Transcript of the episode “UPDATE: Moving toward admissions equity and culture change at Manhattan’s Beacon High School”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Martin Luther King Day week seems an especially good time to get an update on the campaign for equity at Beacon, an elite, screened public high school in Manhattan. As listeners may remember, last June we interviewed students in the Beacon Union of Unions about their demands, which included more equitable admissions. Today we’ll speak with Toni Smith-Thompson and Robin Broshi from the Beacon High School PTA about developments around admissions. And we repost our interview with the students. Welcome, Toni and Robin.

Robin B: [00:00:51] Thank you for having me.

Toni S-T: [00:00:52] Yes. Thank you.

Amy H-L: [00:00:53] Opening admissions was one of the central demands of the Beacon Union of Unions last year. What changes have occurred in New York City and specifically at Beacon?

Toni S-T: [00:01:07] Well, I guess if I can start and say that at the start of the pandemic, I think for people who have been working on equity in admissions, It was very clear that admissions would not be able to happen as it’s been, because all of the metrics would not be available. And I think very early on in the pandemic, it was student leaders that pushed forward to begin demanding that the DOE think seriously about how it was going to handle admissions and use it as an opportunity to create more equitable admissions so that students most heavily hit by the pandemic are not further punished for this, for these circumstances, right. These impossible circumstances, and so it was many, many months of advocacy that was student led, but supported by parents and other adults and community members. And I think early on, the DOE had some virtual forums, but then really nothing for many months until very late in December, when they announced how they were going to handle admissions, which was largely, I think the highlights were eliminating screening at the middle school level, but leaving in place screening at the high school level with a lot of kind of recommendations and caveats. And eliminating district priority with the plan to eliminate more geographic priority. But I think the other thing I would highlight is that over the course of these months, because there was so much silence from the Department of Education, student leaders from Teens Take Charge and Integrate NYC, and others took it upon themselves with some support to go straight to principals and say, the DOE is not taking action. You have the power to change how you do admissions. Will you pledge to stand with us? 

Robin B: [00:02:48] So Toni hits on the city-wide landscape, which was, you know, the Mayor, everyone saw the writing on the wall in spring, especially once state tests were eliminated and grading policies were changed. Admissions weren’t going to be able to work the way they had. The City actually did a number of online listening tours, uh, both open to the general public around different boroughs and then also with many, many interest groups, some that aggressively advocate to keep the status quo around screening and some that are equity minded groups that want to dismantle screening.

And they had originally assured a June announcement. And as Toni said, it was actually late December before they made the announcement. And it appeared that it was just a lot of anxiety from the Mayor not really wanting to know how to take a stand. And one thing that we didn’t weren’t clear on, that became very clear, was that the decision around high schools and allowing them to keep screening with some guidance, but that really leaving it to high schools to decide how to approach the question of how they would continue to screen, if they would continue to screen, was one of the big unknowns so that a lot of high schools were scrambling because they thought maybe it would be a central system-wide decision. And in fact, the DOE said, “No, you can make your own school-based decision, but you have a very short turnaround time to submit your plan.” And in fact, it was a matter of, I think, two weeks or three weeks from when the DOE made its announcement to when schools had to submit to the DOE what their admissions plan was going to be.

And a local change at Beacon that was really significant and, I think, allowed for the momentum that the teen advocates inside Beacon and outside Beacon to really keep building was that there was a change in leadership at Beacon High School. So the longtime principal, the founding principal, retired and a new principal came in, who was very clearly coming from an equity, looking at equity lens, looking with an anti-racist lens. And the one of the faculty members who had been responsible for pretty much managing the entire Beacon admissions system also moved out of the city. So there was a real blank slate at Beacon, as far as, where all the groundwork that had been laid under prior leadership really had a chance to thrive. And that really opened up a lot of opportunity for stakeholder advocacy: students, teachers, and parents.

Jon M: [00:05:37] So where do things stand now at Beacon? And when you talk about the turnaround time, are you talking about in terms of admissions for 21-22 or for 22-23? Are we talking about the admissions that are going to be happening right now for kids coming in September or is it for the following year?

Robin B: [00:06:00] So it’s kids coming in September. We’re talking about kids that are currently in eighth grade and are applying to schools that traditionally looked at their seventh grade test scores and their seventh grade academic grades, but they don’t have state test scores from seventh grade and they don’t have final grades for seventh grade because of the way the City kind of suspended providing traditional final grades for students that were in seventh grade last year. So what the City decided was that the city-wide parameters were that schools could continue to use test scores, they would be allowed to use sixth grade test scores if they wanted to. So students that are in eighth grade right now would be submitting test scores from when they were in sixth grade. They could use sixth grade final grades and they could use the partial seventh grade grades, so the grade from the first semester of seventh grade. These are metrics that the DOE said screened high schools were permitted to use.

Another piece was that high schools couldn’t add any elements to the screen that they hadn’t used previously. So if a school didn’t request an essay last year, they couldn’t request of this year’s applicants to do an essay. And another centralized piece of guidance was that all schools had an extension to apply for the City’s–what they call their diversity in admissions pilots, which are essentially a list of pre-formulated filters that a school could select. So for example, a very common filter is Free and Reduced Lunch. And essentially schools can say we want priority for seats in our school to be given to students who are eligible for free reduced lunch. And so high schools are typically supposed to have submitted the request to use one of those filters before the school year started. But instead schools were given an extension until. January 12th, I think was the deadline to put in a request to have one of these filters. So that’s the city-wide landscape.

And so at Beacon, there were, you know, I can speak to meetings that with the PTA’s diversity equity and inclusion group that Toni worked on, too. But there was also discussion on the School Leadership Team, the principal consulted with other groups of just teachers of, with the BU and all different stakeholders.

And, um, what they’ve landed on, and I can’t be too specific because we’re still waiting for final approval from DOE central, but Beacon will not be using any screens even though they’re allowed to, they’re not going to be using any grades or test scores from sixth grade or seventh grade at all for eighth graders applying this year. They’re going to be given an opportunity to submit an essay based on a single prompt and then two supporting “artifacts,” they’re called, I’m using air quotes, and the artifacts are essentially going to be a menu of options that students can submit, that could be, you know, an original piece of artwork, a poem, a math problem, graded work. They want to really let students, you know, find elements that are personal to them and submit it and talk about it. So that work product will be evaluated, that portfolio will be evaluated by teachers, using a rubric that will be published so everyone understands what they’re looking for. And they will also be probably going with a 50% filter for priority for students eligible for free and reduced lunch. So I don’t know if Toni, if you want to speak a little bit about how it felt for you as a parent on the PTA.

Toni S-T: [00:10:18] Yeah, and I’ll be clear. I don’t hold on official position on the PTA, but I joined the subcommittee of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee that was specifically created to work on admissions after the DOE made their announcement about admissions and it became clear that schools would be largely deciding many of the pieces of their admissions process. And we wanted to make sure that the DEI committee of Beacon parents had an opportunity to provide input to the School Leadership Team on that. And I thought it was a really important exercise for parents to engage in. We spent many, many hours amongst ourselves, and then also sharing back with the larger diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, to really challenge a lot of assumptions that we have about what we mean when schools say “academic rigor,” what we mean  when we’re using terms like “students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch,” when we’re using terms related to what kind of housing students live in as proxies for when we’re really talking about students of color, or when we’re really talking about students who fit some other demographic, right, and really interrogating assumptions about what students can thrive in what environment. And we spent a lot of time going back into the archives, looking at Beacon’s original founding documents, the mission statement, the guiding vision, who it intended to serve, what the pedagogical approach was going to be, really focusing on the intention behind using a project-based approach to be able to serve New York City students.

And compared with the mission statement that has been in use in more recent years, it’s very different now, right. The school, we really tracked kind of the evolution of Beacon from the beginning when I was a student at Beacon, through the years when it transitioned to an ed-op school where it really had a formal process to strive for a range of types of academic learners. And then of course the evolution in the more recent, I guess, decade or 15 years, where it became seen, and in practice, much more of a coveted school that was seen as like serving elite students, that was really kind of an Ivy League track type environment. And in doing that, we got to see that when people talk about the right fit for a school, when you’re looking for a student that’s the right kind of fit, a lot of what we were uncovering is that what has been considered a right fit at Beacon in more recent years is not necessarily students or families that are looking for inquiry-based or project-based learning, which was at the roots of Beacon’s purpose, but students who had access to resources and students whose families saw Beacon as a fast track or good track to an Ivy League school. And so in catering to a population that wasn’t as committed to the project based approach, the school itself began to move somewhat away from the project based approach. And it seems like now with new leadership that has deep experience in project based learning and of New York Performance Standards Consortium principles, there seems like a really broad commitment now, or a recommitment back to the roots of the school, to really honor that project-based learning and a real commitment to be thoughtful and equitable in what the school sees as required for students to be successful at Beacon. So rather than just saying “this student gets into Beacon because we think they can do the work,” actually interrogating what kind of learning environment have teachers developed to provide and does that development support the ability to teach any New York City public school student that wants this education, or only students that have a certain baseline of access to capital and resources and opportunity.

Amy H-L: [00:14:29] So just to clarify, this plan has been submitted to the DOE and you’re at this point waiting for approval?

Robin B: [00:14:37] Yes, that’s correct. So the process was that all the high schools in New York City had to submit their revised screening plans by, I think it was, January 12th. And the expectation is that maybe there’d be a little back and forth during the week and that it would be published on January 19. 

Another change that the DOE is initiating is that all this information about what specific information schools used to use to screen was scattered on each individual school’s website. And so the DOE is committed to moving all of this information to a single clearinghouse website. So you look up Beacon and you see what all the admissions requirements are. So essentially the pipeline is that the plan was submitted on the 12th, maybe some negotiation back and forth during the week and then early next week, the 18th or 19th of January, the DOE’s school directory, it will be all of the requirements of each individual screened high school in New York City.

Amy H-L: [00:15:45] And do all the stakeholders, the PTA, the parents, the students, and the teachers and the administration all back this particular plan? Is there some consensus?

Robin B: [00:16:00] I think there’s a lot of understanding that it was developed under not ideal circumstances because the City, the Mayor, took so long to provide guidance to high schools. And even to let them know whether or not they would be able to, whether it was going to be mandated or not. Like there was a chance that the City would say absolutely no screens for middle and high schools, right. So everyone was kind of in this holding pattern, also trying to manage educating students in COVID. So, you know, it was easy not to make, figuring out like a bunch of scenarios that might happen and then coming up with admissions plans for each one a top priority. So I think there was a lot of understanding that this plan is pretty, everyone has issues with it, but everyone understands the rationale behind the choices and is willing to throw their support behind a new leader, with knowing there’s an equity lens. My sense from conversations on the SLT, um, where I get to hear from parents and teachers and students is that the specific concerns about the plan are from many different perspectives.

So I can speak for myself and say, I don’t really like having so much subjective input that, you know, you have essays and artifacts that are going to be, there may be like a few thousand submissions, that now teachers are going to have to meaningfully read through and assess and that’s going to cost money. And even the most perfectly trained assessor is going to have a fight with their wife and be in a grumpy mood when they read some submissions and, you know, all kinds of things influence how stuff gets assessed. So I personally have reservations from the perspective that I think it’s too granular and it’s trying too hard to curate a class.

However, there are definitely parents on our SLT that are concerned from the other perspective, that want to put in the grades, that want to say, “oh, let’s just do sixth grade tests if that’s what we can have,” that have reservations about how high the free reduced lunch set aside is, so there’s going to be a lot more conversation and work and consensus building for the following year, for this year’s seventh grade students, to try to come up with a more permanent model, where I suspect stakeholders are going to be less forgiving of the compromise.

Amy H-L: [00:18:49] Robin, SLT is School Leadership Team?

Robin B: [00:18:53] Yes. So every public school in New York City has a school leadership team called an SLT. It is mandated by the State. The principal always has a seat on the school leadership team. The PTA president always has a seat on the school leadership team and the UFT, each school’s UFT rep always has a seat on the school leadership team. And then each school decides how many additional members of the team there are. There always have to be an equal number of teachers and parents that are elected by their constituency groups. So parents are elected by parents and teachers are elected by teachers. 

Amy H-L: [00:19:31] Toni, what does the BUU think of the plan?

Toni S-T: [00:19:35] So Robin might have had more opportunities for direct communication with the UU students than I have directly. But one of the things that I was thinking about, and then Robin, you can add onto this, when the BUU were really kind of in the thick of their advocacy last year, they, weren’t only talking about the composition of the student body, although that was a big part of it. There was a lot about the culture at Beacon and about the experience of students, particularly students of color, at Beacon, from the kind of classroom experiences, direct interactions with teachers, grading, being tokenized, from start to finish, right from ninth through 12th grade, many different issues.

And so one of the conversations that happened on our parent committee a lot was about what do we think will be supportive recommendations from the perspective of balancing culture shift and changes to the student body composition. Those aren’t really decisions that  parents make, but in the course of our conversations, there was a real recognition that the goal is not just to change the way the student body looks. It’s not only to kind of recruit from or cherry pick from a kind of a set of middle schools around the City, to make sure that there’s like a racial and ethnic balance, but you want to make sure that if, you know, as we understand it, if Beacon has been committed to a certain type of culture and educational approach for years, then that’s the kind of, it is through that lens that teachers are being developed, that they’re being supported, that those are the kinds of professional development opportunities they’re getting, those are the kinds of materials they’re using in their classroom, right. Like what you invest in affects everything in the school culture and approach. And so it’s not enough to just change the student body, you know. Yes. Beacon, absolutely, as a public school,should be serving its fair share of students who are English Language Learners, for example. However, there’s also a recognition that if that is not a place where Beacon has invested in developing staff to provide that kind of education, it’s also not enough to just say next year we’re going to have more students who are English Language Learners, right. Without the proper supports in place that is not enough. And that is not a good solution. And that will create more of what the BUU was raising issues with last year. And I think that the new leadership at Beacon is very well aware of that. And so I do think while Robin is right, that the plan that was submitted to the DOE this year isn’t the magical balance that everybody is happy with, there’s also a recognition that there’s going to be a bunch of changes this year in admissions coupled with a bunch of other changes to the internal workings of Beacon and the curriculum and the approach, and that these kinds of, I guess, to use IntegrateNYC’s “the five Rs of real integration” that all of that admissions, that representation of the teacher body, the curriculum, how discipline and culture is handled at the school, all of that, the level and type of and distribution of resources, all of that is going to have to be done at the same time in order to shift the culture in the school to be more equitable. 

Jon M: [00:23:00] Thank you. Toni Smith-Thompson and Robin Broshi of the Beacon High School PTA. And now please keep listening for an encore interview with the students from the Beacon Union of Unions.

Jon M: [00:23:23] HI, I’m Jon Moscow. 

Amy H-Laff: [00:23:27] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff, Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Yarmis Cruz, Eli Crenshaw-Smith, and Tony Paperno, students at Beacon High School, a public high school in Manhattan. Yarmis is a senior and will be attending Northwestern University next year. Eli grew up in Brooklyn and will be attending Vanderbilt, and Toby is a junior and the Director of Strategy at Teens Take Charge. Welcome!

Eli C-S: [00:23:52] Good to be here.

Toby P: [00:23:53] Thank you for having us. 

Jon M: [00:23:56] Would you tell us a little bit about Beacon. Why did you choose to go to Beacon and what have your experiences  been like? 

Yarmis C: [00:24:04] For me, going to Beacon,  I’m from originally from the Bronx, from a very underfunded area, and for the most part, I think I’ve gone to pretty good schools compared compared to the ones that are around me. But I knew that if I wanted to get the best resources, I had to go out of the borough and into Manhattan, and Beacon seemed like the best choice at the moment, at the time. 

Toby P: [00:24:30] So before Beacon, I went to Park Slope Collegiate, which is like one of the most diverse middle schools in New York City. And then before that, I went to PS 10, which is like a super White, heavily resourced elementary school. And I think being at Park Slope Collegiate, it was a really valuable experience for me. But then when I saw Beacon, when I saw, like, when I went on the tour of Beacon, when I saw like the shiny building, the shiny library and on the tour, they were like, oh, like, I can show you this, even though we’re not supposed to. And I saw, I went to the basement and I saw like 12 music studios and like full drum sets, I was like, wow, like I really want to go to this school. Because I also, I do play the drums. I’m a musician. I was like, the school just has all the resources that I want, like I can spend all day in the basement.

Eli C-S: [00:25:22] Um, and I think just the resources. Yeah. I chose Beacon for a similar reason. I’m also a musician and overall artsy person, I would say, and so I chose Beacon, I think, for the mix of academics and good arts that it has. And I think that comes a lot from the good resources that it has. And so I went to Math and Science Oratory School for middle school and Brooklyn New School for elementary school. So Beacon was always very talked about within both of those schools. And it’s a very, I would say, common path to go from Brooklyn New School to Math and Science to Beacon. So I was definitely not alone. And that comforted me as well to know that I would have other friends with me coming to high school.

Jon M: [00:26:05]  And what have some of your experiences been while you’ve been there?

Eli C-S: [00:26:09] Mine has been overall really good. I would say for the reasons that I chose it, um, I definitely made a good choice. I’ve been in band all four years. I’ve been in the school musical. So I’ve definitely followed through with that plan of balancing arts and academics. And my academics have been overall very good. I would say one of the. more alarming things when I got there was the lack of people of–people who look like me, people of color. And I think my middle school was a tad bit more diverse and a little less wealthy. I am not sure if that’s true, but just from interactions I have with other students, it does seem like that. So that was a little bit of a change for me. 

Toby P: [00:26:55] I think for me,  freshman year, like right after I got to Beacon, like fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations. I was playing on the ultimate Frisbee team. I was like in a band at Beacon and outside of Beacon. I would go to the library a lot and I think I was taking full advantage of Beacon’s resources. And at the same time, like the lessons were mostly interesting to me. I have like a pretty good set of teachers. 

But then I think after freshman year, when my mom, who also is involved with like some educational advocacy, started talking more about like the inequities in the school system. And then I joined this advocacy group called Teens Take Charge. I think that really opened my eyes to a lot of the things that I thought were good about Beacon, that, like I thought all the resources that we have, or like this, like this mix of high achieving students were good. I think I opened my eyes to see the flaw, like the flaws in that, in the fault and that, um, and I think, especially just seeing and like realizing everybody else around me has like, like their mental health is just like, I think, I feel like I say this a lot, but like being deteriorated. I think I noticed that more and more, the more time I spent in Beacon.

Yarmis C: [00:28:19] For the most part as a freshman, kind of similar to Toby, I was just in love with it. It looks nothing like the schools I had gone to previously and it just, it felt like a privilege and it is a privilege, honestly. Academically I’ve always liked to be challenged, and I was. I was going to bed at two, three in the morning doing work. And I loved it in that sense. And it wasn’t until after freshman year, where I would sit down and talk to my friends who tend to look like me for the most part, where we talking and be like, wait, but what are, what exactly are we learning? And is what we’re learning something that’s actually meaningful to us? And is it something that’s going to help me in life? And that’s kind of when I started to feel a little bit off about Beacon while still acknowledging the privilege that it is to go there. 

Amy H-Laff: [00:29:03] So Beacon students have been very active in organizing throughout the school year. Students submitted a letter this month, demanding that a number of changes in how the school operates be implemented by the end of the school year. What are your most important demands? 

Toby P: [00:29:19]  So I think our three biggest demands, like our three overarching themes. The first one is desegregating Beacon because New York City is the most segregated school system in the nation, and Beacon is kind of a microcosm of that. Like for example, we have like three times the amount of white students that there are in the New York City public school system percentage wise. And like our economic need index, the amount of free and reduced lunch people at Beacon, is 21% or lower while the economic need index, the free and reduced lunch rate, for New York Cty public school students is 71%. It’s above 70%. So the first demand is really just about desegregating Beacon, about integrating Beacon about, and more specifically creating a new admission system at Beacon because currently at Beacon, there’s these admissions screens. So there’s a portfolio.  There used to be an interview, but now there’s just a portfolio. You have to write an essay. Then there’s like a minimum requirement for grades to get into Beacon and test scores to get into Beacon. And that’s really what sorts out the people  who get into Beacon versus people who don’t get into Beacon. Bu I think our organization, the BUU, Beacon United Unions, has kind of realized that that’s more of a measure of privilege than a measure of how smart you are. It’s a measure of if you have the tutors. It’s a measure of if your parents can help you write the essay. It’s a measure of what extracurriculars did you have that you can put in your portfolio. I’m like, I can think of like a long list, that’s based on privilege that determines if you get into Beacon. So we want, we want to change the admissions at Beacon. We want to create a new hiring committee, to create new policies for these admissions, change admissions policy at Beacon. 

Um, and then the second one and desegregating Beacon is a new hiring committee because so many of the teachers at Beacon are white and especially in the history department, are white men. And we don’t think, we think the teachers at Beacon should be representative of the students and the students should be representative of the City. So we want to change hiring at Beacon to make the staff more representative of the students. And if you guys want to talk about that.

Eli C-S: [00:31:44] Yeah. And our second, so that was our first theme of desegregating Beacon and kind of desegregating all the people that are coming in, whether it be teachers or students. Our second theme for demands is racial justice within Beacon, or just making students feel safe within Beacon, because we understand that many many students of color as me and Yarmis have mentioned before, don’t feel represented within the student body and don’t feel heard by the staff. And so if we just accepted a whole bunch of new students of color, they won’t feel safe in Beacon, which is something that we don’t want. So our second group of demands is focused around making these students feel safe and that’s through a revision of curriculum within different subjects to make sure that our students feel more represented in what they’re learning, whether that be in history, math, in any subject, as well as professional development for teachers so that teachers can properly interact with the students they’re teaching and not offend them in any way, as well as enforcing kind of enforcing accountability. Just so that when students do misbehave on any basis, whether that be of race, sexuality, class, whatever, there is a proper method that the school can take to follow through for repercussions for those students, which is something that we haven’t seen in Beacon. 

Yarmis C: [00:33:10] The third thing would have to be mental health resources for students that are already in Beacon. I feel as though, we all feel as though the students, they may speak to certain people, but they don’t necessarily know that everyone has that one adult in the building that they can go to. I’ve been lucky enough to find one or two, but most of my friends don’t have that. And so we’re trying to create a support system for the kids there so they can, if they’re struggling with something, whether that is relating to race or not relating to race or just anything at Beacon, they can have that support that they might need, or to actually thrive in the school environment and actually be able to take advantage of all the resources that Beacon has to offer. 

Toby P: [00:33:52]  I also just want to add that we also want each of these more student voice and more students involved and more transparency than there has in the past. A lot of times, I think throughout Beacon’s history, there’s been efforts of students, there’s been students advocating for different things and they’ve just been swept under the rug. And then Beacon itself doesn’t really reveal what they’re doing. They’re not really transparent with how they’re trying to make Beacon more equitable, more inclusive, safer. And so like an example is that admissions committee that I mentioned, we want students to have an equal say and that we want students involved in that. And the same goes for the hiring committee. And the same goes to, as Eli was talking about the revision of curriculum. We want teachers to ask the students, to listen to the students while they’re reshaping the curriculum to be more anti-racist and to be more culturally responsive and to be more student centered.

Jon M: [00:34:53] What you’re describing sounds a lot like an ethical school. Transparency, equity, mutual respect for everyone’s lived experience and funds of knowledge. Are there any more details that you want to add that you’ve been thinking about, what your vision, what the school would look like? If the administration suddenly said yes, we want to make this happen. 

Eli C-S: [00:35:16]  I think this is a pretty broad thing, but just a school that’s open to changing, which is something that Beacon has not been whatsoever. A lot of the teachers are very stuck in their ways. So is the administration. And I think the students understand that change is needed because we don’t feel like Beacon is reaching its full potential. And so I think that’s one of the main principles of an ethical school is a school that’s open to change. And so I think that’s also one of the main things that we hope for through these channels.

Amy H-Laff: [00:35:52] Could you give us an example of what an anti racist curriculum looks like?

Yarmis C: [00:36:03] Um, when I think of an anti racist curriculum, I think of one where obviously, if it’s an English class, there’ll be books that were written by people of color, but not just that. The discussions that are centered around the books are one where all the students feel as though they can participate. Not just whoever feels, not just like White kids. Cause that tends to be what happens at school. I actually know a lot where whenever we touch on the topic of race, the people of color tend to stand back and listen, because they don’t feel safe enough to share their experiences. And so as a way to be having this anti-racist curriculum, it would be a lot more of people talking about their experiences and then the people who haven’t seen or experienced those things can learn and can change the way that they behave to make sure that they aren’t doing anything that’s offensive or discriminatory, or just that isn’t productive in order to be able to move forward. Yeah.

Toby P: [00:37:01] Yeah. I just want to add on to what Yarmis said. I think that as a white person myself, I think it will be really helpful and we don’t learn about this enough,  like ways that we contribute to maintaining racist institutions and we’re complacent in them. And then ways that we can, that we can advocate for change within those institutions and try and change those institutions. Because I think right now we may learn, we may learn a bit about what’s happening in society today in broader terms, like what’s happening in current events, like what’s happening in the world, what’s happening to the U S, but we don’t learn about specifically how all of these, like institutions overlap and create the society that we live in today. And we don’t learn how to create change. We don’t learn how to make ourselves advocates. I think the only reason us three are advocating for change right now, it’s not because I don’t think Beacon taught us that. I think like for myself, I think it was Teens Take Charge. I don’t know what, how they learn, but like Beacon does not teach you how to advocate for yourself.

Amy H-Laff: [00:38:22] Toby, could you tell us a little bit about Teens Take Charge?

Toby P: [00:38:27] Oh, sure. Teens Take Charge is a student led organization that was formed in, I believe, 2017 or 2016. I joined like a year and a half ago. And so we’re fighting for equity for younger kids and fighting for equity in education in New York City. As I said before, New York City has the most segregated school system in the nation. And so we create policies. We advocate for change. We try and meet with the policy makers to try and implement policies and we really just try and make it so New York City is an equitable place to live for younger students and for students in general. And so we have, we have campaigns, particularly around admission screening for high school or summer youth jobs or various things like that. And we try and also promote student voice. So the largest stakeholders in the school system, the ones who actually are being affected have a voice in the system and have input in the system.

Jon M: [00:39:33] So I wanted to go back for a minute to the question, say about curriculum. So it sounds as though the teachers, as well as the administration, would have a lot of work to do to implement, to really make real some of the things that you’re talking about, even if they agree with them in principle. What do you see this as being, what, kind of, do you see teachers, you know, forming study groups? Do you see them having certain kinds of professional development? I mean, what would, if again, if the school said, yes, you’re right, we need to make these changes. What would, what would the teachers, to take one group, what would they have to do next? 

Yarmis C: [00:40:15] I think for them, it would definitely have to start with professional development. I’ve talked to a lot of, uh, a lot of teachers who think they’re doing anti racist work in their classroom, but it’s not coming across that way to the students, which I think is where the problem starts. Because if a student comes up to you and tells you, this is not what I’m getting from your class, and you think that you’re changing it and making it work, and the student can come to you telling you the same thing and it’s not changing. Then it has to be a professional who has to come to you and tell you, this is how you need to be treating the conversation in your classroom. This is what you need to be doing. So professional development definitely has to be where it all begins. 

Toby P: [00:40:52]  I think also it’s extremely valuable for teachers to actually ask students what they think rather than students having to approach someone. They don’t feel represented in the curriculum or they don’t feel safe in the classroom. And so I think that’s really important because it’s an extremely vulnerable and scary thing to do to approach a teacher and tell them that what they’re doing is not working. So I think one of the first steps is in addition to professional development, just having maybe some kind of meeting with a few of the kids in their classes asking what’s going well, what’s going wrong, just to start those conversations so they can actually get good feedback from the students.

Amy H-Laff: [00:41:35] Could you walk us through the developments that have led to where we are now? What was the first big demonstration, I think it was in the fall, and how did it come about? 

Toby P: [00:41:46] I think I can talk about the first demonstration. So the first demonstration was actually, it was in November or October, I believe, like about a month before the sit-in. So I guess November, but it was a part of these strikes that Teams Take Charge, the organization I’m part of, were doing around admission screening and around lack of like an equal and equitable distribution of resources and schools. So we were doing like 30 minute walkouts of schools every Monday, and one of them we had at Beacon and that had a New York Times article about it, and we put up posters around the school showing like Beacon’s representation versus New York City’s representation, Beacon’s student body demographics versus New York City student body demographics. And I think all of these things led to change in discussion, change in mindset at Beacon. I think people started talking about race while having these conversations more about how to make Beacon more equitable.  And I think that was a thought in many students’ mind before the students…

Amy H-Laff: [00:42:58] What were the demands in that demonstration, back in the fall? 

Toby P: [00:43:02] So that was, as I said, it was part of the greater Teens Take Charge. Greater Teens Take Charge set of protests and our first demand, our first policy that we wanted passed, was a universal change to high schools in New York City, to the admission system to make a academic bell curve for admission. So that would make the placement of students at each school more representative of the city, and it would lead to greater integration of high schools. 

Then we had resource demands. The first one was about having more guidance counselors and college counselors and schools. And we wanted a ratio of one counselor for every 80 students. And then the second one was about sharing extracurriculars, sports teams, clubs, and some courses between nearby or co-located schools. So for example, some schools don’t have like four years of science or four years of language, and then like a school, like two blocks away might have like six language classes or like six science classes. So if a student runs out of courses there, they could take a language course or a science course at that school. And the same goes with sports teams. If a school doesn’t have sports team, they could go to the other school’s clubs and extracurriculars. And the last one, we wanted paid internships for all students. And we wanted a work based learning coordinator at every school to help coordinate these internships. And so that was really what we were demanding at each rally we went to. 

Jon M: [00:44:42] Then, after that, there was an incident in December in the guidance office, which a lot of students felt was an example of white privilege.

What happened after that?

Yarmis C: [00:44:54]  Well, a group of students, the incident happened on a Tuesday and then on a Thursday, when people started finding out, a lot of them went to the Black Student Union, which met normally on Thursdays. And after the meeting where after we let out all of our anger, as much as we could, um, among students, we went on to, we just stayed back instead of going home, we stayed back, a couple of us, and we were talking about how, like, this tends to happen at Beacon so often.

There’s just so many things that go unaddressed by the administration, or if they do address it, it’s not addressed properly. So we decided that it was, this was probably the best time to force Beacon to change because that’s the only way that we can do, we have to make them want to change. And so we started reaching out to people through social media. We got all the unions together because we wanted to make whatever movement we were going to create as inclusive of the student body as we could, and the best way to do that was by using the student unions. So we put, posted, things on.

Jon M: [00:45:54] Yarmis, I’m sorry, when you say the unions, what are you, what are you referring to? What are the unions? 

Yarmis C: [00:45:58] I’m referring to the student unions. So we have the Black Student Union, the Latinx Student Union, the Jewish Student Union, Muslim Student Union, the African association. Uh, there’s a lot more. There’s a couple more. If you guys want to tell me which other ones I might’ve missed. I don’t know.  There’s a lot of them.  

Eli C-S: [00:46:19]  Teens Take Charge and Integrate NYC are also included.

Yarmis C: [00:46:23] Sorry. Yeah, right. So we got all the leaders from those clubs and we came together. We asked all the students, like the entire Beacon population to come into the cafeteria the next day, so that Friday, at the end of the day, and to just come together and talk about what had happened and what we think is the best thing moving forward. And we decide that hosting a sit in was the best thing to do. So the people who decided, the people who came together to stay at the BU we stayed all of that weekend at home on calls, constantly creating the demands, organizing how we thought that Monday, the following Monday would go, how it would run. And then we just, we prepared. And then that Monday we came together, we got up really, really early. We went to bed at 2:00 AM on the Sunday, and then we got to school by maybe like 6:30 that day. And we all travel like an hour to get to school. So we had, we all had to wake up pretty early, and then we organized everything before the students got there, without the help of teachers, because we knew that if we wanted to do this we wanted show them that like, as students, we know what we want and that we were able to organize it just as well  as they possibly could. And so that day, I mean, if you guys want to tell them…

Toby P: [00:47:37] I just want to say that we did five hour Zoom meetings before it was cool. But after that, so after what Yarmis  was describing, we had like a three hour long, three hour plus long, meeting with a lot of the Beacon administration, with the principal and assistant principal or both assistant principals, the guidance counselor that was there when the incident occurred. And then there was also like the student voice manager from the DOE. We also had like two superintendents there. I think one of them was in charge of like Beacon’s consortium that it’s a part of, and then the other one is a part of like Beacon’s district. And then we had like two or three Beacon teachers and like seven students, I believe.

And so we all just sat there talking about our demands, discussng implementation for like three plus hours. It was a super tiring meeting. It’s like the longest I’ve ever been a part of. And I think in the end, most of our demands, what we agreed on a timeline for implementation with most of our demands.

Eli C-S: [00:48:51]  Also while, while we were in the administration meeting, different members from the student unions were leading teach-ins on the different floors of the school. So all the students who were sitting in weren’t just sitting idly, not doing anything. They would teach lessons on whatever they usually talk about in their student unions to kind of get people comfortable with the idea of having a student union that they can go to and having other students that they can talk to. And so that was really empowering, I thought. And that was one of the parts that the teachers expressed a lot of gratitude for. Just like, because it’s students teaching students and this idea of carrying forward this legacy of teaching within Beacon, I thought was very powerful and a lot of other people did as well.

Toby P: [00:49:34] Yeah. I also just want to quickly say those, I think those teach-ins were in part inspired by a school boycott in 1964 in New York City. It was on February 3rd, which is my birthday. And during that day, like 450,000 Black and Brown students walked out of New York City public schools to protest school segregation. And there was no media. There’s not really any media coverage of it. There was media coverage of 15,000 white parents having a protest about anti-bussing, like a month later. But during that school boycott, when all those students walked out, they went to these things called freedom schools instead, which is where leaders from around the community taught lessons on Black history or anti racism and various other things. And I think that’s what we were sort of trying to mirror and those teachings and the citizens.

Amy H-L: [00:50:35] And how did it go? How did the sit ins impact interactions among the students and between the students and teachers?

Yarmis C: [00:50:43] I was one of the people that was running a lesson and it was, I was not expecting it to go the way that it did. It was  a mixture of students. There was Black students, there was White students, Brown students. Everyone was just together sitting on the floor and they were all listening to other students, like other fellow 17, 16, 18 year olds. We were teaching them about, in my case, we were talking about stereotypes and the things that we go through and how certain comments can affect us. Yeah. But they were just, they were listening and they were talking to one another and they… for one, probably in my four years at Beacon, for the first time, the White students were listening to the students of color and they were trying to understand, and they were asking questions and they felt comfortable asking those questions, things that they’ve been wondering for probably the longest time but were too afraid to ask. I think there was an entire section about how do you ask these questions without being offensive or making someone feel as though they’re being attacked in any sort of way. It was amazing., I got to say. And I think it happened on every single floor that I went to. I went to three different floors and everyone was just as attentive. It wasn’t like, oh, so you’re trying to tell me what to do. I was like, please tell me what to do cause I have no idea. 

And then when it came to the teachers, because they had no one to teach that day, no one was going to class and they they had to stand in the hallways and look at other students teach other students, the ones that probably don’t participate, because I am always really scared of like, talking about my experience and they were looking at me and they were like, oh, so she does have a voice. And after that, they would tell us the next day when we went to class, they were like, wow. Like I just, I never expected 120 students to be listening and not talking. Not even side conversations were happening. They were paying attention. They cared about what we were saying, which I think would happen a lot more in class if they were incorporating the right materials.

Amy H-L: [00:52:44] And how long did that last? 

Yarmis C: [00:52:47] The entire day. Athough the talk that day happened the entire day, but then after, for weeks, we were talking about the same thing and teachers actually kind of tried to ask how they can do it in their own classrooms. But there wasn’t, it wasn’t enough change that came from it, but it was enough to see that something could be done. It gave us hope for the future, which is why we ended up doing what we did now, recently, in June. But they did ask questions. And they tried to understand, and they asked why they couldn’t do that in their own classrooms and why the discussions that were happening in the hallway, they couldn’t bring into their own classes. 

Toby P: [00:53:26] Yeah. I just want to say something that was cool after the sit in. I think the week after, like we had this essay due for my English class. I forget what it was about. It was not the most interesting book, but then I think after like the day after the sit in, my English teacher was like, yeah, I can’t give you guys this essay. And so instead of the essay for like the fi as a final project for that semester, we had, we had to write about like our experiences during the sit-in and thenli ke interview other people and or, like make a podcast or however you want to present it and then turn it in and just document what happened during the sit-in. And I think that was really cool, what she did. 

Jon M: [00:54:10] So this brings us to the present. And you’ve written this letter in which you’re demanding that the administration follow through on the promises that were made in the winter time, by the end of the school year. Um, how much support has your letter received and what, if anything, has surprised you about the support?

Eli C-S: [00:54:33] As far as like actual hard numbers, I think we have around 973 signatures, 174. 

Toby P: [00:54:40] Actually, I can update you on that. We have 1023 right now, and we have 17 teachers that are signed on, 404 students. 456 alumni, which is super surprising, just that amount of alumni that had like signed on like bing bam boom. And we have, I think one thing that’s also really cool is we have three professors that are signed on. We have Gary Orfield. He created the report in  like 2014, he helped cocreate with the Civil Rights Project the report, that named New York City as the most segregated school system in the nation. And he does like amazing work with the Civil Rights Project. And he’s been doing that his whole life. And then we have Deborah Archer, who’s also amazing. She teaches at NYU and she’s professor of law. She’s actually helping Teens Take Charge with some work right  now. And then we have Michelle Fine, who’s a distinguished professor at the City University of New York. And it’s just really cool to have that support, I think, from professors, who’ve all done amazing work in civil rights. 

Eli C-S: [00:55:50] I will say one of the things that has surprised us or that did surprise us was the lack of teacher support, or I guess not a lack just because there are 17, as Toby said, but it’s definitely less than we expected. And we’d hoped to get a lot of teacher support just because we felt that teachers were one of our strongest ways to get through to the administration. But there was a lot of complaints about teachers not agreeing with every single word of our demands. They didn’t feel they could sign on or they were worried they would lose their job or other things, but we we’ve been talking to teachers about it and a lot of them are in support and just worried to sign their name, unfortunately. But yeah. 

Jon M: [00:56:31] Have you received any response from the administration? 

Toby P: [00:56:35] Um, so one of our demands from the sit in  back in December was that we have monthly meetings with the administration, and that’s one of the demands they’ve actually followed through with. I don’t know how much they’ve been paying attention and like actually like hearing what we say, and what we talk about in the meeting with administration, but we have been having monthly meetings with them. And so we scheduled one for this month actually on June 10th, that might have to be rescheduled, but we released these demands to them and they confirmed that we’re having a meeting. 

Amy H-Laff: [00:57:14] How does what’s happening at Beacon fit in with what other students are doing at other New York schools?

Toby P: [00:57:25] I think I can answer that. Um, so I feel like I’ve been talking a lot. A lot of other schools, students at other schools, have actually reached out to the BUU and have started similar things at their schools, like advocating to the administration, addressing the atmosphere of racism in their school. And actually something interesting is that as far as I can tell, it’s only been students at schools that have admission screens that are doing this advocacy. And I think that could be telling of what these admissions screens do, separating these students and it’s been sort of amazing to see like just a movement, like at Brooklyn Tech, LaGuardia, The Clinton School, I think Eleanor Roosevelt, and more, other majority White schools that have also been doing this, like similar things that we have been doing. I think the walkouts in November kind of helped with that in unifying a lot of these schools, just in that we all understand that we’re going through these same issues and it’s like, well, Beacon is an example of school segregation. I think all these other schools are going through the same thing. And so after the sit in, one thing that I’ve seen is our BSU and Brooklyn Tech BSU have been having collaboration meetings as well. We’ve been in touch with Harvest Collegiate, I believe. And so that’s been really empowering just to understand that a lot of schools don’t have a Beacon United Unions, and they’re learning from that and taking from that because I think it is so vital for the future of all New York City schools. And not literally, not literally a Beacon United Union, but something along the same lines. 

Jon M: [00:59:23] What connections do you see between the Movement for Black Lives and the student activities at Beacon and other schools? 

Eli C-S: [00:59:32] I see a lot of connections just because obviously the Movement for Black Lives is in support of Black people and I think all of our demands are in support of Black people and other people of color as well, obviously. But I think understanding that there is a way that you can affect change in your immediate circle is really important right now because a lot of people are calling for big systemic change and an end to institutionalized racism, which nobody can end, obviously, because it’s so ingrained in our country. And so I think it’s very empowering for students to feel like they can affect one institution that plays a bigger role in institutionalized racism and that does actually make a big change, I believe. 

Amy H-Laff: [01:00:18] Is there anything else any of you would like to add that we haven’t touched on? 

Toby P: [01:00:24]  I just want to say as a general message, I think as White people, complacency and racist institutions make you racist. I think the only way you can fight that is by actively advocating for changes in these institutions. And I think you can only be racist. You can only be racist or antiracist as a White person.

Amy H-Laff: [01:00:53] Thank you so much. Eli Crenshaw-Smith, Toby Paperno and Yarmis Cruz of Beacon High School. 

Eli C-S: [01:01:00] Thank you. 

Toby P: [01:01:01] Thank you. 

Jon M: [01:01:02] And thank you listeners. If you liked this episode, please subscribe and give us a rating or review. This helps other people find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized social emotional learning, or SEL, programs with a  focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

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