Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, New York Times, October 29, 2021
The mural, showing a rising sun and two children of color wearing crowns, was intended to promote racial equity at a school building in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Fifth-graders from P.S. 295 spent months designing the artwork, which was spread across the cafeteria wall that their school shares with M.S. 443, a middle school, with the help of Groundswell, a longtime community arts organization.
As the project came together in July, the elementary school principal, Lisa Pagano, became uncomfortable with the slogans that had been added — “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” — as well as a quote by the Black gay feminist writer Audre Lorde, which read, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.”
Ms. Pagano asked Groundswell in an email to substitute a broader message, such as “Hate has no home here,” to reflect the schools’ recognition of many different marginalized groups who make up the student body. “This will assist us in building more inclusivity for all viewers in our school and the middle school we are co-located with,” Ms. Pagano wrote.
Groundswell pushed back, and the mural went up unchanged in July.
But days later, a custodian was ordered to take the thin mural — attached with an adhesive — off the wall. It’s not clear who ordered the removal, which staff and parents say destroyed the mural.
The events, from the mural’s installation to its removal, have created a rift among teachers, parents and school administrators that has rattled the school community.
Parents who are upset that the mural was put up in the first place have squared off against parents who supported it. Pro-mural parents and students have protested by writing the mural’s messages in chalk on the sidewalk. At least one elementary school staff member, upset about the removal, left the school.
The Department of Education is now investigating, and both principals could face disciplinary action, a spokesman said.
“Our schools must be safe and inclusive environments, and this should not have happened, and we’re very sorry this happened to our students,” said Nathaniel Styer, the deputy press secretary for the department. “We are assisting the school communities to come to a resolution, convening mediations and will take disciplinary action as appropriate following the outcome of the investigation.”
The discord reflects a wider debate roiling schools across the country over race and how it manifests itself in curriculum and school life. Interviews with dozens of parents at both schools, as well as former and current teachers, paint a picture of two schools grappling with the complexities of race, ethnicity, inequality and diversity.
P.S. 295, also known as the Studio School of Arts and Culture, and M.S. 443, known as New Voices, are on the southern edge of Park Slope, a largely white neighborhood, not far from the heavily Latino and Asian neighborhood of Sunset Park, and share common spaces, including the cafeteria. Ms. Pagano, formerly the assistant principal, was promoted to principal of the elementary school a year ago, while Frank Giordano has been the principal of the middle school for nearly two decades.
In the two schools, the largest contingent of students is Hispanic, with a sizable number of white students; Asian students make up 9 percent of the elementary school and 13 percent of the middle school; Black students account for less than 10 percent of the student body. Overall, half of all students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Although the group of muralists included children of Latino, Asian and Black heritage, some school leaders and parents said the mural did not capture the racial, religious and ethnic dynamics of the school.
Some parents did not believe their children were represented by the children depicted in the mural.
“What happened to the Hispanics, to the Asians?” Karen Rafael, who is Latina and the mother of an eighth grader, asked in an interview.
She questioned why images of frontline workers during the pandemic, many of whom are Hispanic, were not featured on the mural. The transgender slogan may also not resonate as widely with Hispanic and Arab families, she added, many of whom come from religiously conservative backgrounds.
Her daughter, she said, told her recently: “Hispanics are the middle child of the races — usually forgotten.”
The schools are within District 15, which spearheaded a diversity and equity initiative that involved making admissions lottery-based and is seen as a template for the rest of the city.
Some parents and teachers questioned whether Ms. Pagano and Mr. Giordano, who are both white, are culturally equipped to manage the evolving culture of a majority nonwhite school. Some staff members have lauded the two school leaders as being devoted to achieving academic excellence.
Under Mr. Giordano’s leadership, New Voices has developed a reputation as one of the best schools in Brooklyn. Parents and staff described him as an affable leader who endears himself to students with practical jokes, but can be brusque. Some parents and staff find his jokes off-putting.
Before the mural, there were rumblings about racial and cultural insensitivity: Several parents at the elementary school said they spent more than $1,000 of their own money to buy books by authors of color for the school library. During a “Colonial Day,” students at the elementary school were made to play roles on settler ships, something that made students of color and their parents uncomfortable.