By N.R. KLEINFIELD
Published: May 11, 2012
IN seventh-grade English class, sun leaked in through the windows. Horns bleated outside. The assignment was for the arrayed students to identify a turning point in their lives. Was it positive or negative? They hunched over and wrote fervidly.
Floriande Augustin, a first-year teacher at the school, invited students to share their choices. Hands waved for attention. One girl said it was when she got a cat, though she was unsure why. Another selected a car crash. A third brought up the time when her cousin got shot and “it was positive because he felt his life was crazy and he went to college so he couldn’t get shot anymore.”
The lesson detoured into Martin Luther King Jr. and his turning points. Ms. Augustin listed things like how his father took him shopping for shoes and they were made to wait in the back. How a bus driver told him to relinquish his seat to a white passenger and stand in the rear. How he wasn’t allowed to play with his white friends once he started school, because he went to a black school and his white friends went to a white school.
The students scribbled notes. Unmentioned was a ticklish incongruity that hung glaringly obvious in the air. This classroom at Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was full of black students in a school almost entirely full of black students. As Ms. Augustin, who is also black, later reflected, “There was something about, ‘Huh, here we are talking about that and look at us — we’re all the same.’ ”
In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades, New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated. While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort.
About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race, a New York Times analysis of schools data for the 2009-10 school year found; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic. Explore Charter is one of them: of the school’s 502 students from kindergarten through eighth grade this school year, 92.7 percent are black, 5.7 percent are Hispanic, and a scattering are of mixed race. None are white or Asian. There is a good deal of cultural diversity, with students, for instance, of Haitian, Guyanese and Nigerian heritage. But not of class. Nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunch, a mark of poverty. The school’s makeup is in line with charter schools nationally, which are over all less integrated than traditional public schools.
At Explore, as at many schools in New York City, children trundle from segregated neighborhoods to segregated schools, living a hermetic reality.
The school’s enrollment is even more racially lopsided than its catchment area. Students are chosen by lottery, with preference given to District 17, its community school district, which encompasses neighborhoods like Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights and Farragut. Census data for District 17 put the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade population at 75 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white and 1 percent Asian. But the white students go elsewhere — many to yeshivas or other private schools.
Tim Thomas, a fund-raiser who is white and lives in Flatbush, writes a blog called The Q at Parkside, about the neighborhood. He has spoken to white parents trying to comprehend why the local schools aren’t more integrated, even as white people move in. “They say things like they don’t want to be guinea pigs,” he said. “The other day, one said, ‘I don’t want to be the only drop of cream in the coffee.’ ”
Decades of academic studies point to the corroding effects of segregation on students, especially minorities, both in diminished academic performance and in the failure to equip them for the interracial world that awaits them.
“The preponderance of evidence shows that attending schools that are diverse has positive effects on children throughout the grades, and it grows over time,” said Roslyn Mickelson, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has reviewed hundreds of studies of integrated schooling. “To put it another way, the problems of segregation are accentuated over time,” she said.
Even if a segregated school provides a solid education, studies suggest, students are at a disadvantage. “What is a good education?” Dr. Mickelson said. “That you scored well on a test?”
One way race presents itself at Explore is in the makeup of the teaching staff. It is 61 percent white and 35 percent black, a sensitive subject among many students and parents who would prefer more black teachers. Most of the administration and central staff members — including the school’s founder, the current principal, the upper-school’s academic head and the lower-school’s academic head, as well as the high school counselor and social worker — are white.
As Ms. Augustin said: “When I came here and started to talk about myself, the students were shocked that I was here. I started to wonder, did they really have role models?”
AFTER school one Tuesday, 10 students assembled in a classroom to talk about the school and race. The school paid for snacks: Doritos and Oreo cookies, Coke and 7Up.
What did they think of the absence of racial diversity?
“It doesn’t really prepare us for the real world,” said Tori Williams, an eighth grader. “You see one race, and you’re going to be accustomed to one race.”
Jahmir Duran-Abreu, another eight grader, said: “It seems it’s black kids and white teachers. Like one time we were talking and I said I like listening to Eminem and my teacher said this was ghetto. She was white. I was pretty upset. I was wondering why she would say something like that. She apologized, but it sticks with me.”
Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at the school, is concerned about the students’ role models.
Jahmir, one of Explore’s few Hispanic students, is its first student to get intoStuyvesant High School, one of the city’s premier schools. He was also admitted to Dalton, an elite private school, where he intends to go. He wants someday to become an actor.
Shakeare Cobham, in sixth grade, offered a different view: “It’s more comfortable to be with people of your own race than to be with a lot of different races.”
Tori came back: “I disagree. It doesn’t prepare us.”
Yata Pierre, in eighth grade, said, “It doesn’t really matter as long as your teachers are good teachers.”
Trevon Roberts-Walker, a sixth grader, responded, “When we are in high school and college, it’s not going to be all one race.”
Jahmir: “Yeah, in my high school there will be predominantly white kids, and I think this school will be so much better if it were more diverse.”
Kenny Wright, in eighth grade, piped in, “You could have more discussion instead of all the same thoughts.”
Ashira Mayers, in seventh grade, said: “We’d like to hear from other races. How do they feel? What’s happening with them?”
Later on, Ashira elaborated: “We will sometimes talk about why don’t we have any white kids? We wonder what their schools are like. We see them on TV, with the soccer fields and the biology labs and all that cool stuff. Sometimes I feel I have to work harder because I don’t have all that they have. A lot of us think that way.”
EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black. The white teachers would tell racist jokes in the faculty lounge, he said. He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.
“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”
He is also gay and knows about feeling different in school. “The only people who were like me were two kids who went to drugs,” he said. “One died in high school, and the other died recently.”
Mr. Ballen founded Explore in 2002, resolute that a public school could deliver a good education to disadvantaged students. He now leads a Brooklyn charter network. (His fourth school is scheduled to open in September.) The school began in Downtown Brooklyn. In 2004, it relocated to a former bakery factory in Flatbush, where most classrooms were windowless. In August, the Education Department moved it to 655 Parkside Avenue, squeezing it into the fourth floor and portions of the third in a building occupied by Middle School 2 and Public School K141, a special-education school.
The shared building is relatively new and in good shape, but the library is half the size of a classroom, the space so tight that a few thousand books must be kept in storage. The cafeteria, auditorium, gym and playground are shared. Instead of a computer lab, the school has a rolling computer cart of laptops, used mostly for math classes. There is no playground equipment for the younger grades. There are a limited number of musical instruments, so the school has no band, or much in the way of after-school athletics. There are no accelerated classes for high-performing students.
Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.
Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.
“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.
In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate …we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”
Convinced that student unruliness was impeding learning, the school installed a rigid discipline system. Infractions — for transgressions like calling out without permission, frowning after being given a demerit, being off task — lead to detention for upper-school students. On some days, 50 students land in detention, a quarter of the upper school.
Zierra Page, who is in eighth grade, at a homeroom meeting.
Positive behavior does bring rewards, like making the Respect Corps, which allows a student to wear an honorary T-shirt. Winning an attendance contest can lead to treats for the class or the freedom to wear jeans.
Still, some students have taken to referring to Explore as “the prison school.”
OUT of uniform and barefoot, Amiyah Young was getting her books in order for homework. She was at home, two blocks from school, in an apartment she shares with her grandparents, mother and 2-year-old brother. She is in sixth grade, willowy, with watchful eyes, a dexterous thinker, one of the school’s top students. She hopes to go to a university like Princeton and become a veterinarian, because she has noticed lots of people own animals.
She blithely showed her snug room, a converted dining nook containing her bed, her books, her stuffed animals, her cluster of snow globes. She said that some of her friends slept with their mothers or siblings, or on the couch.
Her mother, Shonette Kingston, 36, calm with an outreaching smile, works as an operating-room technician and attends nursing school. She separated from Amiyah’s father when the girl was born. He is unemployed, and lives elsewhere in Brooklyn, but remains involved in her life.
“It’s a bit weird,” Amiyah said of the school’s racial composition. “All my friends are predominantly black, and all the teachers are predominantly white. I think white kids go to different schools. I don’t know. I haven’t seen many white people in a big space before.”
Would it be better if it were integrated?
“I think they would stop calling me white girl if there were white kids,” she said. “Because my skin is a little lighter and I can’t dance, they call me that. Some of them can’t dance, either.”
“I could talk the way I talk.”
Other students speak street slang that she repudiates: “They will say to me, ‘You are so white.’ I tell them, I have two black parents. Do I look white?”
She had been having trouble making friends. This year, her mother noticed a speech change. “She’s slacking off more to fit in,” Ms. Kingston said. “She’s saying: ‘I been there.’ ‘I done that.’ ”
Amiyah confirmed this: “I speak a bit more freelance with my friends. Not full sentences. I don’t use big words. They hate it when I do that.”
She said she had become more popular.
Other students also relate the use of parlance linked to skin color. Shakeare Cobham, one of Amiyah’s friends, said: “If you’re darker, they’ll call them burnt. Light-skinned ones get called white.”
Zierra Page, who is in eighth grade, said: “The lighter-skinned girls think they’re prettier. They’ll say: ‘She’s mad dark. Look at me, I’m much prettier.’ ”
Amiyah’s parents are bothered by the abundance of white teachers. Her mother said: “What do they know of our lives? They may be good teachers, but what do they know? You’re coming from Milwaukee. You went to Harvard. Her dad complains about this all the time — what can they bring to these African-American kids? I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’m happy with the education.”
Amiyah said, “The white teachers can’t relate as much to us no matter how hard they try — and they really try.”
To extract her from the synthetic isolation of her environment, Amiyah’s parents have enrolled her in programs with more racial diversity like an acting class in Manhattan.
She is curious about better-off white children. “I’d like to see how they would react in the classroom when we have dance parties,” she said. “I’d like to see how they would react to a birthday party. And to being around so many of us. I’d like to see what they would think of some of the girls in our school who have big hair and those big earrings.”
She mulled that a moment, and said, “I wonder if it’s fun.”
EXPLORE’S administration neither encourages nor discourages discussion of race. Rarely is it openly examined.
A diversity task force was patched together over a year ago to look into things like how to bridge the divide among staff and students and their parents, and what the makeup of the staff should be. The group is preparing some recommendations.
Race, and its attendant baggage, of course, is a tricky subject. Teachers are of different minds about what to do with it.
Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass. “I worry so much about their role models,” he said. “The rap stars. The fashion models. The basketball players.”
He has his way of trying to fit in. “I call every kid brother and sister,” he said. “I say, hey, brother; hey, sister. One kid once asked me, ‘Are you my uncle?’ ”
OTHER staff members also wonder about the isolation of the students. Adunni Clarke, 34, who is black and is the lead intervention teacher who helps students and teachers who need extra support, said: “I don’t know that our kids get their placement in the world. I don’t know that they realize that they’re competing against all these other cultures.”
Talking about race “could be a Pandora’s box to some extent,” said Corey Gray, 27, who is white and in his first year at Explore as an eighth-grade language-arts teacher. “Is there a proper effective way to bring it in? There probably is. Do I know the way? No, I don’t.”
Many of the teachers are young, from different backgrounds, and there is steady turnover — from 25 percent to 35 percent in each of the past three years, a persistent issue at charter and high-poverty schools.
Tracy Rebe, the principal, is leaving this year. Her replacement, the fourth in the school’s short history, will be the first black principal, though not by design.
Early in the year, Mauricia Gardiner, 30, who teaches fifth-grade math and is of mixed race, was listening as students read a story about a black teenager who tried to rob a woman. Instead of reporting him, the woman took him home and tried to set him straight. The woman’s race wasn’t mentioned.
Ms. Gardiner asked the class what race they imagined the woman to be. They said black, that no white woman would do that. Why? she asked.
“They would be scared of us,” a student said.
“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Gardiner said. “We don’t have a forum to address this. You can get all the education in the world. But you have to function in the world.”
Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”
“We had discussions about that being inappropriate,” Mr. Nielsen said. “I even said:I’m the lightest-skinned one of all. What does that make me?”
The discussion was quick. “I probably should have done more,” he said. “It was hard on me as a first-year teacher and not knowing what to do.”
He added: “I realize most of these kids are going to go to segregated schools until college. I wonder, am I preparing these kids for what goes on in college?”
Karen Hicks, 41, a former businesswoman who is now in her first year teaching fifth-grade math and science and is black, used to have a son in the school. “I would have put him in an integrated school if I had that option,” she said.
Ms. Hicks recalled her first conference as a parent, with a white teacher, now gone: “The teacher said, ‘Oh, you’re so involved.’ It felt patronizing. That should have been the expectation.”
IF anyone can relate to the students, it is James McDonald. Mr. McDonald, 41, black, the beloved gym teacher, has been with Explore since it opened. He grew up on the Lower East Side, where his father ran a liquor store and left home when Mr. McDonald was 9. He went to predominantly black and Latino schools, and says he didn’t learn what he needed to learn.
In high school, he showed a college application essay to a scholarship committee member, who told him, “If you want to go to college, you better learn how to spell it.” He had written “colledge.” He realized the holes in his education. “It deflated me,” he said.
He thinks Explore students are getting a much better education than he did. Still, he is concerned.
“Outside the school the kids are being reminded of what their race is,” he said. “When they come to school, it’s as if they are asked to ignore who they are.”
“I don’t see that a lot of them have aspirations to do great things,” he added. “Some of them say, yeah, I want to be a doctor. But some, you ask them and they don’t have an answer. I’d like to know how many actually believe they can do whatever they can.”
THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one … two …”
She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”
Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.
Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms.
As Jaime-Jin Lewis, the organization’s executive director, puts it: “You don’t want kids learning about sex on the playground. You don’t want them to learn about race and class and power on the playground.”
Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.
During Ms. Rubin’s first year at Explore, a parent called her up, screaming that she ignored her son and called only on the white students. Ms. Rubin pointed out that there actually weren’t any white students to call on.
She said schools needed to “unpack” the issue of race and dismantle stereotypes.
“The beginning is naming it,” she said.
A GAUZY night in early spring, and the PTA meeting in the auditorium drew about three dozen parents. Details were given about picture day, about students needing to show up for preparation for the state tests, about neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who tried to rob some students, MetroCards and hats their targets.
Lakisha Adams, 35, who has three children in the school, spoke brightly of a Harlem mentoring program: “It teaches about how to shake someone’s hand, how to walk without your pants dragging down. This is all black. We put our kids in a lot of programs with kids that don’t look like us. Our kids don’t relate to Great Neck.”
Parents say they like Explore over all and the education it offers. To many, that is enough.
Sheryl Davis, 57, the PTA president, grew up in Brooklyn, and when she was in sixth grade, was bused out of her mostly black East New York school to a “lily-white school.”
“I do remember the hate from the white students,” she said. The next year, she was back in her former school.
“As I got older, I didn’t really see that I gained from that experience,” she said.
“I don’t know that segregation is this horrible thing,” Ms. Adams said. “The problem with segregation is the assumption that black is bad and white is good. Black can be great. That’s what I instill my kids with.”
Would she prefer an integrated school? “I can’t say that I would.”
Families often disagree among themselves. Calandra Maijeh, 38, and her husband, Ife Maijeh, 43, were at the school one evening with their four children, all Explore students.
“Color for me is not an issue,” Ms. Maijeh said. “As long as the learning is up to par.”
Mr. Maijeh said: “My thoughts are very different from my wife. I agree that everybody deserves an education. But I want white and black to be together as one.”
Jean McCauley, 47, is a single mother with two sons by different fathers, both gone from her life. When her older son, now 26, began school, his father had a friend in TriBeCa, and they used his address to get him into Public School 234, a well-regarded, largely white school. “I feel so grateful for my son being in that environment,” she said. “Expectations were so high. That school had everything. It was a world apart.”
He graduated from college and works at a real estate agency.
For her younger son, Brandon Worrell, she didn’t have that option. He is in sixth grade at Explore. She considers it a good school, but fears he doesn’t learn racial tolerance. “At Explore he can’t compare to anything,” she said. “He won’t know how to communicate with other races. He won’t know there is a difference. I think color will always be the first thing he sees.”
She added, “I speak to Brandon about race. But he doesn’t get it. It’s abstract.”
A WEEK wound up. Education was occurring. In kindergarten, they were reading “Sheep Take a Hike,” while in first grade, students wrote about a small moment that happened to them. A girl wrote: “This morning my mom pulled out my tooth. Ow. Ow. Ow.”
In sixth-grade math, they were reviewing order of operations, and in fifth-grade science they were learning about chyme. In third grade, they were writing a response to: How does Jimmy feel about raising goats? Use at least two details in your answer.
A student was told: “You have the right to be mad. You don’t have the right to kick things.”
Mr. Engel, teaching library, went around the room with the first graders and had them fill in the blank of “America is…”
The answers shot back: “America is … my mommy.”