Anatomy of a lesson

How to use history to teach kids about race

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shamikah Kenlock traveled from New York City to Memphis to learn about teaching race through Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that helps students understand the connection between history and their own moral choices.

In a season of racial turmoil across America, one nonprofit organization is pointing teachers to history to help them teach their students about race.

“We have to start teaching race as a construct,” said Steve Becton, associate program director for urban education with Facing History and Ourselves in Memphis.

“To do that, we must step back into history. How did we get here? Race has such a powerful presence in our nation right now, and we need to talk about why in the context of history,” Becton said.

About 20 teachers from across the nation reviewed lesson models last week in Memphis during a session organized by the national organization, whose Memphis office serves more than 500 schools in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Becton encouraged the teachers to present ideas about race as a “construct,” or as a perception that has been created over time. The idea that skin color makes you a different kind of person didn’t always exist, he said, and teachers should highlight that.

He gave an example of the life of Anthony Johnson, an indentured servant who came to the Colonies in the 1600s from Africa. According to historical documents, Johnson, who lived in eastern Virginia, was one of the rare slaves of that time who went on to become a landowner, and he and his family enjoyed status in society.

“In the 1640s, you had a black man in Colonial America enjoying freedoms otherwise associated with being a white male,” Becton said. “How did that change as the construct of race takes root in society?”

By the time Johnson died in 1670, an all-white jury had declared him a “Negro, and by consequence an alien,” and determined that all of his land and wealth would go this his white neighbor, not his son.

For a period of time, people in Colonial Virginia didn’t see Johnson as a black man, but just a man, Becton said. But as the construct of race took hold in the developing nation, that changed.

“It didn’t matter that he had lived as a free man before,” Becton said. “This is an interesting way to show students the construct of race and the impact it had in one man’s life. It’s hard for students to wrap their heads around big numbers when we talk about slavery or killings, but talking about the experience of one person in narrative is something they can get. They can remember what happened to Anthony Johnson.”

Staci Minkins, a social studies teacher at Memphis Business Academy, said she plans on taking Johnson’s story to her class this year.

“How did we get from Anthony Johnson to President Obama? That’s what I want my classroom to look at,” Minkins said. “Slavery has been the first thing I’ve covered in my class. But I realize now that I need to go back further to really get my kids the full picture. If we don’t explain how race became an issue, how can we explain slavery?”

Shelby County Schools in Memphis have adopted Facing History units as a mandate for the social studies curriculum in grades 6-8. The nonprofit organization also has partnerships with more than 30 independent and religious schools in the county.

Facing History and Ourselves will host more teacher trainings, both online and in person, throughout the year.

By the numbers

New York City schools continue to give out fewer suspensions, though racial disparities persist

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016.

Student suspensions in New York City schools continued to fall last year year, but racial disparities remain, according to data released Monday.

The total number of suspensions dropped to 35,234 in the 2016-2017 school year, a 6.4 percent decrease from 2015-2016, according to figures released Monday by the education department. Arrests in schools were down 8 percent and summonses declined by 11 percent during the same time frame, according to the department.

While most student groups received fewer suspensions last year, black students and those with disabilities continued to be suspended at disproportionately high rates.

Over the past five years, suspensions have tumbled by 34 percent — a downward shift that started under the previous administration. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has made discipline reform a centerpiece of his education agenda, with a focus on pushing schools to adopt less punitive responses to misbehavior. As part of that shift, his administration has made it harder for schools to issue suspensions.

“As a parent and your mayor, there is nothing more important than the safety and wellbeing of all New York City kids,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press release Monday that announced the latest suspension numbers, along with a slate of new initiatives meant to reduce school bullying. He added that the programs would “keep crime in schools [at] its historic low.”

Infogram

While de Blasio’s discipline-policy changes appear to be continuing to drive down suspension numbers, some educators and critics of the mayor argue that discipline has actually deteriorated in some schools as staffers struggle to respond to infractions without resorting to suspensions.

The principal’s union has balked at the city’s requirement that school leaders seek approval for suspensions in certain situations, including suspensions of young students. Union President Mark Cannizzaro has said that school leaders should have the final say on discipline decisions since they understand the situation best.

“There are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing,” he told Chalkbeat recently.

At the same time, advocates for discipline reform say the city hasn’t gone far enough to ensure schools don’t funnel students into the criminal justice system, and insist that teachers need more training on alternatives to suspensions. They point in particular to the far higher discipline rates for students of color and those with disabilities than of their peers.

Though 27 percent of city students are black, they accounted for about 47 percent of all suspensions last school year. That’s slightly lower than the previous year, when almost half of all suspensions were issued to black students.

“If this is a city that, in 2017, is committed to creating fair and equitable processes and policies throughout the city — particularly for young people of color — then there’s still a great deal of work that has to be done,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Urban Youth Collaborative, a student-led social justice organization.

Students with disabilities make up 19 percent of the city’s enrollment, but represented about 39 percent of all suspensions last year. According to the city, that number is down 5.6 percent year-to-year.

Though Foster praised the anti-bullying initiatives announced Monday, along with the overall downward trend in suspensions, he said the city needs to come up with a plan to specifically address the ongoing disparities.

City officials point out that major violent crime in schools is at its lowest level since 1998, when those statistics first started to be collected. The de Blasio administration also touts $47 million in annual spending on mental health supports for students and other efforts to improve school culture.

On Monday, the city announced an additional $8 million in spending on new initiatives to address bullying in the wake of a fatal school stabbing in a Bronx high school. The student accused of the killing was reportedly bullied.  

“These programs are part of the DOE’s ongoing work to ensure that schools are equipped with the critical resources they need to effectively manage incidents and address underlying issues head-on,” according to a city statement.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report. 

moving forward

With critical parents now on board, New York City will move forward with district-wide diversity plan

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents and school leaders met on Oct. 19 to discuss the new admissions plan.

After a long and public battle over how to integrate schools on the Lower East Side, the New York City education department has finally won over some critical parent advocates — a crucial step as officials move forward with the de Blasio administration’s first district-wide diversity plan.

The plan creates a new admissions process for students entering pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the small, segregated district in Lower Manhattan with the goal of getting each school to enroll roughly equal percentages of needy students. The changes will take effect this fall as families apply to schools for the following year.

Last month, when the city first announced its proposal for District 1, which also includes the East Village, the local Community Education Council accused officials of not acting boldly enough and disregarding the community’s vision for what an integration plan should include.

Since then, the department appears to have eased some of their concerns. Most notably, it added students with disabilities to the list of student groups that each school must admit in proportions roughly equal to the district average.

As department officials held public meetings in each of the district’s roughly two-dozen schools over the past month to sell the plan to parents and get feedback, they also were more responsive to members of the education council, said Naomi Peña, the council president who had been one of the department’s most outspoken critics.

“There has been a major shift in the way the DOE has compromised with the community,” she said, adding that the council is now generally supportive of city’s plan. “I think they understand if you want to be successful you have to work with parent leaders.”

Whereas requests for information had previously languished without response, she said officials recently worked through the weekend to run enrollment simulations based on questions from parents. She also said department officials assured her that they will closely monitor the plan — and that they have agreed to make changes if the new system fails to show results.

“This is like when you’re in the last round of boxing,” she said. “However we get to a diverse community is what I’m looking for.”

District 1 elementary schools do not have zones that determine enrollment. Instead, families apply to any schools they choose. While overall the district enrolls a diverse mix of students, many schools do not reflect that. For example, the poverty rate at East Village Community School is just 22 percent — a fraction of the district average of about 70 percent. Meanwhile, virtually all of the students at P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente are poor.

Under the new system, students who are learning English, live in temporary housing, or qualify for free and reduced-price lunch will get first dibs on offers to about two-thirds of the seats in every school — a percentage meant to mirror the share of those students across the entire district. More privileged students who don’t fall into any of those categories will be given preference for a third of seats in each school.

Based on feedback from the public meetings, the city said Thursday that it will also consider whether a student has a disability when making enrollment offers as a way of ensuring that those students are evenly spread across the district.

“We know that all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and District 1 is taking an important step forward with their districtwide diversity plan,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

In another change, the city is urging — but not requiring — families to list five school choices on their applications. Families who do so will have a better chance of getting one of their choices. The idea is to encourage parents to consider a wider variety of schools so that parents of the same race and class don’t stick to the same schools.

The change comes after some wealthier parents voiced concerns that needy students from outside the district could get priority for seats over their children. Last year, about 47 percent of applicants to District 1 schools lived in other districts, according to the department.

“We moved here in part because of the quality of the schools in District 1 and the diversity,” David Hung, a parent whose son is entering pre-K next year, said at a recent community meeting that was held before the department’s final plan was announced. “So it’s both somewhat troubling and ironic that as a result of this policy — which I’m very supportive of — that we may in fact not be able to have our kids attend District 1.”

City and parent leaders hope that a new “Family Resource Center,” which opened this month and will provide parents with information about all the district’s schools as they fill out their applications, will expand the range of schools that parents consider.

The new system comes after two years of work by parents, district, and school leaders who landed a state grant to pursue integration strategies in the district — and follows a series of delays and false starts. Advocates had hoped to make these enrollment changes last fall.

Advocates say they hope the process there will serve as an example for other districts, as support for integration strategies grows across the city.

“This is a great way to show how a true community plan can be led, and fingers crossed can be a model,” Peña said.