September 5, 2018

Different Strokes for Different Folks: Diverse Schools Mean Diverse Values, Too

By Idit Fast

Students at PS 146, Brooklyn, one of the first "Diversity in Admissions" schools in the city.

Students at PS 146, Brooklyn, one of the first "Diversity in Admissions" schools in the city.

What do integration and diversity in schools really mean? I confronted these questions during my two years’ research of three of the first seven schools participating in what has become New York City’s “diversity in admissions” policy program. Those first seven public elementary schools voluntarily embarked on a journey to halt or reverse a process through which schools that traditionally served low-income students of color had growing numbers of more affluent white students as a result of gentrification in their communities. There are now 42 schools that work to retain or attract students from low-income families by giving admissions priority (depending on the school) to students who are English language learners, who have incarcerated parents, whose families receive public assistance, or whose incomes qualify children for free or reduced-price school lunch. 

Between September 2016 and June 2018. I observed the monthly PTA, school leadership team (SLT), and diversity committee meetings in each of the three schools. In addition, I interviewed 20 parents in each of the schools and conducted repeated interviews with principals and parent coordinators in each of the schools each year.

These schools’ experience shows that integration means more than just putting diverse groups of people together. The work only then starts. The school communities confront issues of racial and class-based inequalities and biases in teacher-student relationships, parents’ interactions with staff and with each other, PTA fundraising practices, and within-school segregation in the form of dual-language and special education classes.

There is also another less-discussed aspect of integration that confronts these schools. They experience fundamental disagreements among parents and between administrators, parents, and teachers over what the core values and goals of education, and life in general, should be. What these disagreements keep bringing up is that to get diversity in class, race, ethnicity, and culture, the school’s community must also accept diversity in opinions, perceptions, and lifestyles. And that is not a simple task.

Conflict around testing is a notable example of these disagreements and was a frequent topic in the parent meetings I attended. Some of the pilot schools are leaders of the “opt-out” movement. Led by mainly white parents, it calls on families to avoid the State’s standardized tests because, they argue, such tests put too much pressure on children, prevent in-depth learning, and target low-performing schools. Many parents of color, and some white parents, disagree and argue that opting-out is a white privilege. Black and brown boys in particular, they argue, cannot afford to get to middle school applications without test scores. They also contend that testing is a part of life that kids need to learn to deal with. And they oppose what they perceive as the over-sheltering of children by middle- and upper-class families.

Another such conflict arises around values. The original cohort of the pilot schools is made up of mostly progressive schools that support progressive values in their everyday practices, from how they approach classroom studies to how formally teachers are addressed by students. Many parents align with this approach to education and choose these schools partly for that reason. But there are also parents who find the focus on progressive values exclusionary of parents who are religious, who do not hold progressive values, or who were not themselves educated in progressive educational institutions. Schools cannot create integration if they make parents who do not align with progressive values feel “traditional” or “not enlightened enough.”

The three schools I observed took two disparate approaches to dealing with these conflicts. One was to mostly ignore them. An opposite approach was to confront these issues head on, expose them, and talk about them in the open. This approach entails stating in PTA, SLT, and diversity committee meetings that “We have disagreements around how to talk to children, how much homework we should give them, and how much testing school should do, and let’s talk about them.”

The second approach has obvious merits. We know today that the past approach to integration, in which black students were sent into white schools with the expectation of cultural assimilation, was harmful to those students. Success cannot result from cultural annihilation. In schools that ignore challenges to their values and perceptions of doing things parents develop resentment and feel out of place.  Acknowledging that differences exist and that there is not necessarily one correct way of doing things is a big step toward creating integrated spaces. Lacking such acknowledgment, the pilot schools might remain secluded silos of like-minded families.

Since arriving in New York a few months ago new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he sees greater cultural sensitivity as key to increasing racial and economic diversity in more city schools. The schools I observed illustrate how important, and how complex, that effort is.

Photo above: Students at PS 146, Brooklyn, one of the first "diversity in admissions" schools in the city.

Photo by:  InsideSchools 


Idit Fast is a PhD candidate in sociology at Rutgers University, and a fellow at the Center for Engaged Scholarship.