'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. 

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.

Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”