Streams

At Explore Charter School, a World and a System Divided

Monday, May 14, 2012 - 07:58 AM

New York is a city of diversity. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians and people of all nations stand shoulder to shoulder in subways, bump into each other on busy streets, and mingle at clubs and supermarkets.

But one large segment of New York City remains segregated, and that is in the city's schools. As the latest in a series in The New York Times, "A System Divided," illustrated on Sunday, black children are often taught in schools that are disproportionately black, by teachers who are likely to be white.

The article by N.R. Kleinfeld in the Metropolitan section, "Why Don't We Have Any White Kids?," takes an in-depth look at Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, which is almost entirely made up of black students. The article looks at what that means to the students, their parents, the faculty -- and to the city.

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.

Mr. Kleinfeld takes readers inside the school to see how this segregation plays out -- not necessarily in the quality of their education but in the quality of their experience, as they exist in a world where white people are somewhat of a mystery.

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.”

The article captures the back and forth and ends with this:

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.”

Perhaps even more thought-provoking than the article is the graphic presentation of the problem, created by Ford Fessenden.

Teachers, it is not only a real conversation-starter for your class -- see last week's SchoolBook event about how to bring real-world lessons into the classroom -- but it is also a masterpiece of data visualization.

By Monday morning, more than 400 readers had posted comments -- and yes, several were about that after-school snack of sugar, fats and salt. SchoolBook will be summing them up in a post.

The Times also had an article this weekend about an entirely different educational experience in Brooklyn. This one could be called the Sister Dolores experience.

As Michael Winerip writes in his On Education column:

Sister Dolores, the principal of Fontbonne Hall Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, once jumped out of her 2004 Toyota Corolla, confiscated a girl’s beer, emptied it into the gutter, explained that as a certified alcohol counselor she could have the girl arrested, then waited while the shellshocked child called her parents to report herself.

By the time the girls are seniors, they understand that when Sister Dolores says they are free to choose their own graduation dress, she means if it passes inspection.

Starting in early May, they bring them to the principal’s office and change in the bathroom.

The column is a delightful look at the last of a fading breed, and her impact on students. Definitely worth readers' time -- and probably worthy of a movie. Astoria, are you listening?

On Friday afternoon -- a time when officials typically release information that they don't want people to notice -- the city's Education Department made public hundreds of e-mails to journalists about the city's support for the expansion of charter schools.

As Anna M. Phillips reported in The New York Times, the e-mails provided "a behind-the-scenes look at one of the major battles of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, the 2010 campaign to expand charter schools, or, as one dramatic e-mail put it, the 'fight of our life.'"

The e-mails, released in response to a Freedom of Information request by the city’s teachers’ union, detail the central role that Joel I. Klein, who was then the schools chancellor, took in the effort, including constant contact with charter school advocates and lobbyists for the city. They were then fighting to raise the statewide cap on charter schools to at least 400 from 200 and communicated regularly about their struggles to herd state lawmakers to their side and their exasperation with the union.

One series of exchanges shows the city's campaign to get the Robin Hood Foundation to step up its support for Education Reform Now, which was trying to get the State Legislature to raise the charter cap. Did the city on its conference call ask the Robin Hood people to donate money to Education Reform Now? Read the article and decide for yourself.

Gotham Schools's Rise & Shine morning post has a more complete roundup of education-related news from the weekend.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott has a busy Monday. At 8 a.m., he visits Queens High School for the Sciences at York College in South Jamaica; at 9:45 a.m., he is at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Lower East Side; at 12:30 p.m., he receives the Public Sector Award at the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Mentor Program of Greater New York Scholarship Luncheon at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle; at 1:45 p.m., he visits the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx; and at 6 p.m. he attends the Robin Hood Foundation Benefit at the Jacob Javits Center.

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