Prioritizing Mindsets: What New York State’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework Gets Right

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

Schools adhere to ideas of what is the “correct” way to be, act, learn, and communicate. They institutionalize these ideas through school policies, teaching choices, and curricula. But these norms are not neutral or arbitrary; they mirror the norms that allow society’s justification for why certain groups such as white, middle-class, and cisgender people accumulate privilege while groups such as Black, trans, and disabled people accumulate vulnerability. When schools establish norms that uphold privilege and vulnerability, they yield inequitable outcomes. 

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CRSE) provides a lens to study the ways schools are complicit in structuring social imbalances and, through reflection and practice, can work with communities, families, and students for educational equity. While CR-SE has associated practices, it is not a set of readymade strategies for schools to simply adopt. Neither is the New York State Education Department’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework. Before jumping to “doing”, CRSE requires a humanizing mindset about education and about students that is meant to transform the project of schools.

Consider two hypothetical math teachers, Teacher A and Teacher B, working in the same school implementing the NYSED CRSE Framework. Both teachers say they believe all children can learn. They each have seven years of experience teaching in schools with Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and white students. By drawing a comparison between Teachers A and B, we suggest that change in education happens in the heads and hearts of educators before it happens in their hands. 

Teacher A: Well-intentioned and caring, but complicit

Teacher A believes in the achievement gap and decides to tackle it by focusing on what their Students of Color can do to better succeed. They plan to bridge this gap with CRSE. Caring deeply about their students, Teacher A notices their students are into hip-hop. They decide to make the day’s math lesson more relevant to their students by adding hip-hop to the lesson plan. They take a popular song that they hear students in their class playing, but switch the words of the song with math content. This way, they hope students will better memorize the content and be better prepared for the tests.

This teacher cares, is paying attention to students, and is trying. However, they have not fully grasped CRSE because they still see the student as the problem, broken and needing to be fixed. Their inclusion of hip-hop does not sustain their students’ cultures, it uses a surface-level part of culture to further a white-centric paradigm of education focused on testing and a pedagogy of remediation. 

CRSE does not buy into “gaps” because it disrupts the premise of achievement, exchanging deficit views of students with placing students as both the starting and ending places of learning.  When inequities arise, CRSE names them what they are: racism, cis-heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, white supremacy, and ableism, viewing the challenges we face in education as historical as opposed to individual.

The theory of change that a deep study of CRSE offers Teacher A begins with the transformation of their mindset from a deficit mindset to a humanizing one. With a CRSE lens in place, Teacher A can begin to shift their practices and, ultimately, redefine student outcomes. This radical transformation occurs by locating the problem away from students and their cultures and placing it on institutional mindsets, practices, and policies. 

Teacher B: Critically conscious cultural sustainer

Teacher B studies the way their school–and schools in general–reproduces inequity. They understand that part of studying the power dynamics that privilege some groups over others means studying their own cultural points of view, examining how these points of view shape their teaching and perceptions of their students. In the same vein, they study their students’ cultural ways of knowing and get to know their students’ lives. Teacher B considers how all these things shape students’ learning and how to use this knowledge to help each student best flourish in school. 

When Teacher B notices their students are passionate about hip-hop, they ask students to relate aspects of hip-hop to what they are learning in math. When students begin to bring up connections between musical rhythm and mathematical principles, Teacher B sees the opening for students to not only bring this cultural form into the classroom, but for the classroom to sustain this cultural form. Prompted by students, Teacher B makes hip-hop an interdisciplinary ongoing unit of study that shifts the locus of expertise away from the enterprise of whiteness that is distant from their students, away from the white gaze that would typically frame how we see and understand schooling. Their shift in thinking would imply as well a shift in methods of teaching and learning. 

Because hip-hop in this classroom is not tokenized, but treated as a vehicle for and the object of learning, we can walk into the classroom (which is no longer Teacher B’s, but the classroom of the cultures of their students) on any given day and see hip-hop culture authentically represented. For example, we might see students engaging in battling techniques (cyphers) or using word/number art as class activities. We might see them leading discussions and explaining concepts as they are living them in ways that value not only their knowledge but also their lives.

Teacher B’s students know that in their classroom, they do not have to compartmentalize their lived experiences, cultures, and learning . They know that their cultures are starting points for learning and that culture is a practice of learning itself. They never have to give up or turn off a part of themselves simply to assimilate (and always unsuccessfully) into the default of whiteness, for their students know they can never be white. 

Teacher A’s students likely enjoy their hip-hop math lesson. However, there is an important difference between the teachers in their depth of understanding of how to be truly reflective and responsive to students. Teacher B begins with the recognition that they do not know something about their students, and begins the process of teaching by learning more about them. What emerges is more than a single lesson or strategy but a process of teaching and learning that centers students’ interests and cultures. This practice reflects a mindset, which in the long-term morphs into CRSE practice. 

“Being” vs. “Doing”

There is a deeper distinction arising from these two hypothetical educators. We support efforts to spread the teachings of Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education, such as those currently underway in NYC DOE and the statewide NYSED framework. However, the difference between success and failure of such programs will come down to whether they successfully result in a system of educators who see CRSE not only as something they “do,” but rather something they “are.”

Teacher A in the example above “does” cultural responsiveness the way they understand it. They see CRSE as a set of practices (or changes to practice) that they implement, like a checklist. Therefore, Teacher A will improve their classroom library by making it more diverse, will display more student work, and perhaps create space for one or a few multicultural events during the school year. By ticking enough boxes, they will feel confident that they’ve “done” cultural responsiveness adequately and will look to grades and test scores as indicators of whether CRSE was an effective program.

Teacher B, on the other hand, “is” culturally responsive and sustaining because they understand that CRSE is more than an initiative. They recognize that it is a mindset that pervades all of their thinking from student relationships, to instruction, to the nature and purpose of education. Teacher B knows that students from vulnerable groups have and will face greater obstacles to their own success, including in school, and not only works to remove those barriers, but teaches and supports students to recognize, organize, and successfully challenge systemic barriers wherever they face them. Teacher B understands identity is a journey, more than something to be displayed: something to be celebrated, complicated, supported- and sustained– within schools. Teacher B knows that test scores are poor measures of the success of an initiative because of the deeply and historically problematic history of racial, linguistic, and cultural bias in the creation and “norming” of tests. Instead, Teacher B assesses their own effectiveness by asking students for feedback and by reflecting on their lessons, relationships with students, relationships with families, and whether they feel a fulfilled sense of purpose in what they do.

Ultimately, this is the most important distinction between what some perceive CRSE to be and what it is. CRSE is a mindset, a way of being, that permeates all aspects of the way a teacher thinks about what they do and how they do it. It is not a defined set of practices. It is not a curriculum. It is not a packaged product. It is an ongoing ethic of care and accountability to students and families. It is a mindset, and the CRSE initiatives support teachers in cultivating and sustaining that mindset throughout their practice, even when it asks that they upend some of the ways they were previously trained or taught to think. CRSE is not an “add-on” to existing teaching methods. CRSE is a deconstruction and reconstruction of thinking about education to center all students, rather than figuring out how to force vulnerable students toward the dominant students’ center.

To push forward, sometimes we need to get out of the way

NYSED CRSE Framework is a powerful starting point in the project to rethink our schools. This rethinking centers students’ lives and identities; however, it can only go as far as those who are asked to implement it. Therefore, educators at all levels must be willing to stretch by shedding problematic and harmful pedagogies that stand in the way of truly liberatory education. Stretching will also mean examining how cultural, linguistic, gender, and other biases based on their own identities can lead them to misperceive or mischaracterize students and their abilities in harmful ways. With these initial steps, educators can come closer to ensuring they view and treat students’ whole lives as assets.

As former teachers, we feel the urgency, the weight of bureaucracy, that arises when a new initiative “comes down the pipe.” We understand the unrealistic pressure placed on teachers to have a game plan the next day to apply the new initiative. We also understand teachers’ and school administrators’ calls for clear and concrete strategies and policies that will help them meet the new demands to get them from points A to B. 

However, no set of strategies and policies alone will make teachers or schools culturally responsive and sustaining because CRSE is not a “one-size-fits-all” prescription for educating students. It cannot be. CRSE requires tailored education and not education based on a preset list of strategies. It is a philosophy of education and not a lesson plan. 

The NYSED Framework for Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education is based in the philosophy that we must and we can do right by students historically made vulnerable. Thus, all actors involved in the education of our most vulnerable students (e.g., teachers, support staff, administrators, communities, universities, etc.) must embrace a philosophical shift. With this shift, the Framework advances some of the most powerful, progressive, and liberating pedagogical approaches for transforming an educational system.

Because we understand teachers’ impulses to act, we caution educators that the adoption of a CRSE framework must prioritize philosophical alignment with CRSE rather than a call for actionable steps or a pathway to “doing” CRSE. Ultimately, with or without a framework, culturally responsive-sustaining education will truly begin when you admit you’re willing to change your mind.



Both research staff at the NYU Metro Center, Pamela D’Andrea Martínez and Evan M. Johnston were early writers of the NYSED CRSE framework. Pamela is a Ph.D. student of urban education and the intersections of race, immigration, and language. Evan is a Ph.D. candidate of urban education and special education. 

Pamela D’Andrea Martínez is a Ph.D. student of urban education at New York University focusing on the intersections of race, immigration, and language. She is also a graduate researcher at the NYU Metro Center and an adjunct professor of teaching and learning. Previously, Pamela was a teacher in Orange County Public Schools in Florida.

Evan M. Johnston is a doctoral candidate in Urban Education at NYU Steinhardt and the Managing Editor of Voices in Urban Education at the NYU Metro Center. He is a New Jersey-certified teacher in Early Childhood, K-6, and Students with Dis/abilities. Before coming to NYU, Evan was a teacher with Newark Public Schools.

Ethical College and Career Decisions

John Dewey, arguably America’s greatest 20th century philosopher and educator, stressed the importance of teaching habits of rigorous ethical inquiry in the classroom and in the larger society. He argued that students should learn to consider the impacts of their individual and collective social, economic, and political choices. Fortunately, many schools and youth programs encourage students to consider how their actions impact humans, animals (other than human), and the planet. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a meaningful SEL (social and emotional learning) program that doesn’t incorporate ethical decision-making.

Why, then, when it comes time to discuss college and career, do high schools typically encourage students to go to the “best” schools they can get into and to “follow [their] passions”? Why does most college counseling omit the ethical implications of choosing a particular school, and why do most career counselors minimize the potential impact on the well-being of humans and animals (other than human) of choosing one career over others?  

In many middle- and upper-income communities, the college application process is fiercely competitive. As Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president observed, “The race to get into elite colleges is a full-blown hysteria.” The recent college admissions scandal shed light on some parents’ willingness to engage in (and model) grossly unethical behavior to ensure their children were admitted to exclusive colleges, whether or not they qualified. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents, among them CEOs and celebrities, collectively paied more than $25 million to Rick Singer, a college coach and consultant who used some of the funds to bribe test proctors, coaches, and college officials.   

In March, Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project released “Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process.” The report calls on the adults in the process to promote “greater ethical engagement among high school students, level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students, and reduce excessive achievement pressure” and includes a joint statement signed by 140 public and private college admissions officers endorsing the report’s goals.

Although most parents don’t engage in bribery schemes to get their children into college, many compromise their own and their children’s integrity.  Some of the wealthiest families make large donations to colleges. Others co-write their children’s college essays or look away when hired tutors write the essays. “Tide II” encourages parents to use the admissions process as an opportunity to explore values rather than pressure their students to get into highly competitive colleges at any cost. When parents, consciously or not, view their children’s college acceptances as measures of their own status or success, their children may experience overwhelming stress, shame (especially if their interests or grades don’t coincide with their parents’ aspirations), or envy.

The report suggests that in addition to setting clear expectations for parents, high schools can promote healthier and more equitable college application practices. Counselors and teachers should create opportunities for sustained and meaningful community service that doesn’t require expensive travel. Many teenagers are unable to participate in community service outside the home because they have obligations to their families. They may need to contribute income or babysit for younger siblings. Counselors and teachers can reinforce the value of these contributions and encourage students to report them on their college applications.

SEL initiatives such as New York State’s new Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Framework envision “students who have a critical lens through which they challenge inequitable systems of access, power, and privilege.” Teachers can initiate discussions on the vast differences in access to resources in the admissions process and ask student what a more equitable system might look like. Finally, culturally competent counselors can help families navigate the complicated college and scholarship application process.

Career choices as well have ethical dimensions. Although many high school and college students want to “change the world” or “give back,” they rarely have the tools or data to determine how they can be most impactful. Effective altruism is a field of research that uses evidence and analysis to help people determine how to spend their time and money so as to do the most good. Good is loosely defined as the well-being of humans and animals (other than human) over time. 

Naturally, many students work on problems with which they’re already familiar. They know about the problems their friends and their communities face. Some gravitate to “helping professions” – medicine, social work, teaching, or animal rescue, for example – that directly impact lives. Others are drawn to high-profile nonprofit organizations. Few, however, take a more systematic approach to seeing how they can do the most good (and the least harm). Career seekers who aren’t committed to particular professions might be encouraged identify those causes to which their added efforts can make the biggest long-term difference at the margin. 

80,000 Hours is a nonprofit organization that helps students and recent graduates figure out how most impactfully to use their careers to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. 80,000 approximates the number of hours a person spends working over the course of a career. More than any other factor, the causes young people choose are most determinative of their lifetime career impact. Young people might want to look at lesser-known yet critical causes where there seem to be prospects for progress. 

Schools can encourage students to explore several career paths until they find a good fit. Talents and interests may change over time. Those aspiring altruists who aren’t able to work on causes that intrigue them right away – for logistical or financial reasons, for example – might want to acquire skills they can use later on.

Even students who haven’t explicitly committed to improving the world may choose not to embark on careers if their involvement could lead to an increase in human or animal (other than human) suffering. A graphic design major, for example, might avoid working with a company that promotes potentially unhealthy or unsustainable products. 

By the time they’re ready to make college and career choices, students in ethics-centered schools have had plenty of practice in choosing options that, as Zoe Weil of the Institute of Human Education articulates so succinctly, “do the most good and the least harm.” 

John Dewey asserted that individuals and organizations should revisit and, if necessary, revise their decisions from time to time in light of socio-economic developments and scientific advances. Counselors can help students plan when and how they’ll revisit their life choices.

Thoughtful, informed decision-making is critical to building ethical institutions and dismantling systems of oppression. Without it, the planet and its inhabitants are doomed.

Amy Halpern-Laff is an educator, organizer, and collaborator. In addition to her work with Ethics in Education Network, she is Director, Strategic Partnerships with Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. Amy co-hosts the Ethical Schools Podcast!

The school that Bushwick built: the story of EBC High School for Public Service


I’m Shirley Edwards, and I was Principal of the EBC High School for Public Service, Bushwick for ten of its formative years. 

Bushwick is an “inner city” community in Brooklyn, NY, and when I became principal – in 1993, the second year of the school – it was beset with all of the problems that typify poor, immigrant communities – especially those of color – in our major cities.  I was thrilled to have been appointed to a school which already stood out as an outgrowth of a community that had been organized to fight for institutions and programs that would satisfy some of their most fundamental needs. I felt that here I would truly have the freedom to make a difference. And I was not disappointed!


How it Came to Be

Since EBC High School grew out of a process that deeply involved the community it serves, it is important to understand a bit about the history that led to its founding and the balance of power that enabled it to develop in relative freedom from bureaucratic constraints.  

In New York in the 1960s and 70s, many politicians believed that some areas were hopeless, and could never be made to thrive. As a result, they implemented a policy called “planned shrinkage”, in which these regions were deprived of the funding and government regulation necessary to maintain public services, including schools, housing, and even fire fighting. In Brooklyn, that policy was applied to four neighborhoods in particular: Ocean-Hill Brownsville, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bushwick.  (These neighborhoods form a compact unit; one can travel from any one of them to any other without leaving the foursome for more than a few blocks.)

In Ocean-Hill Brownsville in the 1960s a few clergy collaborated in an effort to lead their community to improve its atrocious schools and do something about the lack of affordable housing. One of these was Father John Powis. Powis (whose church was near the boundary between Bushwick and both East New York and Bedford Stuyvesant), had tried to help others create a new community school board, with some temporary success, but soon came up against a brick wall put up by local politicians and the UFT (the teacher’s union). The latter launched a strike to prevent the new board from functioning – a strike that closed the schools city-wide for more than a month. In the end, the forces against community control prevailed, and the efforts to improve the schools had failed.

Father Powis realized that to have any hope of organizing their community effectively, they needed help from professional organizers. They approached several groups that offered such services, and settled on the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF.  IAF sent Mike Gecan, one of their top organizers, to begin to instruct them on how to proceed. Out of this came a group led by local clergy, which was given the name “East Brooklyn Churches”, or EBC. (Later a Jewish synagogue joined, and the group became “East Brooklyn Congregations”.)  

EBC formed as an affiliate of IAF and used their organizing techniques. A core tenet of the IAF/EBC philosophy is never to do for others what they could do for themselves.  So EBC organizers began to conduct interviews with rank-in-file community members. They wanted to find community people who had the passion and the ability to become local community organizers. And they wanted to know what the community felt to be the most egregious conditions in the community; things that cried out to be changed.  

Two issues stood out—the lack of affordable housing and the dysfunctional schools, which were passing students through to high school, only to have them fail the Regents exams and therefore not graduate.  They decided to work on both issues. 

Out of the housing efforts came whole blocks of homes that many local residents could afford to purchase; these came to be known as the Nehemiah Houses. New Nehemiah developments followed over the decades. 

The education issue proved a harder nut to crack. EBC spent considerable time trying to reform the existing high schools in Bushwick and East New York. When these efforts proved futile, they decided that what was needed was a pair of new public high schools, in Bushwick and East New York respectively, which would be operated as collaborative efforts between EBC and the NYC Board of Education. They wanted community input on all the key decisions about the character of the new schools, including a say in selecting a principal for each. 

A three-way struggle ensued, among EBC, the Board of Education, and the UFT.  A compromise was eventually reached, in which a new pair of schools would be launched, in East New York, occupying the first floor of a building of substantial size. They would be called EBC High School / East New York, and EBC High School / Bushwick. They would indeed be a collaboration between the EBC organization and the Board of Education. They would open in September 1992. 

And they did. The East New York school was on one side of the building and our Bushwick one occupied the other. (The gym was shared, which created a scheduling nightmare, but we managed.) 

That was our first school victory. It was made possible by the political clout that developed as our community became more and more organized. The powers that be – including those in the Board of Education, the union, and in elected office, took notice of EBC’s developing influence in the community, and took us seriously in proportion to that power. 


Where I Came In, and How EBC Continued to Help

In the second year of EBC High School, I was appointed as Project Director. (Having been a parishioner in one of the EBC churches, and having acquired a Master’s degree in School Administration, I was a known quantity to EBC with appropriate qualifications, and not too many applied for the ‘hapless’ task of shepherding a school in such a blighted community. So, I was selected.) 

Right from the beginning, the EBC organization and the churches that belonged to it were amazingly helpful to us. Forming a staff of dedicated and qualified people can be a daunting task. But in our case, many whom we hired had come to us, having heard about the new school through their churches. We were able to get many people perfectly suited to our distinctive needs.

Those needs stemmed from where students are were coming from – both figuratively and literally. The Bushwick community had one of the worst-functioning set of schools in the city, so most of our students came to us with 3rd- to 5th- grade skills in reading, writing and math. Moreover, most of our students were Latinx kids, for whom English was a second language, picked up on the streets more than at home. They were totally at sea when confronted with the academic language in which textbooks are written and exams given. Much of that transition should have been accomplished in their elementary and middle schools, but it wasn’t. Bushwick was in an educational “Dead Zone”, with devastating effects on the youth of the community.

So, we needed an exceptional group of teachers, and thanks to the spadework done by EBC, we were able to find them quickly. After looking at their resumes, I gave them initial interviews, looking for their reasons for wanting to join our staff, and trying to assess their love of kids, along with the “fiber” in their character. They needed staying power. Most of the time, I would also ask someone already hired – or two or three of them in a group – to interview the applicant and give me their impressions. If we all agreed that the person was a good prospect and would fit in well, he or she was hired. 

One consequence of their defective prior schooling is that our students had not been socialized to being students. They had not picked up the habits that are required for extensive learning. Attendance was spotty, and when they did come, many were there to socialize with their friends more than to focus in their classes. We had to deal with this head on.

The single most important way we tackled this problem is by instituting advisory classes which met daily. They were recognized as at least as important as any academic subject. Fortunately, I had had experience with advisories from long before, in a school where they had been called “Family Groups”.  They had been crucial in addressing attitude and other emotional problems back then and proved just as important at EBC. Nearly every teacher was given an advisory class. After the first year, we decided to select students for advisory by gender. It was felt that both boys and girls would feel freer to discuss sensitive issues – especially those involving sex and relationships – among classmates of their own gender. 

Advisories covered all of our students’ needs outside of the academic classrooms. Advisories took both field trips and college prep trips.

Above all, advisories were intended to form strong bonds among students, and between students and their advisory teacher. In this they succeeded admirably. Advisory students really did have one another’s backs and were deeply attached to their advisory teacher. 

Next to the advisories, three other “institutions” in our school were critically important. 

Our dean (who doubled as one of our two most qualified Spanish teachers) was critical to our success. She interviewed prospective students, letting them know most emphatically what was expected of them as students in this school, both academically and re. conduct, and asking them if they truly could shape up to the required level.  If the student seemed unsure about that, she would tell them that perhaps ours was not the school for them. Not all students who applied were accepted. We wanted those with a decent chance for success, which had to do much more with current attitude than with past performance. She also monitored students for dress code violations and decided on consequences for discipline violations of various kinds.

I hired a social worker, as a regular member of staff. When students felt truly overwhelmed by problems at home or elsewhere in their lives, they could visit him in his office, knowing that he would treat them sympathetically, let them ventilate where necessary, and give them helpful advice when possible. This was an essential component of our efforts to deal with the whole child, and it made a very great difference. 

For students with such chaotic educational backgrounds, it was essential to have someone on staff tasked with helping to keep students focused on moving forward academically. For this, we hired an exceptional guidance counselor. She made sure to let every student know what they needed to work on, talked to them about electives, and recommended the courses they should be scheduled for in the coming term.  All of this was done with an eye to maximize each student’s chance to be accepted by junior or 4-year colleges. 

In addition to all of this, I was especially anxious to find ways to expand our students’ mental horizons. As a single mom living in a relatively poor, “inner city” community myself, I knew the ghetto mentality that exists in the streets and tends to drag children’s behavior down to a base level. This reinforces all the stereotypes about children in such communities, so that many come to believe in themselves as ‘lesser”, without the capacity to succeed. I sought to counter this by giving them positive experiences beyond they few (e.g. sports) that the students thought within their grasp. Among these things were:

  • The first Latinx “Step” (dance) team (which won city-wide awards)
  • A chess club
  • A violin class
  • Visits to “Club Getaway”, where students engaged in fun activities from climbing trees to

Moreover, we did not make the mistake of concentrating solely and directly on “academics”. We recognized that our students would do much better if our “three-R” classes were interspersed with cultural ones, in which students could excel from the start, and which featured activities they already understood and loved.  So, we did not skimp on art and music classes, including spending our limited resources on equipment such as a kiln, photo darkroom equipment, and musical instruments. 

The result of this multi-layer approach was a high level of academic success. Over 90% of our students not only graduated from high school (in most cases the first in their family to do so), but got into college. Many of these succeeded in graduated from college and have stable, socially useful, and lucrative careers. Not a few chose to major in Education and have become public school teachers. At least three of these are now teaching in EBC/Bushwick itself. I am very proud of them all!

There was one more important “piece” to our educational effort. The official school title is “EBC High School for Public Service / Bushwick”. We took the “Public Service” aspect very seriously. It was a centerpiece of our moral compass. We believed that we all have a responsibility to help each other whenever help is needed. We taught this by scheduling regular public service outings, for everything from helping to keep our own street clean and tidy, to serving meals in churches to those in need, to helping out in elementary schools, with reading and other activities. 

We also taught a higher level of public service, fighting for what is right and just. The latter included a six-year struggle to have the Board of Education make good on their promise to give us a building of our own, and in Bushwick, instead of the one we shared with our sister school in East New York. This effort – helped materially by an organizer from EBC (the organization) – culminated one night when we packed a Board of Education meeting and demanded action. The case was made directly to the chancellor by two of our own students, and the result was a commitment on the record. Within about a year, we had our new (and still current) building. The thing that made this a true public service campaign, and not merely a self-serving effort for upgraded quarters, is that the senior class was fully involved. These students knew they would graduate before the building (which had to be rebuilt from the ground up) was habitable. They nonetheless participated with enthusiasm (despite grumbling from a few) because they wanted those that followed them to have the benefits of a true community school of their own. 


Replicating Success

EBC High School was the end product of a process that unfolded in a zig-zag path over more than two decades. The one common thread was an effort – first by a few, then many more – to improve conditions in some underserved and poorly served communities.  So, it is reasonable to ask: Is there anything useful that others can learn from this rather unusual sequence of events? Can other communities with dysfunctional schools either reform them or convince the powers that be to give them new schools which will educate their children effectively? 

I can only answer this in general terms – every community is different and has its own problems and opportunities. But here are a few thoughts:


Start with already-organized groups

In the end we benefited from a combination of unity (a product of the organizing) and the activities of some skilled and dogged leaders. Saul Alinsky, the founder of IAF, worked with churches (and sometimes unions) because they were the already-organized groups in the community – nearly every community – and they already were committed to doing good.  It was much easier for an existing body (or a coalition of them) to organize their community for a new purpose, than to try to create a brand new group. (In fact, a new organization might even be perceived as a threat by those already in existence.) 

To me that means that whoever wants community improvement should reach out to leaders of whatever positive institutions exist in their vicinity. Churches are an obvious possibility, but sympathetic politicians may be helpful as well. Plus, if you can find some “self-starters” in the community who share your passion for functional schools, they can be of inestimable help. Talk to your own neighbors, particularly those with children. You might invite them to a house meeting 


Have something to offer

Come up with a plan and do the research necessary to do make it plausible. If you can’t do this on their own, try to find someone sympathetic who can. People need to picture the plan in their mind’s eye. Once you have a possible pathway to success, you can paint them a picture in words, and fill it in. You don’t have to be eloquent. Cesar Chavez used simple language – nothing flowery at all – and he was one of the best organizers in American history. It was his detailed knowledge of the problems and how to address them, and his obvious sincerity and humility that convinced people to follow him.  


Keep plugging away – Don’t expect quick results

The leaders most responsible for getting us a high school were able to succeed because they were in it for the long haul. If you stay focused, try out new approaches, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that might not have been there before, new opportunities are likely to turn up at the most unexpected times in ways you could not have predicted. 

To me, these are the big three. But they are platitudes until you put them (or other ideas) into practice. Never give up! I wish you every success.

As founding principal of EBC High School for Public Service, Shirley Edwards created a ground-breaking multi-faceted program designed to foster academic excellence while instilling leadership qualities. Over 90% of the first graduating class, mostly the children of immigrants from Latin America, attended college. Several are now teachers themselves, a fact that gives Ms. Edwards particular satisfaction. A classroom teacher for two decades, Ms. Edwards was also chief architect of an adult education program for working people.

We also have a podcast episode with Shirley! We talked about EBC High School for Public Service and the creation of an intentional educational community of students, teachers, parents, and East Brooklyn Congregations. She came with a background as a teacher and a parent coordinator, and responded to parents’ desperation for a high school that would lead their children to success. Click here to listen to it.

Ethical Environments: Robotics

Throughout my two decades teaching,  ethics has been central to what I view as my dual role of educator and mentor. Ethics, from the Greek “ethos,” meaning “character,”  comprise the principles and priorities that govern people’s actions and their relationships with others. What follows is an account of an effort to create on a small scale an ethical learning environment based on  inclusivity and equity rather than individual competition and test scores.

My name is Carlo Vidrini. I teach high school robotics. An immigrant from Trieste, I arrived during the summer of 1997 and began teaching the following year. Since the New York State Education Department didn’t accept my European teaching credentials, I worked during the day to support my family and took classes at night. 2004 was a momentous year for me; I was honored with both American citizenship and New York State permanent teacher certification.  

Our town of Peekskill, 40 miles north of New York City, although economically deprived, is rich in culture and community spirit.  A majority of families are Hispanic immigrants, largely from Guatemala and Ecuador, and African-Americans; parents are committed to ensuring their children have opportunities they didn’t have.

We started our robotics program in 2013 as a middle school elective.  The following year, we added high school classes. The excitement was palpable; building robots was creative, challenging, and collaborative.  Knowing our community’s and our students’ needs, I saw an opportunity to expand from a cluster of classes into a vibrant, multi-dimensional program. The robotics community we created was unlike any the students had experienced, and increasing numbers of youngsters wanted to be part of it.

Today, we have two high school robotics teams, both of which participate in regional and state competitions. Victories in the FIRST Tech Challenges (FTC)  and Rube Goldberg competitions have resulted in invitations to National and World Challenges! The trophies have generated so much buzz around school that a new club has been created.

The PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) and SEPTO (Special Education Parent Teacher Organization) want to be part of it. Civic organizations, including the local NAACP and Rotary chapters, are eager to support the program. Most importantly, student enthusiasm and dedication are off-the-charts.


Drawing on the thought of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, I have always considered it my responsibility as an educator, not only to provide my students with information but also to help prepare them to be ethical, engaged citizens. But in a society that normalizes ruthless competition and conspicuous consumption, it has often been an uphill climb.

Let’s start with the infamous “No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).” The initiative’s best part, its title, was a gross misrepresentation of its effect. NCLB called for increased testing and standardization, leaving those students in need of individualized support and services further behind than ever. The focus on test prep exacerbated the learning gaps between children of privilege and other students. There was no room for independent thought or experimentation, learning for the joy of it. The structure of rewards and penalties resulted in unethical behaviors on the part of some schools and districts.

Critical Thinking

Despite federal pressure to standardize and test, in our robotics program, we have been able to create a positive learning environment, one which values the learning process — independent thinking, creativity, and risk-taking — over test results. All students have the opportunity to take STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) classes. They  develop habits of critical thought, experimentation, and investigation that guide their future endeavors. The program encourages trial and error learning; it recognizes that failure is a normal part of students’ experimentation and works to build upon it. This has only been possible because I have the support of school administrators and the local community.


Europe and the USA seem to have very different approaches to subject mastery. Europeans value general knowledge more whereas Americans are encouraged to specialize. Here’s an example from basketball: A Slovenian playmaker is also capable of playing guard and point guard positions. An American player, on the other hand, learns only one position. He may be superior to the European in that position, but may be less valuable to the team overall since his skills are so specialized. European training emphasizes the team whereas the American approach focuses on individual excellence.

I’ve long been a proponent of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy  of Needs theory, developed between 1943-1954. Recently, I came across an article in Psychology Today by Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge. “None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration…,” Dr. Rutledge observes. “Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections.” Based on my classroom experience, I believe she is correct. Healthy relationships with peers and mentors are key to academic and personal success; community is a basic need. Social connection is not a separate level of need, but rather an integral component of need fulfilment at every level.


The inclusive, collaborative experience of building robots is empowering to students who have little control over many areas of their lives. As well, it gives them a chance to apply their theoretical knowledge of math and physics to concrete, functional, and unique machines. The students keep engineering notebooks, detailed daily work logs, which memorialize what they have  accomplished over time and as a team. Their robots are their robots.

The enthusiasm for the program (students arrive at school at 8 am over summer vacation to work on their robots!), the pride in their work, and the respect they develop for their team members has been  extraordinary. I think it provides a model both for other STEM/STEAM activities and for the students as they move on to higher education and work environments.

Following a 25-year career in electronics, Carlo Vidrini has taught  robotics, pre-engineering, and drone technology in Northern Westchester, and has been a Mentor in the USFIRST FTC Robotics Competitions since 2009.

This video gives us the opportunity to see a little bit of Carlo’s work in building the robotics team now known as the “Iron Devils”.

Holistic College and Career Advisement

I have worked in college and career counseling at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem since 2001; during the past five years I have formalized the program and spent most of my time on it. In this article, I reflect on lessons learned and make recommendations to those either working in or developing college and career advisement programs so as to ensure the broadest college access and greatest post-secondary success for low-income students of color.

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol ( provides comprehensive, long-term holistic supportive services to youth ages eight to twenty-two.  Our college and career advisement aims to prepare members for post-secondary success. For some, it means entering the workforce or pursuing vocational training; for most, however, it entails  college readiness. We prepare students for college admissions and successful transitions by creating a college-focused culture.

Most Bro/Sis members are first-generation college-bound students who come from working class and/or low-income households. Too often, young people do not begin to think about college until senior year in high school. Many of our members attend overcrowded, underperforming schools and are ill-prepared to navigate the college process. To bridge this gap, we begin working with children at eight years of age through our after school elementary program. Through our Rites of Passage Program, members create chapters of The Brotherhood or Sister Sol in 6th or 7th grade and remain part of the chapter through high school; their two chapter leaders support college awareness and preparation throughout. Our After School Teen Enrichment Program serves teens 13-18 with art-based programming and curricula, including college awareness.  As soon as students enter Bro/Sis, they are exposed to a college-oriented culture. We post banners of the colleges and universities our alumni attend. On every floor, members have access to technology; there is wifi throughout the building, and there are computers on every floor.

Beginning in the sixth grade, members attend workshop series on college and career options. We encourage members to think about “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and “is college for me?” The series, which are a minimum of 4 weeks and have been as long as 11 weeks, include college tours to local CUNY and private colleges.

As the college and career adviser, I meet with seventh  and eighth graders at least once a year, and members are welcome to come talk with me as they wish. High school freshmen and sophomores meet with me at least twice a year, juniors at least four times, and seniors at least eight times, starting with a 2-week “bootcamp” prior to the start of the school year.

Until ninth grade, and even then, college doesn’t feel real to many students. We encourage ninth graders to focus on what it takes to get into colleges they might want to attend, and to map out preliminary plans.This avoids students looking seriously at their transcripts for the first time at the end of junior year, seeing low scores, and going to the equally unhelpful extremes of  “I won’t apply anywhere,” or “I’ll do really well in my senior year,” by which time, of course, it’s too late.

It is vital for me to make a long-term commitment to knowing each young person well in order to provide the most helpful advice. In their junior year, students complete a self-inventory, which I share with their chapter leaders. Members are sometimes reticent to tell me about their activities or unaware of the significance of their accomplishments. For example, one member kept telling me that there was little he could say about himself; by chance, I discovered that he had taught himself both piano and guitar. When necessary, I have in-depth conversations with  chapter leaders to learn more about members. Before coming to bootcamp, students often know only the names of colleges, sometimes because of sports teams or because these colleges recruit intensively at their high school. During and after bootcamp, the seniors research schools, and meet college reps and counselors. Students look up the academics, majors and variety of courses, resources available to students, extra-curricular activities, and, of course, how far it is, how long will it take to get home?

The application essay is, critically, the students’ opportunity to tell their stories. Getting started is frequently the most difficult part. During a summer workshop, one of the guest facilitators talks about the student’s opportunity to create a “literary masterpiece.” The transcript is one picture of the student; the essay is where students can share what is unique about them. During and after bootcamp, students read and discuss past essays, including some written by Bro/Sis alumni, and others shared by college admissions officers. We discuss and volunteer editors work with members on their own essays.

We run into lots of roadblocks in the college prep process; we’re not always successful.  Some students skip bootcamp. Some get frustrated or bored with SAT prep and don’t understand the importance of test scores to colleges that require them. One girl who had straight A’s and strong extra-curricular activities had a 1060 out of 1600 on the SAT. I encouraged her to take it again because her score would take her out of the running at several of the schools to which she was applying. She chose not to retake the exam.  It wasn’t until the spring that she realized the impact of that decision.

I help students to be realistic about where they are likely to be accepted while  encouraging them to strive to meet the requirements of schools they want to attend.  I explain to those students who are likely to be accepted only at community colleges that this can be a first step toward a four year college of their choice if they dedicate themselves to their coursework.

One of the most useful exercises is a junior year mock admissions committee. A chapter of 15 members will break into 3 groups of 5 or 5 groups of 3 to review a cross-range of simulated applications. They have to reach a consensus on admit, wait list, or deny. Each group gets the same candidates, but groups frequently reach different conclusions.

I spend a lot of time talking with students and families about finances. Often parents and students don’t focus on the cost of college as early as they should. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) now becomes available in October of the senior year. Although we hold workshops for seniors’ parents, one-on-one conversations are often more productive. However, financial aid forms are very time sensitive and time intensive. I explain the importance of the FAFSA because colleges operate on the principle that “the main financial responsibility is the parent’s.” I urge students to take advantage of scholarship opportunities. This conversation is a continuing one as it may raise issues in some households. It can be difficult for many parents to discuss questions of income, marriage legality, guardianship, and citizenship with their children.

I make sure parents and students know that if parents are undocumented and their child is a US citizen, the child is eligible for federal student aid.  Parents without social security numbers might have to indicate 000-00-0000 as their social security number. This information is confidential. Although undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, there are state and private scholarship funds earmarked for undocumented students. CUNY/SUNY provides in-state tuition rates for New York high school graduates, including those who are undocumented. That said, families need to start saving as early as possible.

We discuss issues of race, ethnicity and culture.  Many students want to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). They may not have thought about the advantages and disadvantages of going to predominantly white or racially mixed schools in terms of their personal goals. When they do visit largely white campuses, students may feel more or less comfortable than they expected and they respond in a variety of ways: “I can count the number of black people.” “I don’t want to be here.” “I’ll start a Black Student Union.”

We bring in alumni to talk about their experiences on majority white (and other) campuses. When we go on college visits, we connect with the Black Student Union and Latinx  student groups. On one college visit, we learned of a recent campus racial incident. Although some of our students were inclined to eliminate the school from their lists, I explained that how the college and its students had responded to the incident was as indicative  of the campus culture as the incident itself.

I coordinate with guidance counselors at our members’ high schools whenever possible. Most are very overburdened. Often, only the students with the highest GPAs interact in a meaningful way with the counselors. Students with low grades either don’t have as much access or don’t take the initiative  to meet with their counselors.

We collaborate with outside agencies to provide members with additional resources and opportunities. Some of the programs to which I introduce members such as “Let’s Get Ready” and “Next Level Learning,” assist with SAT Prep, while others, such as the Posse Foundation and Questbridge, provide members with opportunities to acquire full tuition scholarships.  Each year I nominate eligible members to each of these programs and support them throughout the selection process.If they are selected, I assist to remind students of details.

We recognize that getting into college is just the first step.  Our goal is not only to get members into college but to support them to ensure they graduate and are able to pursue careers of their choice.  For many of the members we serve, deciding on a career choice involves access. Can they see themselves doing a certain job? Do they know anyone in a related field?  In order to help our members see college as a possibility and their career choice as plausible, twice a year I coordinate organization-wide career days to expose members to a number of various professionals who look like them and/or share similar upbringings.  These professionals share their personal stories of triumph, successes and setbacks, giving members invaluable knowledge on what is possible. In addition, to remind students how their future is connected to the classrooms today, I attempt to show members a connect between higher education and income prospects.

To help alumni succeed in college, I have formalized how we continue to support members while they are on campus. Quarterly check-ins with alumni have been incorporated to Chapter Leaders’ calendars.  In addition to inquiring about how a member is acclimating to college and how his or her grades are this semester, I have developed a list of critical issues to address when contacting alumni such as: “Are you registered for next semester?” “Did you complete your financial aid application?”–a form that must be completed every year yet many forget. “Are there any financial gaps in aid this year?”

We want to ensure our alumni have productive summers, so in January we ask, “What are your summer plans?”   Throughout the year, I contact alumni about possible internship opportunities and gauge if there are workshops they could benefit from such as financial literacy and resume development.

I also engage our alumni to support current high school members.  Our annual college fair incorporates alumni participation. I invite alumni to represent their college to current members during their college breaks and to share their experiences during boot camp and through college transition workshops for our college-bound seniors.  

In sum, I believe that intensive and personalized college advising and continued support for first-generation college students are essential for enabling students to live up to their potential. The work can be frustrating and exhilarating, but it is incredibly important and rewarding.

Silvia A. Canales is a first- generation Afro-Latina of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage.  Silvia is College and Career Coordinator at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. She holds a Masters in Applied Psychology with a focus in Bilingual School-Counseling and Guidance from New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, Culture & Human Development.

All Students Deserve an Education in the Arts

How do we, as educators and active participants in society, ensure that all children, not just those parents have money for elite schools, receive music and art education? How did music and other arts become expendable subjects? How can we get decision-makers to see that that the arts are just as important as math, English, and science?

These questions have huge implications for our students’ lives and for the quality of our society. And, if progressive ethics require that we evaluate actions or policies by their consequences, these are ethically significant questions.

Many elementary and middle schools don’t even have music classes, let alone opportunities for students to play musical instruments. Many visual arts teachers are isolated in their schools, lacking a room and wheeling their materials from room to room.

In a society that focuses on a narrow definition of education for working-class children as the ability to pass literacy and math tests  and become ready for work, performing and visual arts are valued far less than math, English and science. This is fundamentally wrong on many levels.  All human beings need space to develop creativity and curiosity in order to live full lives, and also to become fully productive members of society. Music and other arts classes are places where students learn to be creative and curious.

These are, not incidentally, essential characteristics for any scientist or mathematician. Also, not incidentally, the arts are the basis for a lot of NYC’s economy. According to the Center for An Urban Future, creative fields are responsible for 300,000 jobs, 7% of the city’s workforce, and these fields are  growing faster than many of the city’s other traditional fields.

Music has been part of higher education since the creation of universities in the middle ages with The Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. Those of us who have had opportunities to study music know our lives have been greatly enriched as a consequence. We know also what a vital role music performances, in their many forms, play in creating and shaping the lives of our individual communities and our larger world. Every culture represented in New York City brings a wide variety  of classical, traditional, modern and pop music, including, among others,  music with roots in Europe, Latin America, India, and the Arabic speaking world. We have to opportunity to  expose our youth systematically to musical skills and awareness fundamental to creating and performing music as diverse as symphonies, opera, folk, jazz, pop, R&B, gospel, soul, merengue, bachata, salsa, plena, hip-hop, reggae, and country, to name just a few.

When we minimize music education in our public school curriculum, we effectively privatize it. Those children whose parents can afford private lessons after school, or those who attend schools where wealthy PTAs bring in music teachers and pay for instruments, learn to read and play music whereas their less wealthy classmates miss out.

For generations, low-income youth have found ways to learn and practice music outside of school, especially to become singers or to use inexpensive or makeshift instruments. But they are often excluded from learning to read music, to learn music theory, or to participate in an orchestra. Their exposure to musical genres can be sharply limited.

I have taught music for over twenty years in a New York City high school for new immigrants. For many of these students, my class is their first exposure to classical music. Unlike schools in the Latin American towns from which my students and I emigrated, the New York City school system has access to musical instruments, good music books, state-of-the-art music theory software, and excellent concerts that students can attend free of charge. The problem isn’t the infrastructure, resources, books, or allocation of time; it’s values. The school system treats art and music as nice-to-have extras rather than as essential components of a well-rounded education.

Too often, educators in the arts–in my case, music–have to confront a lack of recognition of the importance of the arts as an integral part of any human education.  Sometimes, administrators use art classes as a dumping ground. Although they may be careful of how they refer to the music class in words, in practice, there is often a double standard. “Cuts in the arts” may be given as  a reason why more can’t be more done, but too often, they don’t make an effort to have a good art program.  Music class may be used as a means to solve problems such as overcrowded lunch periods or oversize classes in other subjects. Adding insult to injury, an administrator may tell a student who has been arbitrarily placed in the class that the subject is not actually important, making the teacher’s  job of helping the student to see its value that much more difficult.

There is a very different way for New York City as a whole to approach the arts which will achieve very different personal and societal outcomes. Music (and other arts) could be taught in a coherent program from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Imagine if all students learned to read music, to understand music theory and composition, to play an instrument and to play in an ensemble. Imagine if all students had the opportunity to develop the discipline to practice and to listen carefully every day.

Imagine if students had the option to experience 30 minutes a week of one-on-one tutoring, such as the Washington Heights Community Conservatory of Fine Arts (WHCCFA) currently offers in an elementary school and a high school. This may sound like an incredible luxury, but many middle- and upper-class parents take it for granted. The WHCCFA program is funded by city funds through the CASA program. It is simply an example of how funding streams can be meshed to enrich students’ lives when the will is there.

Of course, in the current reality, these seem like fantasies. But looking forward to what we hope will be a more democratic society in the not-too-distant future, who says we have to limit our definition of academic achievement to the reading and math tests that drive the system at every level? Who says we can’t redefine K-12 public school education to include art appreciation and performance as fundamental subjects?

Adán Vásquezeducator, acclaimed classical musician, and community activist, coordinates the Music Department at Gregorio Luperón High School for Math and Science, a school for newly-arrived immigrants. In 2011 established the Washington Heights Community Conservatory, which provides free classical music training to the neighborhood’s children. Born in Santo Domingo, Vásquez was educated at the University of Chile, Brooklyn College and Manhattan School of Music.

The Devastating Impacts of Homelessness on Learning

In 2015-2016, one in every 10 children was homeless, up six percent from the year before. That’s more than 111,500 New York City schoolchildren and, as The New York Times pointed out, “enough to populate a small city.” The Coalition for the Homeless (2017) reports that, with NYC in the worst crisis of homelessness since the Great Depression, 38% of the 62,000 people living in shelters are children.

As a school principal in Upper Manhattan for seventeen years until 2006, and subsequently as a Response to Intervention (RTI) specialist, I have witnessed the devastating effects of homelessness on students. Our Washington Heights/Inwood community consists primarily of Latino families, most of whom are new immigrants and/or second language learners. The majority of the parents work long hours with many holding two or three jobs, working seven days a week just to make ends meet. In an age of rising rents, stagnant wages and no safety net, a domestic crisis of the sort many families experience at one time or another — illness, job loss, death, domestic violence or eviction — often results in homelessness.

Homelessness is not inevitable; rather, it results from interconnected public policies on jobs and income, housing and rent, policing and the courts, urban planning, elections and education funding. How do we as a society tolerate the systems that allow children to become homeless? What are our ethical obligations, as a community and as individuals, to these children? (read the rest here)

Over the past decade, there has been a 79 % increase in the demand for shelter in NYC. (CftH, 2017).  A family that finds itself homeless might take refuge in a shelter, hotel, or cluster site apartment.  Unsurprisingly, these alternative living arrangements and their attendant disruptions often cause or exacerbate social and academic regression.

Families living in shelters experience myriad challenges including  difficulty getting their students to and from school on time due to complicated transportation arrangements, and required attendance at  Human Resources training, inspections, and various other appointments. Consequently, children with shelter in place often miss school.

More often than not, families unable to find shelter space create a multi-family household with one or more related or unrelated families by “doubling up.”  In Upper Manhattan, “doubling up” is the most common temporary living arrangement for families in crisis. Several families may live in a three-bedroom apartment with each family living in a single bedroom. In most cases, the families were unknown to one another prior to sharing an apartment.  With no personal or work space, school supplies often disappear resulting in students who  have a hard time sharing or giving up their desks even temporarily for class projects at school.
Some suddenly homeless families are forced to split up temporarily, the children living with grandparents (often elderly), other relatives or even neighbors while their parents struggle to find work or permanent housing. Siblings are often separated, sometimes living with relatives or other individuals the child  hardly knows.

When families are placed in shelters outside their home communities or a when children are sent to live with relatives in different boroughs, children may have to change schools. If and when the families return to their communities, children transfer back. Some children go back and forth between schools more than once in a school year.

Finally, as a last resort, parents may reluctantly send one of their children, usually the eldest, back to their homeland in order to focus more energy on the others. I have seen this happen many times, and it frequently leaves the remaining siblings and their parents emotionally scarred.
In the face of a growing homeless crisis, what used to be a short-term, provisional arrangement has now become a much longer, but still inadequate, solution. When I began as principal in 1987, children remained in a shelter on average from six months to a year. Now, two years or more is the norm. Families are often moved from one shelter to another, and the moves are never synchronized with the school year. While teachers struggle to support the children’s academic and emotional development, their emotional stress and learning gaps are increasingly serious.

Children living in these temporary housing arrangements share common symptoms:

  • Anxiety, restlessness, fear, sadness, anger, depression, PTSD;
  • Exhaustion;
  • Behavior problems;
  • Poor academic performance due to trouble focusing;
  • Incomplete homework assignments (the lights were turned off in the shelter, or there was no work space in the bedroom of a multi-family apartment);
  • Missing books (due to frequent moves);
  • Fear for their safety in the shelter or apartment shared with strangers;
  • Difficulty socializing with peers and resulting loneliness;
  • Inadequate nutrition, and lack of appropriate clothing and medical care.

Schools lack sufficient funding  to provide the critically academic and emotional support these students need. School counselors spend the bulk of their time on mandated Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and have little or no time to counsel homeless children.
Likewise, despite being proven to be an effective intervention for children with interrupted educational services and stress-related learning difficulties, intervention programs in literacy and math are severely underfunded.

Finally, health and wellness programs, designed to support the social and emotional health of homeless students, and attendance improvement programs, which help families overcome obstacles to regular attendance, also lack adequate funding.

Funding for services to homeless children is limited to the allocations under “Fair Student Funding” and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program of Title 1. The ironically-named “Fair Student Funding” has been systematically underfunded by New York State through its failure to live up to the Contracts for Excellence mandated as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. McKinney-Vento has been systematically underfunded by the Federal Government. As a result, resources for services to homeless children are tremendously insufficient. While schools are mandated to include homeless students in all programs available to the general student population, the additional support they need to be successful is largely absent.

Providing additional resources would strengthen the ability of parent coordinators and family assistants to help families with housing applications and information on available units, legal services, subsidies etc., as well as to collaborate more effectively with non-profits providing family support. Additional funding would enable more schools to provide rent-free space for non-profits in the evenings for job or other skills trainings.

The housing crisis promises to get worse in the coming months and years. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, 4,420 affordable housing units could be lost from 2017- 2022 in Upper Manhattan. Such a loss of housing would result in a massive increase in the number of students having to be placed in temporary housing.

Funding to enable schools to help ameliorate the impact of homelessness on children—itself a distant dream at the moment—would not solve the problem of homelessness; only a full-scale re-ordering of our national, state and local priorities can do that. In one of the richest countries on earth, the question is whether we as a society see it as an ethical imperative that every child has a permanent home.


Blanca Battino has been an educator for the NYC Department of education for 47 years as a teacher, staff developer, District supervisor, Assistant Principal, Principal and Reponse to Intervention Specialist. She has particular expertise in forging community partnerships to provide resources and services to poor communities. She continues to be actively involved in the schools and community of Upper Manhattan. Ms. Battino earned an MA in Administration and Supervision from CUNY, an MA in Bilingual education from NYU, and a BA in Elementary Education from Hunter College.

Ethical Dining at School

Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself. – John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) was arguably the most consequential educational thinker of the twentieth century. According to Dewey, education should consist of meaningful activity in learning and participation in classroom democracy. Curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives as well as prepare them to contribute effectively to democratic society later on.

Dewey stressed the importance of imparting habits of ethical inquiry, encouraging students to discover solutions that create the best outcomes for the most people under a given set of circumstances. He argued that students should learn to consider the impacts each option is likely to have on different socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Schools should be diverse and inclusive so as to facilitate communication and understanding among youth of different backgrounds. Ethical inquiry is ongoing, in the classroom and in larger society; conduct is always subject to revision in light of social and scientific developments.

Whether or not educators treat them as such, school meals are daily exercises in experiential learning, opportunities for ethical inquiry and deliberation. Unfortunately, students are rarely given enough information about the impacts of competing food options to make informed choices.

How do students decide what to eat for lunch or, more broadly, how to live their lives? Dewey identified three categories of human conduct: instinct, habit, and reflective action. They differ from one another mainly in the degree to which thought plays a role. Children are born with instincts, the ability to perform sometimes complex movements without a basis in learning or prior experience. An infant contemplates neither the means (sucking) nor the end (milk) of her actions. Over time, her actions become more intentional. She deliberately grabs a toy or pets a dog. As she becomes more observant and reflective, she begins to adopt behavior she is taught as well as those she observes in the people around her.

Over time, these behaviors solidify into habits. She develops tastes for certain foods at certain times — cereal in the morning and a sandwich at lunchtime, for example. Cow’s milk (“milk”) on cereal, for example, or pig’s flesh (“ham”) between two pieces of bread. The child doesn’t think about the implications of choosing these foods over others. She simply chooses what appeals to her taste buds from the options she is offered. Typically, these foods were popularized in a different era and under vastly different circumstances.

Every society devises means to satisfy people’s basic needs at a particular point in time. These customs, the shared habits of a group, are passed down to one generation after another through socialization. People continue to follow them long after the circumstances that gave birth to them have changed.

This is especially true of eating habits. Fifty or sixty years ago, there may have been rationale for people to consume animals’ bodies or their secretions. At that time, animals were raised mostly on family farms; it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that the first giant animal factories appeared. The involvement of greenhouse gases in climate change was largely unknown.

But two generations later, we know eating animals, especially the 99% of animals used for food that are produced in factory farms, is unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable, and socially irresponsible. As well, we now know with certainty that animals have sentience. They feel pain, fear, loneliness, and depression.

So how can we change these self-perpetuating habits? How can we urge people to make more deliberate and democratic choices?

Dewey theorized that while adults’ habits were already entrenched and there was little chance of changing them, children could be taught to reflect critically on the consequences of each possible action. And although Dewey focused on the consequences to humans, he emphasized the need for flexibility in light of scientific discoveries and social changes.

Scientific and social developments subsequent to Dewey’s lifetime have changed the ethical landscape entirely. First, there is consensus that the earth’s climate is warming and that human activities, including animal agriculture, are primary drivers of climate change. We know environmental toxins have devastating impacts on human health. And farms have become vast factories where sentient animals are treated as mere pieces of machinery.

Students should be encouraged to consider the effects of their choices not only on humans but also on the environment and animals-other-than-humans.


The people most directly impacted by industrial agriculture are workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouse employees endure some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country. Amputations of fingers, hands, and arms are common and the furious pace of the work causes repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. Despite these dangerous working conditions, most workers don’t have health insurance or the protection of a union. Often companies recruit people who are undocumented because they won’t be able to speak out against these conditions.

In addition to being physically dangerous, slaughterhouse work is psychologically traumatic. Workers are forced to kill animals who have done them no harm over and over again. Many workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from causing so much suffering and death. These employees don’t have access to basic health care, let alone mental health care, so often they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Rates of addiction and domestic violence are significantly higher than in other industries.

Neighboring communities, which are overwhelmingly Black and/or poor, have to contend year-round with the stench of animal feces and urine. The waste is collected in vast open-air pits known as lagoons. Runoff from the lagoons makes its way into rivers and streams, drastically raising nitrate levels, which are linked to autoimmune diseases and birth defects. The lagoons are periodically pumped out and the waste sprayed as fertilizer onto fields surrounding the factory farms, forcing local residents to stay inside and keep their windows shut. People living in the vicinity of these factories experience significantly higher rates of asthmas, high blood pressure, eye irritation, and depression than those in surrounding areas.

The Planet

Farmed animals are a major source of climate change. They emit more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. Animals, especially cows, directly emit greenhouse gasses. Cows burp methane, which is 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, and their poop emits nitrous oxide, which is up to 300 times worse. So we dramatically reduce our carbon footprint by reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat and dairy products.

Eating animals is extremely wasteful of limited natural resources. For every 100 calories of corn and soy we feed a farmed animal, we get 40 calories of milk, 12 calories of chicken, or 3 calories of beef. And all this corn and soy requires tremendous amounts of land and water. Eating more efficiently is critical. World population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.5 billion in 2017, and is projected to be 9.1 billion people by 2050. Unless we change course, there simply won’t be enough food for everyone.


Today, in the US alone, nine billion land animals are bred in factory farms each year. They live in deplorable conditions and die in horrific ways. Breeding sows spend their lives in crates so small they can’t turn around, let alone nestle their babies. Dairy cows are inseminated year after year, their calves taken from them within days of their birth. The dairy cows cry inconsolably, typically for days, and the calves search in vain for their mothers. When they no longer produce enough milk to be valuable, they’re slaughtered. And according to government estimates, over 10,000 broiler (meat) chickens are boiled alive every single day. So anytime we eat chicken, we have no way of knowing whether that chicken was one of the millions boiled alive every year.

Dewey contended that the primary purpose of education is to build students’ capacity to conduct intelligent moral inquiry. He argued that schools should be reconstructed so as to promote “experimental intelligence” and “wider sympathies.” The food choices that schools and students make every day are too important to be left out of the ethical decision-making rubric.

As ethical institutions, schools should ensure that the foods they procure or prepare have minimal impact on the planet, humans, and animals-other-than-humans. Students can participate in planning lunch menus, putting habits of moral inquiry into practice.

As well, the impacts of individual and, more importantly, institutional food choices are integral to any serious study of the environment, climate change, human rights, workers’ rights, and rights of animals-other-than-humans. An ethical education prepares students to participate in democratic society. It is through their ethically-based activism and advocacy that society has the possibility of becoming more open-minded, compassionate, and just to all earthlings and to the earth itself.



Amy Halpern-Laff was a Deweyan before she knew about Dewey. A lawyer by training, she is Director, New York Region and Director, Strategic Partnerships, Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, a national nonprofit committed to educating people on the impacts of their food choices. FFAC provides free presentations for students, educators, and activists. Contact Amy at

Toward an Ethical Disciplinary Process for Teachers

I have told this story of my “disappearance” too many times and yet not often enough in forums that might lead to change. The NYC Department of Education (DOE) disciplinary process for teachers in its current form is deeply unethical, with damaging effects on teachers, students, and schools. Unfortunately, my own experience is by no means unique. Over the last year, several teachers have told me their own similar stories.

On Friday, March 11, 2016, the principal of Central Park East 1, where I had taught for almost nine years, handed me a letter telling me I was reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation and directing me to report to a “reassignment center” on Monday.  I refer to this as my “disappearance”: from one day to the next I was made to disappear from my classroom and school communities, with no explanation to anyone and no process for saying good-bye. There was no consideration of the impact of this sudden change on the children in my care, the families of those children, or the school as a whole.

This principal had been recently appointed to CPE 1, after a period of interim acting status.  She quickly began to make known her disdain for the school, for long-standing practices and pedagogies, and for veteran staff members, as well as for families and children.  Soon after my disappearance, the SaveCPE1 movement was born, as more and more families felt the impact of her egregious treatment. Eleven months later, Marilyn Martinez, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter chair, was “disappeared” also.

After a day in the reassignment center, I was sent to work in a special education office.  I was in the “rubber room,” though at least I was doing useful work and not staring at the walls.  During my first few weeks, I expected that at any moment someone would arrive and tell me that they had cleared everything up: A terrible mistake had been made and I could return to my classroom, my school, my kids.

After a month, I met with the DOE investigator.  I expected him to tell me that he had the story of what I was accused of and saw clearly that the accusation against me was a mistake.

I was primarily accused of corporal punishment, and I knew the incident that was being misconstrued.  After a 3rd grade student pushed a classmate out of the way to get to her cubby, I knelt next to her as she sat.  As I spoke to her, I playacted reaching past her, modeling that she did not have to push her classmates out of the way to get to her things.  I followed this with a conversation to draw out other strategies for getting to her cubby without the possibility of hurting others:  “I could say ‘excuse me,'” she said.  She went off to her work and I to mine.  I felt pretty good about the interaction in that I heard her step back and reflect on her actions.

To figure out how this was misinterpreted as both corporal and punishment by a paraprofessional who witnessed it, I tried to take her perspective: She saw my back, she saw this student lean forward and back as I reached past her: Maybe my co-worker thought I hit the child? She had never spoken to me about the incident and never did subsequently, so I have no idea of what she thought.
The investigator told me that his investigation substantiated the allegation of corporal punishment: he said he had witness statements saying that I lay down on top of the child, pressed my body down on her, and then pushed her down, saying, “You don’t like that, do you?  Then why are you doing this to others?”

He presented me with three witness statements and told me, “This could be all my evidence, or half my evidence or ten percent.  I don’t have to tell you that,” in a benign voice laden with threat.  (It later emerged that the witness statements were all from the same paraprofessional—just written down three times). He said I could submit to a full interview, which I felt prepared to do.  However, the UFT rep accompanying me told me to rely on my “Cadet rights,” a precedent that allows a tenured teacher the right to decline to be interviewed. I was scared, so I did not speak to the investigator, though with misgivings. I knew I had done nothing wrong.  The union rep had not even asked about the allegation except to say: “Do you know what this is about?”

Over the first three months of reassignment, I was in touch with the UFT, though I had little humane response from them.  No one seemed to be willing or able to help me understand what might happen to me.  I heard again and again: “You are getting paid, right? Benefits and pension intact? Don’t complain. There’s nothing you can do.” From one union staffer, I heard that I should not have done what I did, that I should have let the child calm down before I spoke to her. She showed no interest in the fact that that, I had actually done that.

The charges leveled against me were delivered on one of the last days of the school year.  They were based on three disciplinary letters from the principal that had followed a collective faculty action directed to her. On January 31, mine was the first signature on a letter signed by almost all tenured members, with some untenured members participating in the composition, urging the principal to work together more closely with staff at the school, and to consult us on important decisions regarding curriculum and instruction.

My first disciplinary letter to file came 8 days later.  Within a week after the first letter, I was notified of a second letter. Within 20 days of receiving the second disciplinary letter, I was removed from the school.

The letters, and the charges, alleged:

1. Late submission of winter narrative reports, constituting “insubordination”;
2. taking a video of an upset child in violation of his FERPA rights, and using my cell phone during instructional time to take the video in violation of a Chancellor’s regulation and school policy;
3. corporal punishment, in agreement with the investigator’s findings that I lay down on a child to punish her.

With the charges finally rendered, I was allowed counsel from the UFT.  However, I soon learned that the UFT has agreed to a system that thoroughly undermines accused teachers.  During my first conversation with my UFT lawyer in July 2016, he told me that he would probably not be my lawyer come September. The UFT lawyers get shuffled to different cases while my case would stay with the assigned arbitrator. This was very disturbing and made me think more deeply about hiring a private lawyer.

I was very privileged to be helped throughout my ordeal by a wonderful support system. Parents from CPE 1 showed me their care in many different ways, including raising money to pay legal costs. My immediate and extended families were amazingly supportive, though the impact on them was severe: my son was deeply saddened to leave CPE 1 after finishing 2nd grade because my wife, Margaret Blachly, and I felt we could not allow him to attend a school in which our safety felt threatened, and into which, as a reassigned teacher, I was not allowed to enter. My professional network provided further contacts, lessons from investigations past, and more.

My search for a private lawyer was facilitated by suggestions from friends, family members and colleagues. I spoke with several before making my selection, Jordan Harlow of Glass Krakower LLP.

I also was blessed to receive an assignment in a Special Ed office that was very different from the portrayals of “rubber rooms” I have seen in the media. While I suffered the disempowerment and injustice of exile, the conditions were demeaning but not inhumane, unlike those of many other reassigned teachers who are not so lucky

More than 14 months after my disappearance, and three months after Marilyn’s, we were both completely cleared of all charges. The mother of the 3rd grade student testified on my behalf, and it was shown that I had the parent’s permission to videotape the upset child, a common practice in the school. The principal was reassigned away from CPE1 and the school began a healing process.

What is the systemic framework of this story? What does it have to do with ethics in education? I believe that the DOE does not treat teachers who are subject to complaints ethically, which is an important issue in itself. Beyond that, there are multiple effects on children. Throughout my time in exile, I thought of the suffering of the children in my 2nd-3rd grade class.  They lost their teacher from one day to the next and were only told in deeply coded language that my absence was due to a “personnel matter.” This process interrupts the educational care and emotional well-being of children. I think of children who eight months into their school year had their teacher disappeared from them. I think of children with special needs with a history of trauma for whom the disappearance of a care taker is a recurrence of their trauma. How does the system consider this human toll?

Furthermore, to expect teachers to encourage students to think ethically while they themselves are subject to unethical treatment is inconsistent and likely unrealistic.

As is too common in this time of “reform,” a principal arrived at our school to “fix” it. In the case of CPE 1, there was broad agreement among staff and parents that there were issues that needed to be worked out, but that these could be focused on within school’s historic progressive teacher-driven culture. Instead, the principal opted for use/abuse of bureaucratic power. The tactics she used are allowed and even encouraged by the DOE.  She interpreted rules and regulations narrowly to punish teachers in order to coerce the staff to adopt her change agenda, though it was not a fit for the school.

For example, she cited me for insubordination based on my late submission of narrative reports.  According to this interpretation, I must have done it on purpose.  In fact, I was an overworked teacher squeezing in writing times between night classes and caring for a sick child.  The principal opened investigations of other teachers to intimidate and bully them.  While I was removed, several colleagues left the school voluntarily, unwilling to risk their careers for accusations of verbal abuse.

The principal’s actions did not take place in a vacuum. The DOE’s Assistive Trials Unit (ATU) counsels principals on how to get rid of “troublesome” teachers.  These teachers may actually be lacking as teachers or they may simply be resistant to a principal’s agenda. The ATU helps principals get rid of teachers no matter the reason, using accusations of verbal abuse and corporal punishment, for which the language in the Chancellor’s Regulations is very broad. These allegations are reported to the Office of Special Investigations, whose work is shoddy by reputation and by experience. If the principal does her or his work well, then the allegations are investigated and substantiated and the teacher is removed.

A principal friend told me in confidence that she had visits from the ATU, and that they asked her: “Do you have any teachers you want to move along? We can help you do it. “ The Department of Education’s website states:   “The Administrative Trials Unit is responsible for the prosecution of disciplinary cases. ATU is available for trainings and advice on how to discipline a tenured employee…”

Where is the room for humane dialogue between the administrator and the teacher, beyond the power dynamics? The Chancellor’s regulations make it clear that anyone may accuse a teacher of corporal punishment, but where is the teacher’s avenue of protection before the slow churn of 14 months of exile?

In my case, I was struck that there was no forum for me to tell my story except to the investigator –and I was advised not to. Why not?  I was told, “The investigator takes your story, twists it and makes you sound guilty. It is a set up.”  This was shocking to me as it cut off my only immediate way to refute the allegations, to correct the misconstruction. I would not have another chance until almost a year later.

What would a system look like that is more humane and ethical? How could I have had the chance to tell my story in a low-stakes way that could rectify a misconstruction, save children the sudden loss of their teacher, and undoubtedly preserve public resources, as well as sparing me a 14-month ordeal? I recognize that there is a wide range of circumstances, ranging from a principal using judicial charges for administrative purposes to cases of genuine malfeasance. But whatever the technical details, we need a shift toward a restorative justice approach wherever possible. Just as schools are offering restorative justice structures for students to correct the long-standing patterns of over-punishment, so accused teachers could enter a restorative process to maintain the fabric of their community to the greatest extent possible, until the community decides otherwise.

Restorative Justice is not a cure-all for handling allegations about teachers, but it is a move towards ethical rendering of justice and supporting community. RJ does not automatically answer the questions of how to deal with bad, mean or rotten teachers. An educational system still needs ethical systems of evaluation to ensure its professionals are keeping their promise to take educational care of students. There must be an investigative process that people can trust.

And a better system than the current one is possible, and it will be up to us as educators to fight for it and to create it.

Catlin Preston: A graduate of The Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, Catlin has worked in progressive charter and district schools in NY and NJ for 15 years. He currently teaches 4th and 5th grades at The Neighborhood School on the Lower East Side.

It’s Not Personal: Moving from Individual Racial Incidents to Organizational Racial Conflict

Racism in higher education is often conceptualized as a student or individualized problem. If institutions of higher education are serious about making progress in this arena, however, they need to view racial conflict not as a personal problem but as an organizational issue, where all stakeholders are accountable for the racial incidents that occur on our campuses.

Some of the most enlightening discussions I have had about racial conflict on college campuses have been with parents. Parents are an important piece of the higher education puzzle, and a piece that researchers and administrators often have difficulty figuring how to include in the conversation. Yet, alongside students, parents are often some of the strongest advocates for institutional change on campuses.

The following is inspired by a conversation I had with a parent of two Black college students who worried about racism his children face on their respective campuses.

I was on my way to give a talk about my research on racial conflict. The cab driver who drove me to my talk was curious about why I was going to the college he was driving me to. When I told him that I studied racial incidents on campuses, he asked me to tell him more about my work. I explained that I studied perceptions of racial incidents and had interviewed 35 people on two different types of campuses (i.e. a minority-serving institution [MSI] and a historically white institution [HWI]). I had interviewed students, faculty members, and administrators about their perceptions of racial incidents. I explained that getting these interviews took over two years because many people were hesitant to speak to an outsider about racial incidents that had occurred at their schools. I acknowledged the courage displayed by those who did speak and the cab driver asked, “How did you get them to talk about it?”

So I described the process. I told him that first, I was honest about who I was – a university administrator who had worked with students for over a decade and with administrators who felt that they needed more training on how to address racial incidents. My intention was to figure out how people on campus felt about racist incidents and based on that, how to provide more support for the higher education community when these incidents occurred. That seemed to help people be at ease with my work and me. Interestingly, many of the participants felt duty-bound to share what they had learned over the years about responding to racist incidents, especially because much of what was learned was often entered into a campus racial climate report that was shelved and ignored.

I then told the cab driver what I heard. I told him about the students who felt betrayed by the schools they had worked hard to embrace. I told him about the administrators who had intended to be supportive of students. I told him about the professors who had tried to provide students with vocabulary and context for what they were experiencing by explaining key points about how racism operates on campuses. The following captures some of the points I heard in my study:

  1. Students, administrators and faculty had different understandings of campus racial conflict.
  2. In particular, administrators and students have vastly different ways of looking at racial incidents on their campuses: administrators tend to rank incidents by degrees of intensity while students focus on frequency.
  3. Since there is a gap in understanding between what administrators perceive and what students experience, there is a lack of trust between these two groups that contributes to inconsistent information about racial conflict that is spread across campus, the public, and sometimes, media.
  4. As administrators, we construct strategies based on what we think has worked in the past rather than what students are telling us about what works or doesn’t work for them.

The cab driver was silent as I spoke about my work. When I finished, he sighed. Then he said, “I am scared. I am the father of two Black boys; both of them are in college. And they tell me stories about the kind of racism they see. But as a parent, I don’t get that information anywhere. It’s not written anywhere, I can’t find it anywhere. And I don’t know how to help them except to tell them to stay strong.” He went on to explain that he was surprised at how much information the campuses gave him about sexual misconduct but when another parent asked about racism, he felt the parent was dismissed and told that it doesn’t happen very often. The cab driver said that his children tell another story and as a parent he feels helpless.

Hearing this parent articulate his fears made my heart sink. These were eerily similar to words my parents uttered when they dropped me off on my first day of college over 20 years ago. The cab driver’s concerns also make me wonder if higher education is at all interested in the consequences of our educational decisions and how these decisions and other policies in higher education contribute to our schools and campuses persisting as sites of Black and Brown suffering rather than liberatory organizations. Today, in the diversity era of higher education, it is imperative to begin asking ourselves if the initiatives we have implemented in the name of diversity are working to support students as they navigate racial conflict on their campuses.

What could help explain such similar sentiments from two different sets of parents twenty years apart? One perspective suggests that historically, educational institutions have been oppressive environments for students who do not identify as white. More recently, schools have been identified as sites of Black and Brown suffering. Researchers have found that Black and Brown students suffer various forms of racism, conceptualized more recently as micro-aggressions, racially motivated hate crimes, and racially motivated bias incidents on college campuses.

Although this parent did not describe the types of racism his children are experiencing in college, my research could provide some idea about what they could be confronting. Many of the studies focused on racial incidents often describe them as micro-aggressions, racially motivated hate crimes, or racially motivated bias incidents, I noticed that these terms often focused on the individuals. However, what if we studied racial incidents as an organizational problem? Doing so would force us to look at racial incidents as more than just an individual and psychological issue – in other words, just a student problem.

Viewing racial incidents from an organizational conflict perspective would provide us with the tools to explore the consequences of educational decisions that contribute to pervasiveness of racial incidents. From an ethical perspective, understanding these consequences is imperative as it offers stakeholders in higher education the opportunity to hold each other accountable for racial incidents as they occur.

With this in mind, I used organizational conflict theory to help me understand and organize the types of racial incidents I heard about. What is organizational conflict? It is “[t]he clash that occurs when the goal-directed behavior of one group blocks or thwarts the goals of another.” (Jones, 2013, p. 413). It also “…arises whenever individuals or groups perceive differences in their preferences involving decision outcomes, and they use power to try to promote their preferences involving decision outcomes, and they use power to try to promote their preferences over others’ preferences’” (Tolbert & Hall, 2009, p. 79).

Here is what I found:

Type of ConflictDefinitionExample
Conflict within individualThe behavior expected of the individual within the college community does not conform with the values and beliefs held by the individual.

Students feel the need to physically “shrink” to make others feel comfortable.

Student leaders expected to side with the institution rather than their group during times of racial conflict.

Students expected to stay quiet after a professor or administrator makes inappropriate racist comment.

Interpersonal ConflictInterpersonal conflict occurs between two or more individuals. It is the most common and most recognized form of conflict. This conflict is exacerbated when campus resources cannot be shared.

Being called a racial slur by peers while walking through campus.

Racist jokes and comments that are covered up by peers with excuses for racist behavior.

Conflict between the individual and the groupAll institutions of higher education have established certain behavioral norms and operational standards that all members are expected to adhere to. An individual member may want to remain within the university but may disagree with the group goals and the methods to achieve such goals.Defacing property such as writing derogatory messages on offices dedicated to students of color in response to diversity initiatives on campus.
Intergroup conflictA college or university is an interlocking network of student groups, offices, and departments. The intergroup conflicts are not so much personal in nature as they are due to factors inherent in the organizational structure that foster racism on campus.

Racist Greek parties denounced by other student groups.

The absence of Black Studies Department

Inter-organizational conflictConflict also occurs between organizations that are dependent upon each other in some way.Competition between universities such as in sports.

In the past two years, media has highlighted the pervasiveness of racial incidents on college campuses; a review of over forty years of studies that focus on the experiences of students of color on college campuses support these news reports. Tolbert and Hall (2009) suggest that the pervasiveness of organizational conflict means that the reason why organizational conflict exists is due to systemic reasons, not individual ones. In other words, to continue studying these problems from an individual and psychological perspective is not enough and we must think about this issue very differently if we are truly interested in the racial constitution of higher education.

Below, I highlight several strategies that can be employed by colleges and universities seeking to understand students’ experiences with racial conflict. As long as we consider this issue to be a systemic problem we will move from looking at racial incidents (e.g. problems affecting students) to looking at organizational racial conflict, which I define as a racialized system in which values, behaviors, practices, and policies clash and are decided upon by those within the organization who have power. The following strategies are considered upon careful examination of the data I derived from my research.

Acknowledging that Organizational Racial Conflict Exists Within Every Campus

My research demonstrates that administrators (i.e. individuals responsible for running different areas of a university) often think about racial incidents according to degrees of intensity and the Survey of College and University Presidents from the Inside Higher Education and Gallup supports this data. The report indicates that college presidents believe that race relations are “good” and not as bad as at “other” institutions. I found that many of the administrators had similar sentiments, but I also found that students do not see racial incidents in this way – they perceived them in terms of frequency;  in other words, they see them as a phenomenon that occurs daily and in the words of many of the students “all the time” and “everywhere.” This is an important distinction because it doesn’t suggest that either group is necessarily wrong; they just perceive campus racial conflict very differently.

Reporting All Types of Racial Incidents

Reporting incidents of campus racial conflict is prerequisite to understanding and combating patterns of racist behavior. Campus racial conflict has long been studied as a health issue, an environmental concern, and an educational issue. Listening to this parent speak helped me realize that this is also an ethical issue.

These sites of Black and Brown suffering affect not just students, but also their parents. Parents, specifically parents of Black and Brown students, are not being informed of the kind of racism that affects their children at their campuses. While parents are often not considered stakeholders in higher education, to neglect that many students have families who care about these issues is to be willfully ignorant of the whole student. One administrator admitted there is no place to record subtle incidents of campus racial conflict, in part because some colleges and universities are only mandated to report bias incidents that are racially motivated. Any other type is not considered serious enough to report. Higher education administrators who are invested in creating change on their campuses must change how they think about campus racial conflict – not just as a phenomenon that occurs “over there.” Higher education administrators must be attuned to different types of campus racial conflict, not only in terms of intensity, but also in terms of frequency. Administrators who desire for their institutions to be transformative and not sites of Black and Brown suffering have the ability to decide what is important to report and therefore must act upon it.

Responding to Campus Racial Conflict: Diversity Efforts Are Not Enough

Diversity initiatives alone do not alone lessen the intensity of campus racial conflict. Higher education is slowly understanding that White Supremacy cannot be counteracted via diversity efforts; that it indeed must be confronted head on, as demonstrated by college students who are acting upon racial suffering by protesting for necessary changes in the racial constitution of their campuses. Thus, we need to ask ourselves as administrators, what are the unintentional consequences of diversity efforts? My research also demonstrates that one of the consequences of the diversity movement is providing the appearance of positive race relations and less intense incidents of campus racial conflict. Consequently, we could be ignoring the problems posed by campus racial conflict rather than addressing them.


I very often think about the parent with whom I spoke during that cab ride. I wonder about the ways higher education campuses have become spaces for Black and Brown suffering and how this affects how our students learn and succeed. How many parents are scared for their children, believing that earning a college degree is important despite the suffering their children endure?  In higher education, it is important to identify organizational racial conflict as a serious systemic issue on our campuses so that we are creating and encouraging more universities to become institutions of liberatory experiences rather than sites of Black and Brown suffering.


Dr. Blanca E. Vegathe daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Montclair State University. She earned a doctorate (Ed.D)  at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2015, Dr.  Vega defended her dissertation entitled: “Beyond Incidents and Apologies: Toward a New Understanding of Campus Racial Conflict. Between 2006 and 2014, she worked as Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Marymount Manhattan College. Dr. Vega earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from Brandeis University and a Master of Arts degree in Higher Education at New York University.

The Art of Social Justice: Behold the beautiful struggle!

The Museum as Ethics Classroom

On February 9, 2017, a few weeks after Trump’s presidential inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington, the Brooklyn Museum held a historic gathering, entitled “Defending Immigrant Rights: A Brooklyn Call to Action.” The auditorium was packed to capacity and the energy in the room was palpable. Panel speakers included the Palestinian-American Women’s March organizer, Linda Sarsour, who was then also the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; Murad Awawdeh, from the New York Immigration Coalition; Carl Lipscombe, from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Lisa Schreibersdorf, from Brooklyn Defenders Services; and Nayim Islam, a youth organizer from DRUM/Desis Rising Up and Moving. The speakers were phenomenal and shared collective strategies being developed in response to Trump’s policies.

At the end of the gathering the space was opened up for questions. As Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum, I was curious about how they understood the role of art in the emerging struggles for social justice. Their responses varied; one panelist mentioned being blown away by the range of artistic expression manifested in the signs created for the Women’s March, others commented on the healing, stress-relieving benefits of art-making, another mentioned using art as a carrot-stick, in other words, as an incentive to get people through the door. While their responses were sensible, I couldn’t help feeling like they missed the point of my question, and I was left trying to pin-point what it was that I felt they had missed.

What is the relationship (if any) between art and social justice? This is a particularly poignant question for art educators working in encyclopedic museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, that hold a historic connection to colonialism, imperialism, and scientific racism. However, museums can also serve as public forums that allow for a different kind of public engagement—one that makes space not just for our rational selves but also for our emotional, sub-conscious selves which, I would argue, is part of the power of art. Spaces that allow for this kind of interaction are rare. One thing that this last presidential election has made clear is that we have lost our ability (assuming we ever had it) to engage in real dialogue, which requires not just voicing ideas, but also listening and reflecting in an open, honest, and compassionate way. The other thing this last election made clear is that information and facts are not essential for change–but feelings and perceptions are paramount.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington delivered an address at the Brooklyn Museum (then the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences) that included this statement:  “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.” It strikes me that he is recognizing “the study of art,” what today we call “arts education,” as potentially transformative. The implication is that interaction with and exploration of art can shift social sentiment by engaging our belief systems, yearnings and desires.

B.T. Washington’s ideas on what we now refer to as social justice were no doubt informed and inspired by Frederick Douglass; whose biography he wrote and published in 1899. In his 1857 “West India Emancipation” speech, Douglass declared, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” In Douglass’ view, the struggle “may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”

So Washington, in his statement, is also inferring that in order for the study of art to make the strong less willing to oppress the weak, it must involve struggle.  For arts educators, the context for this struggle is often in the realm of uncomfortable conversations that can arise when we facilitate open-ended conversations with a piece of art. Rather than shying away from these difficult or tense encounters, we should push ourselves and the audiences with whom we engage, to investigate the contours of our discomfort, always remembering to do so with empathy. Uncomfortable conversations hold great transformational potential—this is where we strike gold!


Fast-forward 60 years. Second-wave feminists begin drawing attention to the ways in which “the personal is political.”  Then, in the 1970s and ‘80s Black and lesbian women scholars and artists bring to light the need for an  “intersectional” approach to dismantling institutions of oppression. Audre Lorde sheds light to the simple truth that, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We no longer define “the strong” in relationship to “the weak” only in terms of race and class, but must also consider gender, sexuality and multiple other configurations of social identities. We can no longer speak in generalities about “the weak” as if the life experiences of all marginalized and oppressed people were interchangeable.

While poor, “Black rural workers” or “white proletarian men working in factories” may, indeed, represent real categories for people impacted by structural oppression, each individual within these categories holds multiple, infinitely more complex identities: being gay, trans, light-skinned, heavy-weight, disabled, a poet, etc., and each configuration is political in myriad ways. Furthermore, as traditional notions of “the weak” and “the strong” expand and are problematized, we are also faced with the reality of being able to hold in one physical body experiences of both privilege (where we benefit from the oppression of others consciously or unconsciously), while at the same time, in other social contexts, experiencing oppression ourselves. I may be a woman of color raised by a working-class single mother, but I am also a light skinned, ivy-league graduate with a U.S. passport. On the other hand, these experiences are not equally distributed amongst all. Our particular social location still makes it so that some of us bear the brunt of more experiences of structural oppression while others tend to bear more of its benefits. So, for example, while I hold a tremendous amount of privilege, I’m certain that John D. Rockefeller held more. The point is that the very notion of “social justice” becomes an active endeavor that requires constant vigilance, critical reflection of the world around us, balanced with self-reflection, and humility.

One of the books that most impacted my thinking around these ideas is Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The first time I read it, I was both inspired and irritated by his approach; inspired because Friere problematizes the idea of what it means to be a revolutionary, and irritated because his language continuously betrays a monolithic (and patriarchal) understanding of “the oppressed.” Nonetheless, this is the book that made me believe and long for revolution, in part because it is infused with an almost spiritual understanding of the liberatory potential of educational experiences. While Freire is essentially a Marxist, he not only questions the hegemony of capitalist oppression, but he is equally critical of leaders of “radical” social justice movements who feel they must indoctrinate the masses with the “correct” ideology that will liberate them. Rather, for Freire, the true educator is primarily driven by faith in students’ ability to critically see and interpret the world, which will necessarily lead them to liberation:

“The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection–true reflection–leads to action. On the other hand, when the situation calls for action, that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection…Otherwise, action is pure activism. To achieve this praxis, however, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue…”

Art as Imagination

So what does it mean to develop a social justice arts education practice? Fundamentally, it means to acknowledge the reality of systemic oppression and power imbalance while allowing for the emergence of new perspectives and understandings. Robin Kelley describes this as the “radical imagination”; the ability to move beyond critiquing and tearing down oppressive structures, to actually imagining what we want things to be like:

“…we must tap the well of our own collective imaginations…do what earlier generations have done: dream. Trying to envision ‘somewhere in advance of nowhere,’ as poet Jayne Cortez puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet it is a matter of great urgency. Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.”

Extremely difficult task, indeed! In part because we are inundated with models and systems that betray a deep lack of imagination: a political system that does not truly represent or engage people; a TV and film industry that repeatedly cranks out the same tired models of heteronormative romance; an economic system based on exploitation and competition; a criminal justice system founded on racism, fear and violence; representations of sex and sexuality that can’t seem to come up with anything other than pornography. The list goes on and on. These models pervade our culture because we don’t spend enough time playing, experimenting, and imagining how things might be otherwise. This is why we must look at those realms in our collective consciousness that privilege the imagination and the human capacity to create. Continuous engagement with artistic practices strengthens our imagination muscle. Arts education is essential, because it builds our ability to dream and imagine beyond our present condition.

How do we understand the idea of art?

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination

Etymology: early 13c., “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft,” from PIE *ar-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih “manner, mode;” Greek arti “just,” artios “complete, suitable,” artizein “to prepare;” Latin artus “joint;” Armenian arnam “make;” German art “manner, mode”), from root *ar- “fit together, join” (see arm (n.1)), which makes art etymologically akin to Latin arma “weapons.” 

What strikes me about the root of the word is how active it is. The words used to describe its core meaning are much more about a way of doing than about a thing you hang on the wall. Activist, art-educator, and nun Corita Kent describes “art” in the following way:

“To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word ART is to FIT TOGETHER and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit together we are creating—whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

Art as Dialogue

At the Brooklyn Museum I’ve had the privilege of working with art education professionals committed to the dialogical process ignited by the power of art. Part of our practice as educators is about continually reflecting on our practice to understand the ways in which we are or are not effective in creating educational experiences that reflect the beautiful struggle that a true social justice practice demands.  Much of what we do is to create opportunities for dialogues grounded in multi-sensory experiences with artworks. We do not attempt to deliver information-packed or curatorial talks to visitors (although these also have value). Rather, we ask audiences to interact with a piece and share what they see, what they feel, and we make them accountable for their interpretations by continually asking them “What do you see that makes you say that?”  We encourage self-reflection and the articulation of different perspectives. We introduce key pieces of information on the art or artist to add complexity and push the conversation deeper, but ultimately we recognize that the more opportunities diverse groups are given to look, listen, express, and wrestle with meaning, the stronger their ability (and our ability) to develop into ethical human beings, able to imagine a more humane society.

The Centrality of Art

Both art and social justice are better understood as verbs than as nouns. The essential power of both is unlocked by understanding them as processes. Yes, social justice is about low-income housing, desegregation of schools, tackling the criminal in-justice system, and defending immigrant rights. But it is only about these things because people have collectively reflected on lived experiences around these issues, and dialogued, and re-visited past assumptions, and come to realizations, and struggled to express ignored truths, and heard the truths of others, and from this process a vision emerges of what is needed. The concept of art can also, at its core, be understood as a process/approach towards learning and doing. Why are such disparate activities such as singing, painting, a poem, a movement, certain photographs, all grouped under the term “art”? I would argue that it is because they are all expressions that bridge our inner terrain to the outer world. And in this way, we are pushed to know ourselves, each other, and the world around us from perspectives that challenge us to see beyond ‘what is there.’ There is an intimate relationship between all authentic learning and Art. Within this context, a social justice perspective also requires us to expand and question traditional notions of “Fine Arts” and artistic “Canons”.

While my understanding of power, oppression, and revolution continues to expand and to gain greater and greater complexity, I find myself continually returning to Freire, even more than 20 years after I first encountered his writings. While some aspects of his ideas feel dated, there is still an intrinsic truth that he expresses that still resonates deeply with what I know to be true. “The object in presenting these considerations,” he states at the end of his opening chapter, “is to defend the eminently pedagogical” and here I would add–ARTISTIC, “character of the revolution.”

Art is not an addendum, a distraction, a pleasant byproduct, or even a tool to be used in service of the “real” work of political struggle for social justice. Art and art education are essential to social justice because social justice requires social imagination. Art is not a Renoir painting, just as social justice is not a march. Rather, both art and social justice are essentially pedagogical endeavors in that they hold the potential, through dialogue and the activation of personal and collective imagination, to transform our very beings and to transform the oppressive realities that engulf us. The combination of these elements–whether in an art museum, a community center, a classroom, or the streets–holds the potential to change the world.

Adjoa Jones de Almeida is the Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum and is committed to utilizing arts education as a vehicle for personal and collective transformation.  She earned her Master’s from Columbia University/Teacher’s College in International Education Development and was a teacher, community organizer and arts educator prior to joining the Brooklyn Museum. She is a 2017 92Y/Women in Power Catherine Hannah Behrend Fellow in Visual Arts Management.

Keynote Address: Teaching Ethics in Inequitable Times

Good evening everyone. Hello, hello. You heard from the Peace Poets before, I normally have a policy of never following the Peace Poets, they go after me. We spoke at NYU on Monday and I made the great, brilliant decision to go first and then they closed it down. You’ve already heard from the, kind of most wonderful examples of what The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is all about and that’s the Peace Poets, they are really incredible young men who are brave in the work that they do every single day. I’m glad you were able to hear from them. I think they are a wonderful way to start a conference focused on teaching ethics in inequitable times.

I don’t know who came up with the title, but I think it’s probably one of the most necessary conversations for us to have at this time. I think we all are aware of the difficult world we live in. We are aware of the deeply inequitable and unethical times that we live in. I’m happy to be here to talk a little bit about these issues and to frame it as I’m speaking to a room of educators around our work at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. I want to talk about that a little bit and kind of start in this little brownstone we have in Harlem and then move out into some other conversations and spaces.

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol was created in 1995 and our theory of change is to provide support, guidance, love, and education to young people, and we never shy away from that word love. I would argue that love and ethics are deeply intertwined, that you can’t really teach ethics, you can’t create an ethical and moral society if you don’t also focus on love, love and justice, but definitely love. We provide support, guidance, education, and love, we then teach young people to have discipline and order in their life, and then we provide opportunities and access so they can develop agency. Those are the stages, love, support, guidance, and education, self-discipline and order, and then opportunities and access so that they can develop agency.

We believe that’s necessary because we are working with a population that is facing some of the greatest inequity that we face here in the city. The census was done in 2015 and it found, to no surprise, I’m sure to folks in the room, that the greatest disparity of wealth of any county in America was the county of New York, Manhattan. The top 5% earn $870,000 a year, the bottom 20% survive on less than $10,000 a year, 1 in 5 on this island are surviving on $10,000. 70% of those who are homeless in this city are children.

A lot of times as we move around the city we see the face of homelessness as often mentally ill individual men. That’s what’s often seen as the face, who of course require all the services and deserve all the services that the city has to offer, but what we often don’t see is the real face which are children. Children who go to school every single day and are taught in our schools and they’re leaving shelters in order to get that education. When you think about that level of poverty you realize all the decisions that have to be made in families and how to respond to that kind of lived inequality. When we’re talking about unethical times, when we’re talking about inequality [inaudible 00:05:19], it’s really important to name what that is. To name what it feels like to grow up in an unequal, unethical way, because that has a lived reality, it’s not just a theory.

We know that the theory of change has to be comprehensive because the forces laid against our young people are so comprehensive. We help them to learn what it means to be men and women, leaders and brothers and sisters, and to develop a moral and ethical code, something that will help guide them through life. A young woman who went through our organization who has already quoted Elizabeth Acevedo and was a student of Lev Moscow, who’s sitting here, and she said, always young people will have the best words for so many things, and she said that, “Brotherhood/Sister Sol does not save children’s lives, it teaches children the skills to save their own lives.”

The point of helping them to define a man and a leader, a brother, a sister, a woman and a leader, is to instill within them the understanding and the endurance to overcome the very realities that they’re facing because we know they’re going to leave us just like they leave their family and their parents. They’re going to leave the little room we have created, the home we have created in Harlem, so we provide this rites of passage work where we’re guiding young people from 12 to 18 in this way.

We take them to study with us for a month in Africa and Latin America so that they can see as black and brown children that they are a part of the majority, not the minority as they’re so often told, but it’s also the deeply spiritual experiences that happen with that kind of travel. The ability to travel with us and spend time in the slave force, where members of their families and their ancestors were moved through. It allows us to go to Brazil and for them to see the enduring power of Afro-Latino culture that you have in Brazil. In a very lived way you’re taking young people from sometimes very difficult situations, where they feel overwhelmed by the violence and the lack of education, the lack of opportunity, and now all of a sudden the world is in their hands.

We know that this is the reality for wealthy kids and middle-class kids, it’s accepted. Kids who go to Ethical in Fieldston, you travel in the summer, you travel on your break, you travel whenever you want to travel. Well, economically poor children deserve that as well. We want them to study with us international and we want them to come to understand the environment and the great issues of the day, which would certainly include climate change and global warming and the threats to our environment. Because it’s important for them to not just understand the threats that they face in Harlem, on the streets of Harlem, but also the huge threats to the world.

Arts and education are key part of what we do. I’m raised in a family of organizers and activists. My grandfather came over here from Russia and was an organizer then, was in the Communist Party. Today we would probably call it the Socialist Party, he wouldn’t like that I’ve been told, but the language changes with the times. The Labor Movement is a huge part of my family’s history and legacy.

One of the phrases of the Labor Movement that’s always meant a lot to me was the theme Bread and Roses. It was a movement started in Massachusetts by most of the immigrant women at the turn of last century, and the vision was that people, working people deserved two different things in their life. Blood, roses, the idea of wealth for the spirit and wealth for the soul, so that the bread would sustain them, not the blood but the bread would sustain them … It’s a different story. The bread would sustain them and the roses would be the beauty that people needed for their soul as well. We really believe that at Brotherhood/Sister Sol as well, we want to feed their bellies and feed their minds.

The work was created though, again because of the inequity and inequality that Jason, my co-founder and I saw here in 1995 in this city that we all love. When we created the organization roughly 2,000 people were dying every single year in this city from gun violence. Last year it was less than 400, it’s still an abominable number, but it shows you the substantial drop. In the year we started the work and still today 1 out of 3 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under supervision of the prison system, either in prison, on probation, on parole, 1 out of 3. We thought it is important to talk about these numbers and these statistics, because all too often those kind of stories are not shared widely enough.

It’s very easy for us at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol to talk to our young people about the issue, but we want to create a platform for them to talk to those outside of their immediate community, to tell their stories. We believe by telling their stories, the realities that they have to face, the inequalities that they have to face, the words that you experienced and heard from the Peace Poets, that it brings others to the conversation of creating a more just and equitable society.

One of the chief examples of that was the effort to reform the NYPD here in the city. This has obviously become a national conversation, but we’ve been having this conversation in black and brown communities, in tough urban areas since the police have walked the beat. This is not a new conversation, we just have it on video and people have phones and cameras. My father who grew up in Eastern North Carolina would have had experiences in the 40’s and 50’s that would mirror the realities that people are having here in 2016 in New York City.

During the Bloomberg years, for 12 years nearly 700,000 people were stopped a year at gunpoint and frisked. We’re doing nothing but walking down the street. Sometimes we’re doing violations of the law that everybody in this room has done, moving in between the trains, it’s a ticketable offense. Drinking a coffee on the train, ticketable offense. Being in the park after dark, ticketable offense. Six people standing on a street corner, ticketable offense, but that’s only enforced on certain communities and at certain times. As long as that was happening in Harlem and in Central Brooklyn, in the South Bronx, it didn’t break into the city-wide conversation of how inequitable this was, until people started telling their stories.

Some of the leading voices telling those stories were members of our organization, who created documentaries about what the experience felt like. We wrote poems about it. It was Peart, one of our alumni wrote the definitive first person story which was in The New York Times, “Why is the NYPD After Me?” About what it felt like to be stopped and frisked 8 times, 10 times, 12 times. On his birthday he went to the McDonald’s on 96th Street, he was 18 years old. He sat in the divider and had a burger with his cousin. The police showed up, put him down on the ground at gunpoint. They saw from his ID that it was birthday, they dropped the ID back on his back and wished him a happy birthday at gunpoint.

Our young people told these stories and organized because they saw the power of really trying to connect and help people understand what it felt like in a day to day way, not to look at 10 million stops, which is the number that occurred during the Bloomberg years, but what it felt like to be one person stopped. Every single male in our organization was stopped and frisked, all 5 of the Peace Poets. I was stopped and frisked. Jason, my co-founder stopped and frisked at gunpoint in the streets of New York. We had to get the story outside of our community .

The result of that was a change in policy in that one area. There’s a lot of work to still be done. The NYPD needs a entire overhaul, and that’s another conversation for another time. I’m not in any way saying that the war was won, but that one battle was substantially one. The stops went from 700,000 to 40,000 and our young people had to be celebrated for that. We have to celebrate our wins even if it’s not the entire win that we want, and that was unbelievable and it was youth-led, and it was people of color-led. Then you would go to the protest rallies after Eric Garner was killed two years ago and the people protesting were as diverse as the city of New York. It was no longer only a black and brown issue, it was people of all backgrounds and all ages and all faith saying, “This is not the city I want to live in.”

When he was public advocate, Mayor de Blasio came to our site and met with our young organizers including the Peace Poets and Nicholas and he said publicly that they changed his entire view of the issue. When he announced the drop of the appeal in Floyd, which the Bloomberg administration had appealed on stage was the mayor, corporation council, the police chief and Nicholas Peart. Now if that’s not an example of a young person taking the learning of ethics and morals and speaking out for social justice, I don’t know what is. That’s an unbelievably brave thing, he was 18 when he started doing it. Most people would be so intimidated by that kind of onslaught of the police, they would never have spoken out. It’s an example of how you move the conversation more broadly.

James Baldwin said that when the victim is able to articulate the situation of the victim he or she has ceased to be a victim, but instead become a threat. That’s what we want our young people to do, to be threats, threats to racism, threats to sexism, threats to homophobia, threats to prejudice, and to struggle everyday to create a more equitable world for themselves but also for the broader community, and you heard that in the Peace Poets art. You heard them, yes, talking about what it meant to be black and brown men, but you heard them talking about feminism and the love of their mothers. I know all the mothers in here especially love that piece.

You heard them talking about their interconnection to other issues of social justice. They were in the Dakota’s just last week protesting the pipeline. They were on the border protesting around the disappearance of Mexican women on the border. They have been from Sudan to Afghanistan. Sometimes they go places I wish they wouldn’t go, but they go and they come back and they’re very brave in that struggle, but then again, it’s about not just your own community but seeing a wider connection as well.

We know that we’ve had these kind of successes, but we also know that there’s so much work to be done. When I always hear this phrase of inequality I always go back to education, and I know for those of us who are educators in the room, we know that it’s often the [inaudible 00:15:54], but we also have to be very real about what the current situation is. There’s 1.1 million children in our school system, by far the largest in the country, only 70% graduate. You’re talking about 300,000 to 400,000 children who will not graduate, of those who graduate only 30% graduate college-ready, without need of remedial support to go to the MCC. The kids that we work with, even if they do what they’ve been told to do they’re being sold the false bill of goods. Even if they go to every class and do well and graduate, when they get that diploma it’s an eight grade level education in many cases. It’s not a Fieldston education, it’s a mediocre education that is ill-preparing them to compete.

We allow that to happen, the adults. It’s not the children’s issue, that’s our issue. The outroar should be constant, mayors, senators, governors should be elected on that issue and no other, people should be in the streets. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t have more in the streets, but when we allow our children to have that form of education we are starting with an unethical situation, we are starting with an unequal situation. How do we both help the individual young people, like Nicholas, like the Peace Poets, but then also speak to a broader space of equality and true access? There’s not an achievement gap, there’s an access gap. Young people simply do not have access to the education they deserve. The young people are learning to be social change-makers, they’re learning to be those who seek justice.

There are always conversations among our staff about how much information we should really bring to young people, because sometimes they can become almost a force that feels debilitating, if you really understand the history of this country, if you really understand the racism in this country, if you really understand the prison industrial complex, if you really understand the immigration policies that people are putting forward to break up families and send millions of people to a home that they don’t even consider home anymore. When you just think of the gross political conversations we’re having, how do you help young people to navigate that?

We think that the education is essential, that the political education is the beginning of social justice, that by understanding these conditions they can push back and create a more equitable world. The word poor in the dictionary is defined as lacking in value, without merit, deficient, and so we call our children poor because they’re surviving on $10,000 a year, but of course they’re not deficient and they’re not lacking in value. If they understand that, if they understand the socio-economic conditions there’s nothing wrong with them because they were born in Wagner Houses or Polo Grounds or any of these places. There’s something wrong with the society that allows that to continue to occur and for them to grow up in substandard housing and attend substandard schools and not be safe in their very community. We want to work with them to understand these issues so that they first focus there, but then they look more broadly.

While I was certainly pleased that the country seemed to enter in to an uproar after Donald Trump’s most recent comments about how he treats women and thinks that it’s okay to sexually assault women, I appreciated the uproar, but I also am disturbed because the day he gave his kickoff speech he talked about Mexicans as rapists and murderers, there wasn’t the same uproar. He’s talked about banning all people of the Muslim faith from entering the country and there was not the same uproar. The two populations who are most vulnerable right now in political conversation are the undocumented and the Muslim. It reminds me of the Pastor Niemöller and first they came for the Communists, then they came for the Jews, and then they came for the labor organizers and it goes through it, and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.

We are at a time where we have a man running for president of the United States who is using McCarthy-like language, who is talking about our sisters and brothers in the most vicious and disgusting way and the uproar should not only be when that conversation reaches us or our homes or our children or our identity, but it needs to be much broader. I do hope that one thing that comes out of these political times are bridges that are built so that people are connecting to other communities that are not necessarily their own, and that’s what we teach at Brotherhood/Sister Sol.

We believe that it’s about helping young people to really open their eyes and to awaken. It’s a phrase that to me captures what ethics and education can do when it’s at its best, it helps a child awaken. I think those of us who are educators have seen that moment when all of a sudden the eyes open and they see the possibility, they get it. To me, one of the phrases that most captures that process is articulated by Chinua Achebe and it’s called Imaginative Identification. He wrote about it in an incredible collection of essays called Hopes and Impediments and he said, “Things are not merely happening before us, they are happening by the force and power of imaginative identification to us. We not only see, we suffer alongside the hero and are branded with the same mark of punishment and poverty.”

That if the struggle of another is to really connect with us, if we are to see the ethical challenges that others face, we have to identify with it beyond just, “I feel bad for that person,” but instead to imagine that threat, that injustice is striking us. We know that if 700,000 people were stopped and frisked in the city for 12 years under the Bloomberg administration and they were white wealthy women, that would have never been allowed to continue. He would not have gotten three terms, he would not have been seen as a leader who should be considered for president. This is aside from any other issues that we will talk about with the administration. Just focus on that for a second.

If you focus on the fact that Rikers Island, there’s 10,000 people in it that’s under supervision of the Department of Justice, because in their own language, in their own language people are being terrorized on that island everyday and people are being tortured everyday. That’s right by La Guardia Airport, 10,000 citizens of this city held in cages and tortured. We allow that to happen. What does it mean to teach ethics and morality when those kind of things are happening in the city that we’re all citizens of? What does it mean to work with young people so that they can understand the very conditions they face, but also realize these are these huge inequalities that continue in the city and what will they do about them?

Maxine Green, who’s and educator, I’m sure many people in this room are familiar with said, “It is a conscious endeavour on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them.” Again, as educators that to me would be our goal and aspiration, to help young people inquire into what seeks to dominate them, and then to deconstruct that. That would be the goal of ethical learning. That would be the goal of a school faced on creating a moral environment where young people can become strong men and strong women.

As we think about this issue as educators, as we move forward and we build schools based on these themes, as The Brotherhood/Sister Sol continues to work on these things, I think the challenge to us as educators is to help young people figure out how to define what they see and what they face. To provide the opportunities that allow them to become strong adults even considering all those conditions. Because as much as I can talk about the inequalities our children face, one of the things that sustains me in my work, one of the things that inspires me is their incredible fortitude, the incredible ability of young people to endure, to adapt, and to push through. They shouldn’t have to face those things and those conditions, but now that they are facing them what can they do to overcome them?

In all of our work as educators, I think we have to make sure that those are the two themes we keep together, helping young people to look into the conditions that they are facing, and then to help create paths so that they can change the very conditions that they face every single day. Thank you.

Khary Lazarre-White is a social entrepreneur, educator, nonprofit executive, writer, and attorney. In 1995, at the age of 21 he co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, an extraordinary city-wide organization based in Harlem that provides after school programs, counseling, summer camps, job training, college preparation and much more. Khary has earned an impressive collection of awards and has been featured on television shows and in print publications. He serves on many boards including, most recently the Ethical Culture School Board.

John Dewey: Educative Experiences

Upon entering the early education program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in 2015, I believed there existed a (cultural) tension between progressive pedagogy and its reflection of what seemed to me as middle-upper class white American values versus the more traditional educational styles and methods of teacher-directed instruction and practices.  In my current school setting, the teachers  that I work with teach as they were taught growing up in the Caribbean and West Indies, where the educational system was structured similarly to the British system whereby rote teaching methods and traditional pedagogy prevailed.

This clash of cultures has been part of my personal academic experiences over the years, attending private educational institutions in Brooklyn and then New England; my home culture clashed with my school culture.  At school, I felt empowered and respected as a person of the community.  I was challenged to think critically and independently and share my opinions as part of my learning process.  We went out on field trips and engaged in investigations whereby I was allowed and encouraged to have my own personal interpretations.  I strongly believe these experiences contributed to my decision to attend a liberal arts college where students were encouraged to explore and make connections across all the disciplines.   At home, the expectations for learning and the social interactions were different and based in a culture where people had very strict roles and rules of conduct.  

Most recently, I have experienced this tension play out in my professional career in my current work settings.  The program with which I work serves families in a West Indian community that want their children to learn the skills that they will need to be successful in school.  As a program that is federally funded, curriculum and teaching strategies are mandated and are viewed by my community’s parents and educators as not reflecting the needs and teaching strategies their children will ultimately need in order to excel.  

I repeatedly get the question from parents and families about the validity of play and whether “our” children are getting an appropriate preparation for kindergarten and their academic careers in the future.  Most of the students I currently work with will end up in local public schools, many of which do not have the best teachers and cannot  offer a diversity in school or extracurricular activities.  Many of the families that attend my program live in a low-income neighborhood where their options and choices for schools and types of education are limited.

For months, my primary concern revolved around how to reconcile the expectations of my families and educators with that of what we now consider best practice.   As I explored these questions, I came across an article by Lisa Delpit called, The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children (1995) where she speaks to the feelings of estrangement of black educators from the progressive pedagogy and practices.    In it, she discusses how systems of power relate to the tensions between the liberal educational movement and non-white, non-middle class educators and communities.   Delpit maintains this as the underpinnings of an unrepresentative progressive education movement and how it fails children of color (particularly Black Americans, Hispanics and low income families) in its goals for educating children.  

Several of her points resonated with me on both a personal and academic level, particularly in regards to her feelings of estrangement from the progressive liberal educational movement.  Her primary reason for expanding upon the topic was due to her feelings as a progressive educator of color that the liberal, progressive educational movement does not necessarily have room within its framework to accommodate alternative views which can also support liberal and progressive ideas and strategies.  She accuses the movement of creating a didactic relationship between ‘progressive’ educational strategies (that promote individual independence and autonomy) and those which support a more direct skills-based instruction style, instead of the possibility of both existing in harmony as different educational strategies striving to achieve the same ultimate goal.   

For those whose families and communities are not reflected within the culture of power, Delpit argues it is necessary to learn its codes and norms so as to gain access to and successfully participate within it.   She makes the case that not all children come to school with the same knowledge, experiences, and understandings, and it is a school’s job to teach all students how to function and thrive within the dominant culture by providing skills, interaction styles, discourse patterns, and spoken and written language (often different from their own) that will allow them to be successful within larger society (dictated by those with power).  

My point here is that American ‘mainstream’ almost always is representative of white middle and upper class ideals and perspectives; and the American education system is no different. Again we find ourselves experiencing a similar tension between liberal educational movements and that of non-white, non-middle class teachers and communities.    Delpit describes how modern progressive educational pedagogy does not accommodate multiple perspectives and needs of the American population as it stands today.  Expanding progressive education requires an inclusion of several perspectives and the freedom to be able to differentiate instructional approaches to truly reflect the diverse needs of children and their families.  

Understanding that children from Black, Hispanic and low income families tend to enter school less equipped with the skills, experiences and knowledge of the dominant white middle and upper class culture, it is fitting to acknowledge the responsibility of schools and educators to teach children these skills, especially at an early age, in order for them to be better prepared to learn and thrive with their peers from other social and cultural groups.

This resonates with Delpit’s idea that school is a place to help level the educational playing field (or acculturate children and families to American life and culture) for those students who are lacking the skills and knowledge base of mainstream American culture and communication through skills-based instruction and strategies.  

With that being understood, I initially interpreted Delpit’s message as a divisive one where there was no room for a diversity in cultural styles or expectations within progressive education.  However, this changed dramatically after reading–and rereading–John Dewey’s Experience and Education (1938).  In it, one of the first things that Dewey challenges is the didactic relationship between traditional and progressive education and asserts that one should not trump the other and/or be forgotten.  We can take the good from traditional educational practices and still apply them so long as they are done in a meaningful and intentional way that would be conducive to a democratic approach to education.  He advocated for empowering children as learners by honoring their learning styles and previous experiences.  

He explains that the teacher must get to know his or her students and the situations and experiences they have encountered when he says, “He must, in addition, have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning.  It is among other things, the need for these abilities on the part of the parent and teacher which makes a system of education based upon living experience a more difficult affair to conduct successfully than it is to follow the patterns of traditional education.”  In essence, Dewey is arguing for educators to meet the students where they are, wherever that may be.

More importantly, it is educators’ responsibility to use the world around them, wherever that may be, as grounds for learning and educative experiences.  “A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but they they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth.  Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile.”.

With these explanations, Dewey is speaking to the fact that educators can create educative experiences from any social (or cultural) context and environment.  The outdoor classroom in the slums can providing rich learning experiences that can also be had in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  No matter one’s culture or social standing, the world–wherever that may be– can still be a powerful tool for and of learning with children.  I do not mean to say that all communities offer the best and richest educative experiences; I make the argument that regardless of culture or community, learning can be possible in respectful and meaningful ways.  Dewey asserts that, “a system of education based upon the necessary connection of education with experience must, on the contrary, take these things into account,” which makes me feel hopeful that the progressive practices he describes transcends culture, language, and race (or any -ism we may/can encounter).  

He continues to say that traditional education did not have this problem; there was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, and its physical, historical, economic, occupational, and other attributes in order to utilize them as educational resources.  

Within the context of my current educational community, this provides me with so much hope for progressive education as being a tool that can truly accommodate various communities and groups of learners in diverse settings.  Before reading and understanding Dewey, I regarded progressive ideals as those that could only help those already at an advantage.  However, what I am realizing now is that Dewey advocated for educators to understand the children they work with in terms of culture, community and previous experiences and knowledge, and honor these by using them as grounds for creating educative experiences that will ground their learning in accessible and respectful ways.  

Dewey continues to say that, “the environment, in other words, is whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had.” He goes on to say that “there is incumbent upon the educator the duty of instituting a much more intelligent, and consequently more difficult, kind of planning.  He must survey the capacities and needs of the particular set of individuals with whom he is dealing and must at the same time arrange the conditions which provide the subject-matter or content for experiences that satisfy these needs and develop these capacities.  The planning must be flexible enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give directions towards continuous development of power.”

I interpret Dewey’s words to mean that the educator, upon knowing his or her students and community, has the choice and ability to understand the kind of experiences necessary to meet students where they are and build upon these capacities.  Dewey does not argue that one style of teaching is better or worse than the other; instead he insists that teachers have the flexibility to determine which and what kind of experiences can lead to growth and understanding.   

The argument being that children need to be taught in school what they may not receive at home is a complicated one, especially when we consider the diversity of American people, experience and history.  However, I now realize that believing in a progressive pedagogy does not mean that as an educator of color, I have to choose between child-centered and teacher-directed experiences.  Where Delpit initially argued that there may not be room in progressive education for a diversity in teaching skills, I disagree and believe that the original intent and nature of progressive education does in fact accommodate children from all backgrounds and skills in an authentic way.  Dewey states that teachers should be using a child’s community as tools for growth and learning, meaning that every community is in fact grounds for/of rich learning.  And I also agree with Delpit when she says that a teacher must recognize children’s capacities and their needs, and choose different methods of teaching based on the needs of the students s/he is working with (which still can be done within a progressive framework).  Progressive education does not mean that there will never be room for direct-instruction and/or rote learning. Jonathan Silin writes in his essay, Real Children and Imagined Homelands: Preparing to teach in Today’s World, that “the successful curriculum builds on rather than competes with the children’s lives.” Some children at times may need direct-instruction of skills because they do not get it at home, whereas some children are more comfortable in and successful with the open-endedness of progressive education.  The ideals of progressive education do not clash with culture or a variety of expectations for growth and learning, but in fact support all learners and their experiences and capabilities.  

I no longer feel like I have to chose between culture and progressive pedagogy, and now can comfortably explain to teachers and parents the merits of such kind of structure and how it will in fact help their children as they grow older and encounter various situations and learning environments. It is the adaptability of this progressive style that allows for a combination of learning and teaching styles that all work together to honor students as active participants in their own learning.  It honors the various backgrounds we come from and the collective communities we share.  As a result of reading Dewey, I can proudly assert myself as an educator of color who deeply believes in progressive education as it was originally intended and designed.  


Delpit, L.D. (1995).  Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom.  New York: New Press.

Dewey, J. (1938).  Experience and education.  New York: Macmillan.  

Nager, N., & Shapiro, E. K. (2000). Revisiting a progressive pedagogy: The developmental-interaction approach. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Keturah Wahrmann-Harry is the Education Coordinator at Get Set Kindergarten and Elementary Schools. After earning a B.A. in English at Trinity College, Keturah did her graduate studies in Early Childhood General & Special Education at Bank Street College of Education.

The Overwhelming Whiteness of Transitional Chapter Series Books

A first grader reaches for a book on the shelf in her classroom at a mid-sized city school in New York’s Hudson Valley. She finds herself in that sweet developmental spot when reading fluency is building, and sounding out words today takes less time than it did yesterday. She has already devoured all of Junie B. Jones and moved onto Cam Jansen, but is starting to tire of characters that mostly sound and look alike. The only other series books she sees on her classroom shelves feature either white characters or animals that talk. She keeps wondering when she’ll see characters of different races, ethnicities, and cultures—when she’ll see a character that looks like her.

In this young girl’s classroom—and arguably, most first-grade classrooms across the United States—there are few, if any, transitional chapter series books that feature characters of color. There is something glaringly wrong with this picture.

Mirrors and Windows

Scholars suggest that books provide mirrors of and windows into the world for young readers (see Bishop, 1990; Smolkin & Young, 2011; Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014; Lifshitz, 2016). This research-based knowledge begs the following question: how can books that primarily reflect the experience of whiteness be an accurate window or mirror for all of the young children who read them? They cannot provide accurate windows and mirrors for any children who read them: they provide few, if any, mirrors for children of color, and few windows for children who identify as white Instead, they collectively reinforce a whiteness discourse, and in so doing, mute any possibility for voices of color.

The lack of diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature is not a new topic of educational research; indeed, there exists a body of literature examining topics of diversity in children’s books that extends several decades (see Sims, 1983; Rogers & Christin, 2007). However, little research on diversity in children’s literature has focused on the transitional chapter book format, which provides children a necessary stepping-stone toward independent reading.

Transitional Chapter Series Books

Transitional chapter books provide a format with particularly strong gravitational pull for early readers as they develop reading fluency. Resulting from the growing ability to decode words more accurately at an appropriate pace, fluency typically develops somewhere between kindergarten and second grade. At this stage in their development, readers use less cognitive energy on decoding, or sounding out, what they are reading, thus freeing up more space and energy for comprehending what they are reading. In other words, the less brain power a reader at this stage uses on sounding words out, the more they have to use on actually understanding what is being said in the text.

With a predictable formula consisting of large print; interspersed black-and-white, full-page illustrations; likable characters; and age-appropriate, easy-to-follow plot lines, transitional chapter books are likely to exist in every library, bookstore, and school. The ones published in series are particularly exciting to K-2 readers, who can’t wait to read ‘real’ books and often digest them one after the other as their confidence and ability grow (McGill-Franzen, 2009).

As readers develop the ability to read more independently, they also rapidly develop as social beings. Characters that become familiar across series books give readers a chance to connect and identify (McGill-Franzen, 2009). Series books motivate readers to keep reading, and help build stamina for young children (Ross, 1995). Walk into a first-grade classroom in Anytown, USA, and you are bound to see series books on the library shelves.

So What’s Wrong with Junie B.?

Did you ever read series books? For me, it was Ramona, Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High. As a white girl growing up in a mostly white farming town, I didn’t have to work very hard to see myself in the pages of those books. Their present-day contemporaries—the aforementioned Junie B. Joneses, Magic Treehouses, and Ivy & Beans of the classroom shelf—are quite similar. How has that not changed, nearly forty years later?

I’m not trying to diminish the popularity or potential impact of series like Junie B. Jones—I know plenty of kids who love her like I loved Ramona. But I am wondering out loud about the ways in which series books like Junie are subtly dictating the terms of what it’s like to be a ‘typical’ kid, aged 5-8—and getting it wildly wrong, especially for anyone who does not identify as ‘white.’

Curious to understand how deep the whiteness in transitional chapter series books really goes, my colleague, Caroline Hopenwasser, and two undergraduate teacher candidates, Kimberly Roman and Alexa Reina, and I spent time this past summer doing a content analysis of transitional chapter series books available to the first grader mentioned earlier in this post. We started by locating books in the transitional chapter book format in her classroom library, school library, public library, and local bookstore.

We are still analyzing our results, but below is a table showing the racial breakdown of the 1,251 books we found, as compared to the school population. We used these numbers as a place to initiate our inquiry about representations of race in the transitional chapter series books available to students in the school. I should note that I am not arguing here that a classroom library (or public library or bookstore, for that matter) should match the racial, ethnic, or cultural breakdown of its corresponding school or town population; however, I am arguing that on no shelf should a collection of books be so white.

School Population and Equity Audit Percentages

Race (categories designated by school) School Population Equity Audit Categories Bookstore Public Library School Library Classroom Library
White 43% White 68% 61% 93% 94%
African American 15% African American 1% 1% 3% 0%
Latino 27% Latinx 0% 0% 0% 0%
Asian 4% Asian 3% 4% 0% 1%
Multiracial 12%
    Animal 15% 23% 1% 5%
    unknown 13% 9% 2% 0%

Note. School population categories and percentages retrieved from school district website. Citation omitted to protect anonymity of study participants.

The classroom and school libraries contained collections of transitional chapter books that featured almost entirely white characters—94% and 93%, respectively. Although the bookstore and public library collections had fewer books featuring white characters, they did not have many more books featuring characters of color. Instead, we found that both sites contained significant percentages of books, 15% at the bookstore and 23% at the public library, that featured animal characters. Therefore, at all sites, the collections of books were overwhelmingly white.

At this all-important stage in a reader’s development, children are able to comprehend more complex ideas and topics than in easy picture books. If the texts they encounter—particularly in the popular transitional chapter book format—mostly feature white characters, then whiteness discourse is repeatedly reinforced with little to no effort. This is problematic on a variety of levels, but in two ways in particular that require immediate attention: 1) children of color do not see themselves, and 2) white children do not see children of color.

Repairing Windows and Unfogging Mirrors

Many people are waking up to the pervasiveness of whiteness and white supremacist discourse after the recent presidential election. Educators everywhere are asking, what can we do? While I have a lot of questions, too, one thing I know for sure: we must talk and think and share and collaborate. What follows are a few ideas for how to get started if you haven’t already.

Do an equity audit by taking stock of your educational environment and recognizing areas of inequity:

  • take a look at the books in your library, and the materials with which you teach.
  • ask questions such as, Whose voices are privileged? Whose voices are silenced? For whom are the texts written? What is not being said? What is being amplified? What is being forgotten? Do all roads lead to whiteness?
  • acquire and assign more texts that privilege voices of color if you don’t already do so—that tell history from multiple perspectives.

But to be clear: identifying inequity in classrooms and schools and updating assignments and libraries with books that feature characters of color is hardly enough, and cannot remain merely a symbolic act. There is an urgent need to recognize whiteness as an inaccurate blueprint against which human experience is often measured, whether in real life or in literature, and an even more urgent need to actively work to change it in our classrooms. There should not be an instance in which, more than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Ed, you walk into a 1st-grade classroom and see mostly books about white children; however, this reality remains the norm. Let’s actively work to change it—not tomorrow or next year, but today.

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi.

Gangi, J. M. (2008). The Unbearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction: Realizing the

Implications of the Proficient Reader Research. Multicultural Review17(1).

Lifshitz, J. (2016). Curating empathy: How LGBT-friendly libraries can create safe spaces, foster understanding, and lift a burden off our children. Literacy Today, 33(6), 24–26.

McGill-Franzen, A. (2009). Series books for young readers: Seeking reading pleasure and developing reading competence. In Children’s Literature in the Reading Program: An Invitation to Read (pp. 57–65). International Reading Association.

Rogers, R., & Christian, J. (2007). ‘What could I say?’A critical discourse analysis of the

construction of race in children’s literature. Race Ethnicity and Education10(1), 21-46.

Ross, C. S. (1995). “If they read Nancy Drew, so what?”: Series book readers talk back. Library & Information Science Research, 17(3), 201–236.

Sims, R. (1983). What has happened to the ‘all-white’ world of children’s books?. The Phi Delta Kappan64(9), 650-653.

Smolkin, L. B., & Young, C. A. (2011). Missing mirrors, missing windows: Children’s literature textbooks and LGBT topics. Language Arts, 88(3), 217–225.

Tschida, C. M., Ryan, C. L., & Ticknor, A. S. (2014). Building on windows and mirrors:

Encouraging the disruption of “single stories” through children’s literature. Journal of Children’s Literature, 40(1), 28.

Kiersten Greene is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education in the Department of Teaching & Learning of the State University of New York at New Paltz. She earned her PhD in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and her MSEd in Early Childhood and Elementary Education at Bank Street College of Education. Interested in bridging the gap between policy and practice in K-12 schooling, Kiersten’s scholarship is rooted in making sense of how the 21st century classroom experience is both shaping and being shaped by digital communication. Previously, Kiersten was a teacher and literacy coach at a public elementary school in New York City. She is an Apple Teacher, and in 2015, was named an Apple Distinguished Educator.

Student Voice: The Value of “What do you think?”

The greatest question any authoritative figure can ask a child or a student. Inclusivity in all aspects of decision making is vital, but it is most important in our schools.

I would like to consider myself a youth activist working to diversify a segregated school system, and yet while legislation is the ultimate goal in any reform process, it is the student advocates that create change from the bottom on up.

In December of last year, I had the opportunity to speak at an integrated high school. Students from all racial, economic, and educational backgrounds were in a single classroom. I stepped into the main office, and there was a mailbox for every student and teacher (about 150 all together), and a 10 foot tall book shelf with a sign over it that said “take one.” Teachers and students said “good morning” to each other every day, and it was practically impossible to avoid anyone. Art was on every corner of the walls and, although the school was only one floor, they compacted that space with bookshelves in the hallways and small classrooms that accommodate one-on-one learning. I was not only shocked, but uncomfortable with why inclusivity felt so abnormal. Speaking to students who genuinely felt passionate was refreshing, so much so that it was a bother coming back to school that same Friday afternoon. I turned to my teacher that accompanied me and asked, “Why doesn’t our school look like that?”

After countless hours of research, and input from teachers, advisors, and experts, I realized that the reason why this was so peculiar was because NYC has the most segregated schools in the country. In fact, a UCLA study found that 19 of New York City’s 32 community school districts are over 90 percent Black and Hispanic. I soon knew the answer was to integrate schools, to create a healthy learning environment, and to have equitable resources and equal opportunities at success. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out when there’s segregation in the education system, inequality and unhappiness occur.

Although the racial integration resonated with me, I understood that a healthy school environment is more than just racial or economic integration; rather, it requires empowering student voice. In most elite high schools, one component is strikingly similar: the stress solely on academic achievement. Nowadays, a student council isn’t so much about representing the needs of the student body as it is a loose requirement that a school must have. Representation and student involvement in a school’s structural settings develop inclusiveness, and empower students to develop a work ethic strictly for the love of accomplishment and education. John Dewey once said, “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.” Today, students only engage in “busy work”– work that has no genuine value to your learning capabilities. A classmate, Ilana Cohen, expresses this idea well: “Our experience in high school is not meant to be one solely centered around academic achievement, but rather to be an opportunity to explore our own identities and most importantly, develop strong voices.” With no student voice or advocacy, the hallways of a high school encompass students that look more like robots than curious individuals.

An adolescent’s enthusiasm is not dead; rather the responsibility lies on institutions to empower curiosity, passion, and student voices. Working for IntegrateNYC4Me – a grassroots organization aiming to put an end to the inequities of our school system–has allowed me to project my voice to the most powerful of individuals. In a phone conversation with the organization’s co-founder, Sarah Camiscoli, I vividly remember our conversation being about a sponsorship opportunity that would fund projects we were trying to accomplish across the city, yet there was a catch. If we [the students], ever wanted to work on a project, we would need approval from multiple authority figures. She reiterated that she would not accept the offer without telling me about it first, then followed up by asking me a question that will resonate with me for the remainder of my activism career: “What do you think about that?” My answer wasn’t as significant as the feeling of being included in a serious decision making process. I felt acknowledged, and felt that I now had a responsibility to do what was right.


Hebh Jamal is a senior at Beacon High School. She is a member of Muslim American Society and was featured in the New York Times article, Young Muslim Americans Feeling the Strain of Suspicion. Hebh Jamal is currently working with IntegrateNYC4Me in an effort to diversify New York City schools. As a Muslim American, Hebh “aims to create a sense of community through dialogue and activism.”

Invisible Parent Involvement Within the NYC High School Admissions Process

I walked into an Upper East Side public middle school and my first stop was the teachers’ lounge where Jane, the Parent Coordinator, waved. She was unable to give me her attention, though, as the phones were ringing off the hook that morning. I was able to hear only her end of the conversations:

“You’re planning to attend a high school open house? OK, make sure to register on-line. And it’s during the school day, so you’ll need to take some time off work.”

“I know Bronx Science is a long commute. You know, when kids here get accepted, the parents all chip in and rent a school bus to transport their kids there.”

“You went through a divorce? Perhaps the guidance counselor can mark off the extenuating circumstances box in the high school application? They’ll consider that when reviewing your child’s grades.”

That evening, I traveled 40 blocks north to an East Harlem public middle school. Parents trickled into the school building for the monthly meeting hosted by their Parent Coordinator, Mr. Vargas. His meeting agenda focused on how to assist parents with formal banking. As he set up for the meeting, parents casually engaged with each other and with me.

“I couldn’t get off work to go to the high school open house, so I drove by the school, just to get a feel of it. I sat in the school bus that I drive watching the kids get out of school and imagined if I saw my child there.”

“My son and I are looking at all high schools that are on the 6 train line. All the other trains are always slow or under repair. It’s a way to keep him safe and close by.”

Other parents talked about students who had died at the result of neighborhood violence, warned others of colors to avoid wearing to not anger street gangs, referenced families who were homeless, and asked if the school would continue its free breakfast program which they depended on. Despite all these extenuating circumstances, no one made mention of that check box on the high school admissions application.

Here are two schools as different as one can imagine. What the schools do have in common is that both groups of parents are working hard to navigate school choice, which New York City has now made mandatory for entry into high school. I have examined the issue of public school choice as a former education organizer, who worked with low-income communities of color on educational equity issues for 15 years; as a NYC public school alum whose educational (and life) trajectory was shifted when I attended Brooklyn Technical High School (an exam school) in the 1980s, and as a researcher who conducted a two-year study looking at how NYC families across the economic ladder engage with high school admissions (Perez, 2011; Perez, 2009).

In New York City, close to 80,000 students participate in public high school admissions every year. New York is one of a growing number of cities across the country to position public school choice as an educational reform; the reform strategy is described in the High School Directory as being rooted in “choice and equity.” For some families, this marks one of many moments along an educational journey in which they think about school selection and exercise choice. For others, this is the first time they are confronted with decisions and consciously select school options. My research looks at how the experience of navigating public school choice varies for families with abundant resources, for those living in scarcity, and for those in between.

In speaking on the issue of school choice, President Obama has reminded us that it is our ethical responsibility to ensure that all children — not just our own—get a great education (Obama, 2015). Increased choice about which public school to attend is advocated by policy makers across the United States as a strategy for urban education reform; advocates claim public school choice will improve school quality and create better opportunities for students. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have public school choice policies allowing parents to have some influence over what school their child/ren will attend (The Center for Education Reform, 2016). It is important to examine public school choice because it cannot increase opportunities for everyone if only those families that already have multiple educational options are able to effectively navigate the system. This is an ethical issue.

This experience for all families engaged in high school admissions is further complicated by two important factors in NYC’s educational landscape: reverse white flight and mandated choice. Firstly, policy changes arose from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control of New York City’s public school system which mandated that all eighth graders participate in high school choice, pitting families who were seasoned institutional navigators experienced at strategically evaluating and questioning the system against novice choosers who take the existing choice system at face value. High schools have varying types of criteria, creating a labyrinth that is best steered by students who live in well-resourced zip codes, attend middle schools with staff who have the experience and knowledge to support high school admissions, and have parents with the skillset and ability to create time to undergo this complex and consuming process.

You might be asking, “Isn’t mandated choice better than no choice at all?” In order to be ethically sound, mandating choice must be braided with an honesty about the high school admissions system. While the criteria for acceptance to a high school is important, the larger issue to be truthful about is that the admissions system is presented as a level playing field to enable all students to have equal access, but that, in fact, the imbalances in resources that students’ families bring to the process (e.g.: time, money, social connections) mean that it offers a way only for affluent parents to choose a public school (rather than a private school) while actually reinforcing the segregated and unequal nature of the system by putting a sheen of fairness on it. This honesty includes acknowledging the invisible involvement that all families undergo to navigate high school admissions which includes but is not limited to monitoring attendance records, collectively purchasing transportation, engaging in unofficial school visits, and documenting extenuating circumstances.

The second change in the educational landscape relates to the significant demographic changes occurring in New York City as upper and middle-class whites not only return to the city, but enroll their children in public schools, creating new competition for the most sought after spots. The New York Times has proclaimed that white flight has in fact reversed, documenting that Census records ending July 1, 2013, recorded the city’s third consecutive gain in its non-Hispanic white population. Demographers claim that these gains have not happened since the 1960s (Roberts, 2014). In 2009, a majority of Manhattan’s population (51 percent) was non-Hispanic white, making it the first time in forty years that whites represented a majority (Dumenco 2010). Private school enrollment steadily decreased between 2007 and 2012, according to state education department estimates (Hovitz, 2013).

You might be asking, “Don’t we want reverse white flight to schools in order to have diversity?” Absolutely. In fact, reverse white flight (or white return) is necessary to have schools that are authentically diverse in race, ethnicity and socioeconomics. White return has positive returns for cities and their schools. For instance, middle-class white families bring additional resources to public schools- such as volunteer time, networks, and monetary contributions that can benefit all students and not just their own children. There is an authentic type of diversity that includes diversity of race and class. And families with resources bring a different accountability structure to schools that are eager to hold on to them. After years of segregation and inequitable schooling opportunities, how is white return not the answer to a more just public school system?

The challenge in white return is that these positive returns do not benefit everyone. Attending a good school can positively change the life trajectory of any person- particularly someone who is of limited means and would not otherwise be able to tap into networks of opportunity. Often, these benefits bypass long-time community residents (specifically low-income people of color) whose lives would be most impacted by these opportunities–such as good public schools.

Sometimes white middle-class families engage in strategies that mark their return to public schools in a more aggressive way–what educational researcher Thomas Pedroni calls, “white acquisitive strategies” (personal communication, 6/23/14). I argue that this is also a form of invisible involvement because it is rarely ever acknowledged. Below are some examples from across the country.

  • In Denver, white parents pay to the secure the services of e.Merging Educational Consulting, a firm once used to help parents secure spots for their children in selective private schools, has now expanded its offering to public school admissions (Prothero, 2015).
  • In New Orleans- white enrollment in public schools is rising, doubling to 7 percent since Hurricane Katrina. Families work the system to get their children into one of the three highly desirable public schools. The school system does not provide access to transportation so white middle-class families organize together to charter private vans to transport their children to these desirable schools, paying more than $900 per year to supplement transportation (Dreilinger, 2015).
  • In Detroit- the city that historically embodied white flight–there has been an increase in the white population first time since the 1950s with 8,000 more white residents in 2014 alone (Badger, 2015). In order to secure quality public schooling for their children, white families, some of whom have not yet given birth, have created a Facebook page called “The Best Classrooms Project” where they discover ‘acceptable’ schools for their families and collectively strategize how to gain entry (Butrymowicz, 2014)

I identified a number of white acquisitive strategies in my work with the NYC high school admissions process.

  • Parents paid for private educational evaluations to counter the DOE’s assessment of their children, which often secured additional testing time as a benefit.
  • During an interview, one upper-middle class mother proudly boasted to me how she maneuvered to ensure her two sons seats in the district’s free test preparation course for elite public high schools, displacing seats for the population the program intends to serve: low-income, underrepresented students of color.
  • Students benefited from consultants who shaped their art portfolios, tutors who drilled the specialized high school test format into them, editors who fine-tuned their admissions essays, and coaches who guided dance and drama auditions. (Educational researcher Michelle Fine refers to this supplementation as “educational steroids”).
  • Parents collectively chartered a private bus to alleviate long commutes to elite high schools.
  • And a collective “white acquisitive strategy” was the parent organizing that resulted in the creation of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in 2002. Despite the fact that there are no longer any zoned high schools in Manhattan, parents I interviewed regularly referred to “EL RO” (which is currently 62% white) as “their neighborhood school.” This is aided by an admissions policy that gives priority to students who live or attend school in District 2.

Challenging the system with your own resources is a great thing. The problem is that most families served by the public school system are unable to do this. We can’t address disparities in the high school admissions process unless we first admit they are present. Requiring choice for everyone creates the conditions where inexperienced choosers start the process with a high-stakes decision. It is the equivalent of learning how to swim at the deep end of the pool.

You might be asking, “So how might we address this?” One idea that the DOE could incorporate into these new mechanisms is creating a new position of “institutional navigator” to assist parents with the high school admissions process. Based on the idea of having “patient navigators” at hospitals, Freeman (2006) argues that the rationale is based on recognition of the complicated layers cancer patients must negotiate from diagnosis through treatment and follow-up. A patient may have to see seven doctors before even she gets to a second opinion. Because many families are navigating multiple institutions in addition to high school choice (e.g.: housing, health care, immigration, criminal justice), the institutional navigator would serve as a tool to help level the playing field.

Another possibility is to incorporate training on navigating high school admissions for all middle school staff, as guidance counselors in high poverty schools are often pulled away from this area to focus on immediate crises. The vignette at the start of this entry shows how two Parent Coordinators–Jane and Mr. Varga–engaged with parents in very different ways around high school admissions. This too contributes to the disparity. Lastly, students need to be included in the discussion of how to navigate the system, as many of them in low-income communities have to go at it alone.

Earlier this summer, U.S. Education Secretary John King (an alum of NYC public schools) spoke at the National PTA Convention and summoned parents and educators to work together to create schools that are racially and socioeconomically diverse, arguing that this is good for all students and presenting it as a national priority. King’s call is vivid in my mind as I engage in this research. But, for now, I ask that we challenge the idea that the high school admissions process is rooted in “choice and equity” and ask ourselves what does it mean to engage in a choice process while influenced by mandated choice and white return?


The Center for Education Reform. 2016. Just the FAQs-School Choice.

Badger, E. 2015. “The white population is growing in many U.S. cities for the first time in years.”

The Washington Post. September 24, 2015.

Butrymowicz, S. 2014. “Inside Detroit’s Plan to Woo Middle-Class Parents to Its Public Schools.”         Time Magazine. November 25, 2014.       bankruptcy/

Deruy, E. 2016. “A New Argument for More Diverse Classrooms.” The Atlantic, July 1, 2016

Dreilinger, D. 2015. “How 3 top New Orleans public schools keep students out.” The Times-

Picayune: Greater New Orleans.

Dumenco, S. 2010. “A Racial U-Turn.” New York Magazine, July, 25.

Hovitz, H. 2013. “P. S. I Love You: Why Downtown Parents Are Choosing Public School.” Observer, August 20.

Freeman, H. P. 2006. Patient navigation: a community based strategy to reduce cancer disparities. Journal of Urban Health, 83(2), 139-141.

Obama, B. 2015. “Weekly Address: Ensuring Every Child Gets a Great Education.” Remarks of President Barack Obama, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, May 2.

Pérez, M. (2011). Two Tales of One City: A Political Economy of the New York City Public High School Admissions Process. Thesis (Ph. D.) — City University of New York, 2011.

Pérez, M. 2009. “Latina Parents, School Choice, and Pierre Bourdieu.” In Theory and Education Research: Toward Critical Social Explanation, edited by J. Anyon, M. Dumas, D. Linville, Nolan, M. Pérez, E. Tuck, and J. Weiss. New York: Routledge

Prothero, A. (2015). “Consultants Steer Parents Through Maze of School Choice”, Ed Week, February 3, 2015.

Roberts, S. (2014) Census Estimates Show another Increase in New York City’s Non-Hispanic White Population. The New York Times, June 30, 2014.


Madeline Pérez De Jesus is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work and Latino Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. A life-long New Yorker before moving to Connecticut, Madeline received her Ph.D. at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Her study, Two Tales of One City: A Political Economy of the New York City Public High School Admissions Process, was awarded honorable distinction in 2011. She co-authored a volume, Theory and Educational Research: Toward Critical Social Explanation (Anyon et al. 2008, Routledge), in which she has a featured chapter on the experiences of Latina mothers navigating school choice. She is currently working on a book that tells the story of families from two communities at opposite sides of the income ladder searching for access to quality high schools as they navigate the NYC public high school admissions process.

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