitor school and district diversity numbers with an annual report, as New York City has done with the School Diversity Accountability Act.
But what about rural schools and deeply isolated urban schools? Such challenges should be no excuse for inaction. We need to promote exchange programs, online interactions between students from different schools and other innovative approaches. Students in rural and urban schools need the opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. Students in both wealthy and poor schools need to learn what life is like on the other side of the tracks.
Since the presidential election, we have witnessed the fallout that can occur when citizens and their representatives lack the understanding and will to negotiate with people who have different values, perspectives or experiences.
Engaging with one another and with our world begins in our schools. Our children need the opportunity to learn from a diversity of people and perspectives. They will then be better equipped to engage with their public institutions and leaders.
It may mean the difference between the future success and failure of our grand democratic experiment, the United States of America.
Mark Anderson has spent seven years in the classroom as a special education teacher in the Bronx, in both self-contained and inclusive settings in elementary and middle school. His writing on education has been published on sites such as Chalkbeat NY, Education Post, Core Knowledge Blog and on his own site, Schools & Ecosystems.