Despite Flaws, “School Integration 2.0” Well Worth It

Above: Video from WNYC showing kids talking about school segregation.

Word over the weekend that WNYC was launching a big series on school integration was an occasion for both excitement and worry for me: excitement to see what WNYC’s education team (Patricia Willens, Yasmeen Khan, and Beth Fertig) would come up with, and also concern that school integration was becoming almost too common a story over the past two years (a sentiment that former MinnPost reporter Beth Hawkins shares many others disagree with).

Now having heard the first few segments and talked with Fertig earlier today, I’m happy to report that the excitement outweighs the concern. Some of the segments are telling us stories that we haven’t already heard before. And at least one of the episodes coming later in the week – focused on mixed-SES parent activity groups created by Brooklyn’s intentionally diverse Community Roots charter school – seems like it’s going to get at the heart of the matter. There are also some cool social media gizmos, though no animated gifs (and a couple of things that I think they could have done to make the series even better).

First things first: According to Fertig, the WNYC education team chose to delve into the school integration topic last fall when it was being discussed at various schools around the city (including Dumbo, District 1, and the Upper West Side). Schools were asking for permission to change administrative criteria to preserve or enhance diversity. That infamous UCLA report came out (finding that NYC was the most segregated system in the nation).

But enough with challenges, right? The team wanted to take a concrete look at proposed measures to increase integration, said Fertig (whom I’ve interviewed before). “What would it look like? How would it work?” They were looking for “concrete examples we could burrow into,” so that meant excluding the schools the Chancellor has approved to try diversity enhancement next fall and the UWS situation which fell by the wayside (but still might be a fascinating story, IMHO).

That led them to District 1 (the East Village and LES), which is in a full-scale exploration of ways to diversify schools that are many of them nowhere near the community demographic numbers (including one profiled in the NYT that’s 100 percent high poverty), and to Queens to revisit diversification efforts from 50 years ago, and tomorrow to Brooklyn and then back to Manhattan.

The East Village/Lower East Side story was pretty wonky, but there are two great parent interviews, one with a liberal-identifying mother Fertig says was white who claims to favor integration but expresses worry about her son’s safety at some of the schools he might get sent to under a deseg plan. The same words were likely said 50 years ago.

The Queens story from earlier today was bittersweet, as you might expect, including voices of folks who participated in the city’s pathetically small five-location effort to pair nearby schools together. Again, there’s some great tape: “‘We really and truly don’t want to switch our schools. It has nothing to do with color,'” one white Jackson Heights mother told an ABC reporter.”

Tomorrow, Fertig will take us to the mixed-SES parent activity program that Community Roots implemented three or four years ago to help parents and kids mix outside of school the way they can do during the school day. In the 2013 Education Next feature story  Diverse Charter Schools, I reported from the school when the activity program was still new. Fertig will also report the school’s ongoing challenges to keep wealthy white families from flooding the application pool.

Last but not least will be a story about a Chinatown-adjacent community where some families are more concerned about school quality than school demographics.  It’s an important point. “Integration is not a goal unto itself for many New Yorkers,” notes Fertig in her overview piece.

As noted, I’d love a deep dive into what happened on the UWS that got the school integration proposal killed so quickly, and an update on the Dumbo situation, and a better sense of how integration advocates aim to limit the seemingly-inevitable pushback against moving white kids into black and brown schools (and vice versa). Being totally greedy and unreasonable, I’d like to get to knowone or two of the parents or educators who are most involved in these efforts. Last but not least, I’m nearly fanatical at this point about animated gifs, super-short videos, and other forms of digital storytelling that encourage readers to read and share stories, and yet the animated sections of the explainer (showing how largely-white schools would become less so under controlled choice) aren’t embeddable or gif-ed.

Still, the series is entirely worth checking out. The hashtag is #Integration2.0 . The  stories can all be found here.

Asked whether school integration stories were in danger of being overdone, Fertig responded: “I think it’s a really rich area to mine. Education is where we see all of society’s problems converging, and all of the policies to try and address them… If people can try and fix [segregation] in the schools, there’s a lot of hope there, along with a lot of frustration. It’s fascinating to watch.”

Related posts: Peak Integration Coverage;  School Segregation Coverage Wins 2 Pulitzers & Peabody AwardSchool Segregation’s Back (In the News)Rethinking The Neighborhood School IdealDecline In Black-White Segregation (Sorta)The (Partial) Re-Segregation Of American Schools.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.