De-Segregation Is Not Enough: Why Building Strong Integrated Schools Matters

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

I was getting my coffee a few weeks ago when I overheard a couple talking animatedly about the recent education diversity plan announced by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Starting this September, seven schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan will set admissions quotas to enroll a more diverse mix of students.

Later that day in the grocery store, I was distracted by two women talking about “diversity in schools” and the implications that desegregation has for our city.

I’ve lived in New York City for 12 years and never before has school segregation been more of a hot topic than it is now. In 2014, UCLA put out a report stating that New York City has the most segregated schools in the nation. Suddenly, we are all interested.   

While the effort to desegregate schools is the first step in moving toward educational equity, desegregation alone is not enough. For it to work, there needs to be proactive attention paid to the three stakeholders in the school community: the students, the staff, and the families.

At Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I work as the director of community development, we have 10 years of experience running a purposefully integrated school. That’s been possible for a few reasons. Home to three of the largest public housing facilities in the city and some of its most pristine brownstones, Fort Greene is rich in history and diverse in its demographics. We have also set aside a percentage to ensure a student body that reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our neighborhood.

But over the last decade, we have learned that enrollment is just the first step. To move from desegregation to integration, schools must:

  • create a curriculum that gives students of all ages entry points for discussing issues related to diversity, including (but not limited to) race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality;

  • engage students in intentional community building across race, class, and gender lines;  

  • engage families in meaningful programming that builds community; and

  • work with staff to develop the capacity to be proactive about discussing race, class, gender, and sexuality (among other things) in a school setting.

An important step is deciding what, and how, we teach our students. While our national culture has been successful in teaching most of us to avoid conversations about race, we create opportunities for our students at Community Roots to tackle issues of race and racism head-on in a safe and trusting community.  

Today, you can walk into one of our eighth-grade classrooms and find that students are not just considering the perspective of the narrator in “To Kill A Mockingbird” but are discussing whose perspective is missing in the novel, and the role that institutionalized racism plays in that omission. I have seen students have a conversation with their peers about white privilege and look at one another with empathy and say, “I didn’t know that was your experience,” or “I don’t think that’s fair.”  

Our students are able to make connections with people of varied backgrounds about topics that can, particularly for adults, feel very high-risk. One eighth-grader recently wrote, in response to a question about racial profiling: “If we are not exposed to each other at a young age, like at Community Roots, how can we understand each other? … Without real people to contradict those opinions, I don’t think racial profiling can be completely erased.”

For students, these discussions come naturally because they have been having them since kindergarten. At four and five years old, they learn about one another’s families, talk about the differences they see, and reflect on the similarities that make them all human.  They are learning to build trust through their conversations about their identities and the way that they problem solve by hearing one another’s perspectives.  By second grade, the trust has deepened and they have internalized what it means to be an ally and practice the language of speaking up for someone else.  

In fourth grade they begin thinking about bias and omission (in history and in the texts they read), and in many cases come to the realization that every story holds different truth based on one’s own identity. Because they have these conversations over the course of nine years, living integrated school lives becomes common practice.   

It isn’t just about students, either. It is important to create spaces for families to have opportunities to get to know one another. For example, on three consecutive weeknights, our adult cooking class gathers families and allows a chance to learn and cook a new recipe and then enjoy that meal together. Somewhere over chopped onions, connections are made.   

Book clubs, arts nights, family sports nights, family music nights — the activity isn’t as important as the fact that families commit to a series of two to three (or sometimes eight) evenings and engage together in an activity. Groups are kept intentionally small and diverse, and over time, barriers fall.

We have also learned that meaningful staff development comes from within, from folks who know the school community and are committed to its growth. Our Diversity Working Group, a self-selected group of staff members, has designed training that makes space for the whole school staff to think about how their identities impact their work.  The group has created a sequence of social justice terms and concepts to be taught in each grade, and thinks about institutional changes that can be made to support our commitment to diversity.

The biggest lesson that we have learned is that this work takes an incredible amount of time and patience. We have had to try things, and then try them again. We understand the cyclical value of planning, action, and reflection. It is only through a posture of learning that we are able to see movement and growth and that rests heavily on the amount of community building we have in place to create a culture of trust.

We are still considering questions like: How do we draw families into the same conversations about race and class that we are having with our students?  How do we gather enough research to tell our story through numbers and percentages that align with our qualitative data?   How do we raise awareness as staff around microaggressions and practice being true allies? How do we ensure that our students are action oriented and have the individual drive to work for equity, long after they leave our school walls?

We ask these questions and we continue to work each day to figure them out because we are committed to the mission of school integration.

By placing students from different racial and economic backgrounds in one room, without any thought or intention, we are doing nothing but reinforcing stereotypes. If we don’t make it a point in kindergarten, for example, to talk about skin tone and validate the beauty of everyone’s color, we solidify the stereotype that white is what is considered beautiful. If we don’t make room to consider multiple perspectives when we look at history, we are saying that there is only one story counts. These choices matter.

Approach school integration with engaging and relevant curriculum, meaningful community programming, and strong staff development, and I believe we will begin to see the changes that our nation needs. As the city’s new experiments start to scale, I hope that our experience can help point the way.