I recently testified about middle school integration at City Hall as a newly elected member of District 15’s Community Education Council, a.k.a. CEC15. My comments elicited a mildly humorous response from Councilmember Daniel Dromm, then the Education Committee Chair. I had just ended my speech with,
“I am hopeful WXY can delivera streamlined middle school process, with fewer forums and school tours, and completely free of auditions, interviews, and tests. By embracing integration, District 15 will be increasing everyone’s choices and eliminating a stressful, time-consuming process we all hate!”
The Councilmember immediately said, “I knew you were going to say that!” He and I chuckled and a photo was taken. The photo ended up on our CEC15 facebook page, leading to a comment, “You look awfully happy for someone talking about integration.” Perhaps this attitude is our problem?
District 15 is embarking on a community planning process led by urban planner WXY to address our school segregation problem. It is called the D15 Diversity Plan and on February 13th the DOE will host the first of four public engagement workshops. On the eve of this first step toward fulfilling, and hopefully going beyond, the DOE’s Equity and Excellence for All Initiative, I feel the need to ask—Why can’t integration be joyful work?
Yes. School integration is our solemn civic duty because of the associated history of struggle. But do we have to view the work of integration as solemn, serious, and a downer? Why do we have to view it as work at all? Why can’t we view school integration as the potluck dinner of the century (or centuries)? One where everyone brings their personal best dish to the table. Oh! What’s that? I think I heard an eye roll. It bounced down the stairs and whispered, “Naive,” as it slammed the door on the way out. Well, come be naive with me! D15 has all the pre-requisites for a really great education integration party! We’ve got the sites— 11 district middle schools and we’re building more. We’ve got the resources—hundreds of highly-qualified, experienced, state-certified “DJs and MCs” (teachers). We’ve got numerous partnerships and grants for a variety “goodie bags.” I’m being metaphorical here in case you didn’t notice. All we need is for you to cook your best dish and RSVP to the party.
Will someone at the party say something negative? Oh, I’m counting on it. Apprehensive parents and educators have been approaching CEC15 since we first announce the Diversity Plan to express their concerns. They say things like:
“We have only a few high scoring D15 middle schools. I’m worried diversity could make those schools worse.”
“My school was integrated as a child and I don’t have fond memories.”
“Integration doesn’t work because the kids form cliques anyway.”
“Integrated environments make me uncomfortable.”
“Integration is not a priority.”
“Equity is about resources, not integration.”
“Just because our school is racially homogenous, doesn’t mean we’re not diverse in other ways.”
“We don’t need diversity to achieve good educational outcomes.”
“We might lose our Title 1 funding.”
“Integration will cause a backlash and parents will move.”
Maybe. I can’t really argue with any of these points because these are all true for those who don’t want to integrate. Parents who oppose integration will, of course, come up with very logical and factual reasons to oppose a change they fear. Rest assured, the reasons to integrate are equally logical and factual, but also morally right and a legal imperative. Court challenges to our segregated schools are waiting in the wings and no one wants the courts to decide how students get assigned. So before you move to the burbs because D15 schools might slightly move the needle on the racial makeup of our middle schools—and plot your 2-hour commute or calculate your high property taxes that are no longer deductible—consider the following.
- Diversity could increase the test scores across D15 middle schools, thus giving parents more “good” options where their child will have racial and economic representation. While integration in and of itself doesn’t increase achievement for all students, it has to be said that integration doesn’t reduce achievement either. A new chart entitled Calculus of Race produced by the Center for New York City Urban Affairs shows the most accurate determining factor in student achievement to be income, but of course income intersects with race. The data shows a very racially diverse middle-income group with solid academic achievement.
- Truly integrated schools have fewer cliques and less bullying. Monocultures tend to breed bad behavior because, in isolation, empathy for others can never be learned or applied.
- Social integration is academically challenging in itself. It requires more complex social interactions and higher-level thinking. The ability to connect outside your social group makes you more employable. It should be a tool all students graduate with so they can be comfortable in their own skin interacting with people in other skin in order to achieve in our global economic reality.
- Diversity could bring more resources to schools without a loss of Title 1 funds. Our district’s demographics suggest that every school could be a Title 1 school, though some question whether dependence on these funds in the current political climate is even strategically desirable. Might it be wise to diversify the funding portfolio as well as the people? Nevertheless, having more diverse learners could give some schools grant resources they were never eligible for while giving other schools parent resources they previously could not access. Diversity could also thwart school closures due to underutilization.
We are in a moment when people are really taking on the challenge of civic duty in response to what they perceive as a threat to democracy. School integration is one such civic duty. But does it have to be so damn serious? Integration doesn’t actually have to be difficult or scary. WE MAKE IT THAT WAY! If we approach this first workshop with the question, “What am I going to bring to integration?” rather than “What am I going to get from integration?” the D15 Diversity Plan could feel more like a potluck for the biggest school system, in most populous city, in the longest running democracy on the planet. I’m bringing the lasagna. What are you bringing?
Note: You won’t actually be required to bring any food to this event.