‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’

N.R. Kleinfield, New York Times, May 11, 2012

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{snip} This classroom at Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was full of black students in a school almost entirely full of black students. {snip}

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. {snip} 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.

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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.

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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.

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AFTER school one Tuesday, 10 students assembled in a classroom to talk about the school and race. {snip}

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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.”

Oout 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. {snip}

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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.”

What else?

“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.’ ”

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Amiyah said, “The white teachers can’t relate as much to us no matter how hard they try—and they really try.”

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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.”

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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?’ ”

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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.

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A gauazy night in early spring, and the PTA meeting in the auditorium drew about three dozen parents. {snip}

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.”

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“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.”

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