We nurture the child's sense of self-determination – to help them grow to become a creative, courageous, civically-engaged thinker and doer.  We write about the bright spots (i.e., share our data + research + insights = positive results) in our work.

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Can we effectively integrate our NYC public schools?

Over half of the population in the US right now is of color. This new majority minority is showing up in Pre K and Kindergarten, all around the country. And nowhere is this reflected better than in New York City public schools in which one point one million students are enrolled, 176 languages are spoken and only 15 percent of children are white.

Our public schools are a wonderful blend of America’s vast cultural tapestry, but factor in that the income levels of many families in New York are at the poverty level, and our public school system also doesn’t just represent the most racially segregated but also the most economically segregated in the country.

Kids are straight shooters

I’ve been working with dozens of 8–11 year olds for over two years in a high poverty segregated elementary school in Brooklyn. Its humbling to work with kids who are much more straightforward than adults. These generous, creative, eager children are the future. They are, like all children, pure potential. But they are segregated. Together with the school I’ve been co-creating, with two adult counselors and about 80 kids, Kids’ Councils in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades which primarily take place after school and are democratically run by the kids themselves with as little adult involvement as possible, in their own classrooms.

I’ve also immersed myself in the life of the school to understand the rules, challenges and opportunities that are typical so I can better relate to the concerns that affect the children in all public schools in New York City.

Parents of means are now able to maneuver the system to get their kids into ‘better’ public or private or charter schools whereas typical New York City families may not be able to do this, and are simply left to whatever schools may be readily available. And choice education options get harder to navigate in middle and high school. Since the promise of the public schools is to provide a good, free education for every child, under-resourced schools struggle to stack up in terms of excellence, performance.

We do better when we integrate

Research shows clearly and undisputedly that we all do better when we integrate. Corporations strive to bring in employees from different backgrounds as do institutes of higher learning. This integration is considered valuable. Yet we maintain racially and economically segregated public schools which do not always graduate students who have the experience and relationships that provide this enrichment in the workforce and society in general.

We need to raise the bar of excellence and increase resources for all. By integrating our public schools all kids will learn to work together therefore we need to get all parents interested in integrating our public schools.

New York City’s Mayor de Blasio has called for public schools to bring their enrollment up to include 40% students of high poverty. This is courageous and necessary but I am filled with trepidation. How will this be accomplished to have the best results — to nurture confident, spontaneous, savvy and innovative children ready to tackle the opportunities and challenges of a crazy quilt world?

Educator Dr. Patricia Crain de Galarce says,

“We need cultural competencies and responsiveness in our public schools if we are to create inclusive environments where all children succeed. Without understanding and valuing differences, we are setting up kids and communities to fail.”

In the over two years that I’ve been working pro bono in a public school in District 13, Brooklyn, New York. I’ve fundraised to keep Kids’ Council free to all — to not add to the financial burden of the school or the parents. Neither could afford it. As a white woman, home-owner and neighbor, I have had a stake in District 13 for 33 years. I’ve been engaged in many ways as my beloved north Brooklyn — a community historically of black families which has recently evolved to include many young white families.

Here are some of the questions that arise for me, working with educational professionals in New York City public schools, regarding challenges high poverty children face:

        What happens when a student comes into a school system where the faculty and administration doesn’t reflect them culturally?

        What about that child’s parents who work two jobs and suddenly face the call to engage in the PTA, not to mention teacher/parent meetings and all the attendant extracurricular activities of a school?

        What about the child who comes hungry to school every day? The child who sleeps on the couch, has no privacy at home?

        What about the child who has just been ‘counseled out’ of a charter school because they can’t deal with his disabilities? How is that child accepted into this new public school as a peer?

        What if that child just wants to be heard but cannot find any ‘way in’?

        What if that child has trouble at home? Or the child whose parents don’t speak English so have never been able to read to this child in the language of the land?

We must integrate our schools but in the process we cannot shove fragile round pegs into rigid square holes. We need to nurture what we love about each and every one of these kids; that they are unique, valuable and capable human beings, each in their own way. Each child, ultimately finds his/her own way. Each child (of poverty or means) comes with a back story and that child will either thrive or whither in the public school environment. We need all to thrive.

Yet largely due to safety concerns, many public elementary schools can feel like prisons into which children must enter and leave every week day. School administrators may be unable to make changes — because, let’s face it, bureaucracy is necessary in a school system the size of New York City’s. But there are solutions, even within this rigidity.

Allow kids agency in their classroom

I’ve found giving the children some say in their learning in elementary school clearly makes a huge difference in their attitude and perspective. Schools in which educators listen to the kids about how to improve their environment are poised to evolve.

This is exactly what I’ve been doing in Kids’ Councils for two years: The kids hold elections in their classroom, set agendas, take minutes and run meetings. They call for votes. Take action. And, of course, they have fun. They enrich their entire cohort by relating empathetically peer-to-peer and, in the process, they are motivated to mature. Overall, they improve their classroom (and help take the pressure off their teachers) by adopting a learner-centered attitude. They talk in a new way to the educators in their school. And to do this in a school population of students that reflects the real, diverse world is ideal.

The delight is the kids

The biggest delight for me (and I think all the smart, passionate educators I’ve been honored to work with these last two years) has been each and every individual child: they are natural egalitarians. They can be solutions-oriented — even in third grade — just with an exaggerated sense of fairness and equity. So if you put them in a situation, even in the early grades, where they have to make and articulate their own decisions, you see them rapidly develop confident, independent and nuanced thinking processes.

Ages 8 and up are the ages when children start to understand the concept of ‘future’ and start to imagine themselves in it. I’ve found even the most challenged child may have big dreams. If they change their trajectory by even a few degrees, this is a huge advance for them longterm.

Kids and parents have much to gain from being in a racially and economically diverse school — one that reflects the real world. We need to look for commonalities — ways for kids to imagine making these shared dreams come true.

Kids can come together face-to-face on their own terms — kids who are different from themselves economically and/or racially – to develop a sense of inclusion — a community in which they each have a self-defined place. Done well, in Kids’ Councils, the children will create dynamic dialogues that bode well for all their futures. Our future. The world’s future.



AuthorMonica Snellings