To Fight Institutional Racism, Teachers Are Going Back to School

The teachers came from every New York City borough and from places as far-flung as Oregon and Washington, D.C. They were milling around a classroom at Columbia University’s Teachers College when facilitator Natalia Ortiz projected a sentence onto the board and instructed them to fill in the blank.

“When I talk about race and racism…,” it read. After a moment of hesitation, the teachers jumped right in.

Noah Garcia, a teacher in Brooklyn’s District 15, leads professional development on race and equity at her school. She said she found it harder to talk to her white colleagues about race than with her students. For Hector Alvarez, assistant education director at Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Jersey, status as a native Spanish speaker complicates discussions about race — vocabulary commonly used to speak on the subject in his culture might be deemed offensive in the American context. Another educator said that her fellow white colleagues stopped being friendly to her after she tried to start conversations about race. “When you’re socially excluded, that will get you to shut up,” she said.

The group went on to discuss the definitions of institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism and how they show up in classrooms: the ways teachers assign grades, what history lessons they teach and from whose perspective, who they call on to answer questions, how harshly they discipline different kids for the same behaviors — even the way teachers praise kids for a job well done.

The workshop was part of Teachers College’s four-day Reimagining Education Summer Institute, a conference organized in response to what Amy Stuart Wells, the conference’s lead organizer, calls the “systematic way our educational system has tried to ignore the central role of race and culture” in solving the ills of American schools. Diversity has been a hot-button issue for city schools ever since a 2014 report by researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project determined that New York had the most racially segregated schools in the country. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s long-awaited new diversity plan, which established modest goals aimed at making schools more racially and socioeconomically representative. But de Blasio’s initiative focused primarily on shuffling students among schools; it ignored teacher training altogether.

[related_posts post_id_1=”561811″ /]

As a result, many teachers have set out to find training on their own. This is what drew the attendees to the conference, which featured workshops and talks led by education professors and researchers, anti-racism organizations, and teachers and parents. According to Sahba Rohani, director of community development at Brooklyn’s “diverse by design” Community Roots Charter School, if teachers aren’t engaged in conversations about their own experiences with race and power, they’re in no position to initiate them in the classroom — and that’s where conferences like the Reimagining Education Institute come in.

“If we are not in the practice of talking about our identity and experiences and unpacking it for ourselves, there’s no space for what that looks like in practice for an educator. You need to be able to give teachers time to talk but then say, ‘How does this connect to my practice? To the work I’m doing tomorrow in my classroom?’” said Rohani, who led a session at the conference.

For Deirdre Armitage, it was refreshing to see the ease with which teachers in the room were able to acknowledge the ways race shapes their classrooms. Armitage runs the student teaching program at the College of Staten Island, and her students — like most teachers nationwide — are predominantly white women. They come from middle- and working-class neighborhoods and most, she says, attended private schools for much of their lives. Yet the majority will go on to work in public schools on the island, teaching children of color. And when many of them step into Armitage’s classroom, they still subscribe to the myth of colorblindness.

“The most concerning thing is when [teachers] come into my class saying, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see class. I see kids, and I’m going to treat all kids equally,’” said Armitage, who has studied the impact of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation on education for thirty years. “Well, we know that equal is not equitable. You do see those things, and we treat kids differently, whether it’s gender, race, or class. There’s all these subtle things you’re doing giving kids messages, and decades of messages tell kids things about themselves.”

Armitage, who grew up in West Brighton and attended public schools on Staten Island — as have all four of her children — requires that her candidates complete their student teaching and fieldwork in Title I public schools mostly on the north shore of the island, where the demographics are more racially and socioeconomically diverse than on the south shore. It’s a policy that has been met with some pushback from students: One claimed his father wouldn’t allow him to drive the family car into neighborhoods on the north shore, while another brought in a doctor’s note that said she “could not travel to the North Shore” — she wanted to complete her class requirements at a school closer to her home in a “better” neighborhood, according to Armitage.

“Once they spend time in the school they’re afraid of, they’re incredibly turned around and think, ‘Wow, this neighborhood is not what I grew up thinking it is,’” Armitage said. “Every time that happens, it makes me feel like, ‘OK. This is a first step.’” The next step, she says, is reining in any savior complexes, a phenomenon where well-intended white people behave as the authoritative last hope in the liberation of people of color, whom they treat as passive victims.

Armitage begins lessons on such topics as early-childhood pedagogy with discussions about how race, gender, and class have come to bear on the American educational system since its inception, from racist housing policies that shaped school zones and led to inequitable funding to the various times when access to education was withheld altogether from children of color. By the time students leave her class, they often request that other professors approach their subjects in the same manner.

It’s a conversation Armitage says is needed badly on Staten Island, New York’s whitest, most conservative borough, but one that is also home to many immigrants and people of color — and many schools that are racially and ethnically diverse.

“The stereotypical voters angry at the last eight years of Obama, they live here. They teach. This is a very real challenge we are facing. You have Blue Lives Matter [supporters] teaching kids of color,” said Armitage. “So you have this tension. My [students] ask about ‘All Lives Matter’ and I’m trying to explain this. It’s a tough climate, and that’s why this work is imperative.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”561894″ /]

Anti-racism training can be difficult for those in less conservative parts of the city as well, says Laura Shmishkiss, co-director of Border Crossers. “The danger can be for people who think they’re ‘woke,’ when in fact we’re all perpetuating racism all the time,” she said. “We are interested in racial equity, which integration can possibly lead to but may not. We have to look at how we as individuals perpetuate these systems.”

Educators say they’re encouraged by the recent surge of interest in racial-literacy training. Border Crossers employs seven full-time staffers and sixty trainers working in New York and Dallas, and since 2014 they’ve trained thirteen thousand city teachers. Shmishkiss attributes the increased interest in part to the enhanced media coverage of violence against black people in recent years. “We have been getting calls from school systems saying, ‘We want to be able to talk about this with students and don’t know how,’” she said. “I think schools are starting to give it more attention.”

Border Crossers offers training that ranges from their flagship six-hour starter session, where teachers develop strategies to address instances of racism in their classrooms, to a customized cadre of repeat workshops on such topics as unconscious bias and racial-identity development. Experts say approaching racial-literacy training as an ongoing project is the way to go.

“This isn’t the type of learning that can be a one-off,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), a parent group that advocates for an end to school inequities. “You can’t learn everything you need to know about cultural competency in four easy sessions.”

While de Blasio’s Department of Education has yet to address diversity training for teachers, in February City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito allocated over half a million dollars to bring a training program called the Critically Conscious Educators Rising Series to about 360 teachers in 180 schools. The program focuses on privilege, race, and class in schools. Additional funding was pledged to send about 250 new teachers to anti-racism training at Border Crossers.

But just a few weeks before the start of a new school year, Capers says, the money has yet to show up.

“City Hall is sitting on it,” she said. “So the question has to be raised if the mayor really believes in his diversity plan. This is where the rubber meets the road and you have to do the work.” Capers added that CEJ has reached out to the mayor’s office numerous times for an update and that the response was “crickets.” When asked whether the money had been disbursed to the Department of Education, Robin Levine, the Speaker’s communications director, said, “We are working with the administration and a number of organizations to move forward with this program.”

Meanwhile, educators work on the day-to-day challenges of trying to promote an open discussion of race and racism in a world where no one wants to admit to either. Ortiz, a former public school teacher and now a trainer and program manager with Border Crossers, says she often struggles to help teachers differentiate between doing something racist and being a racist — a distinction that can free educators to talk openly about their shortcomings.

“What happens is there’s this whole thing around ‘Oh my god, you called me a racist,’ this defensiveness,” Ortiz said. “For us, it’s less important who is and is not a racist. It’s whether you’re understanding how racism created a system that hurts, damages, and kills people, and how you have benefited from that system.”

In a different session later that week, that lesson unfolded in real time. Rohani led a group of about thirty through exercises designed to help them develop their own training to take back to their schools. One included watching a video by Jay Smooth, a DJ and blogger known for his cultural commentary, on how to tell someone they said something racist.

“The most important thing that you’ve got to do is remember the difference between the ‘what they did’ conversation and the ‘what they are’ conversation,” he says in the video. “The ‘what they did’ focuses strictly on the words and actions and explaining why what they did and said was unacceptable.” Talking about what someone is, he says, is a “rhetorical Bermuda Triangle” that ultimately lets people skirt responsibility for their actions.

Afterward, the group filled out identity maps, worksheets that participants complete with adjectives they use to describe who they are, in their own eyes. Lelia Spears, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at Janney Elementary School in Washington, D.C., shared some of hers out loud. She’d come to the conference with a group of fellow teachers from Janney, in search of help designing anti-racism teacher training for their school, which is predominantly white. “One of the only places where kids are talking about race is on the playground,” Spears told me. “That’s the biggest reason why I was drawn to go.”

Included on the Georgia native’s identity map were “woman,” “mother,” and “Southern” — a tag she says she felt was intensified by her presence in New York City. Race politics in the North, she said, didn’t seem that much different from in the South. But watching Smooth’s video encouraged her to speak up. “Traveling through the South as a white person is different [for me] than for other people,” Spears told the group. Later, she told me that she’d initially reacted defensively to what she saw as a characterization of the South as, above all else, racist. But she quickly realized that image was rooted in centuries of history.

“Clearly there are places in other parts of America that have racism as well, but history is such a grounding force in racial literacy. I can be in New York and Atlanta, and both places have racism but it feels very different to people who have a different history [from my own] in those places,” she said.

It was a heavy moment. “That video helped me share that I experienced racial-literacy growth in that room,” Spears said. “My first thought was ‘I’m such a racist.’ Labeling it as something racist I said and can learn from was really helpful. [It] was a way to say, OK, I can separate something I did from something I am.” This distinction, experts like Ortiz, Smooth, and Rohani say, helps teachers work on identifying, taking responsibility for, and correcting racist behaviors that harm children, instead of getting stuck in arguments and anxiety over labels that don’t ultimately stop the harmful words and actions.

The city has a long way to go if it hopes to alleviate segregation, offer the same high-quality opportunities at every single school, and truly make schools open sanctuaries where all children see themselves reflected in their lessons, teachers, and peers. And, no doubt, part of the mission to give every kid a fair shot must include teacher training to help educators prepare for this future.

“We want to make sure all our students have the highest quality of education, but also the highest level of dignity and respect,” added Shmishkiss. “The more we’re able to provide training that can open consciousness, that over time does start to have a ripple effect. So this is where we’re starting.”


This Brooklyn Artist Is Taking On the Media

We met in May, close to midnight on a quiet industrial street in Bushwick, in front of an unremarkable steel building. On the second floor was Alexandra Bell’s small, square studio, its walls plastered with blown-up reproductions of the front page of the most recognizable newspaper in America — specifically, the edition delivered to newsstands and doorsteps on August 25, 2014. In skinny strokes of red permanent marker, she’d circled words, crossed out sentences, and written notes and questions in the margins, a public humbling designed to present the paper of record as little more than a series of decisions made by human hands and brains — decisions Bell was now questioning with force. Earlier that evening, at Shoestring Press, a print shop in Crown Heights, we’d picked up copies of the finished versions of those same augmented articles. Michael Brown’s eyes seemed to follow us around the room, staring intently from beneath the jaws of a giant black printer. Bell rolled the finished product into cylinders and tucked them away.

Bell’s public art series, called “Counternarratives,” reworks or redacts text from real stories that ran in the New York Times, exposing the long, ongoing tradition of media reliance on stereotypes — itself a print term — in coverage involving people of color. By deploying marginalia, obscuring whole passages with fat black ink, and rewriting headlines, captions, and other text, Bell, who is 34 and a Chicago native, highlights the often overt bias that still survives the editing process. The series is a trenchant questioning of these sometimes baffling choices, made by workers in an industry that prides itself on its fairness, from reporting and writing to photos and layout. Next to her annotations, Bell presents an alternative.

Her work began popping up on street corners and subway platforms across Brooklyn last December. The first piece in the series tackles that front page from 2014, a controversial double feature about the killing of Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The Times ran the stories, each with its own headline, side by side, divided by a thin line down the center of the page. In the story about Wilson, the original headline refers to the officer as having had a “low profile” and the lede mentions the commendation he’d received after the arrest of a different black teenager. The story about Brown refers to him as “no angel,” a characterization that drew widespread derision and criticism; the original headline was “A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”559880″ /]

Bell began her version by using Adobe InDesign to reconstruct the front page before adding her annotations. She went through multiple drafts, experimenting with such meticulously thought-out details as the opacity of the black lines she would use to — in the finished product — redact almost the entirety of both articles. In the Wilson story, she retains only the information she considers most pertinent: “Officer Darren Wilson … fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.” The only visible text in the article about Brown is “Michael Brown Jr. … his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.” The black lines are completely opaque.

“I want you to really have to strain to find a reason for the other information,” Bell says. “It’s not necessary. Ultimately, this was a very simple narrative. There was a kid, who did not have a gun, who was shot and killed by a white cop. This is all that matters.”

Bell then constructed her imagining of a more appropriate front page for the story, opting, after much deliberation, for an enlarged version of Brown’s haunting graduation photo, his eyes locked in an unbreakable gaze, paired with a simple, powerful headline: “A Teenager With Promise.” The two covers are displayed as a pair, side by side.

That night in May, I spent three hours on Bell’s heels as she ducked into and out of subway stations and around street corners in north Brooklyn. Sharpied posters featuring the Times’s familiar gothic script poked out from the top of the black yoga bag strapped across her body; a white bucket full of homemade wheatpaste and paintbrushes rattled alongside her. Bell, working with a friend, moved quickly. First task: find a suitable wall space. They quickly assessed locations — how visible will the art be; is the surface good for wheatpaste? Once they’d picked a spot, Bell unrolled the posters, ran a wide brush covered in wheatpaste over the wall, then lined the posters up next to each other with precision. A second coat of wheatpaste, a quick photo, and we were gone. The whole process took no more than a few minutes, and Brown’s gaze became no less poignant as the chilly night dragged on.

Bell grew up in Chicago under the tutelage of a mother who encouraged critical thinking, even in seemingly mundane places. “Trying to look past what’s in front of me is something I grew up doing a lot of,” she recalls. Her mother often engaged her in conversations about the politics of the era, and sometimes that meant reading the Chicago Tribune. In middle school, a teacher encouraged her to read the Chicago Defender, a famous black-owned newspaper, right around the time much of the country was consumed by the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The controversial Time magazine cover in which Simpson’s skin was darkened to make him look more menacing stands out as one of the first times she remembers noticing how the media manipulates — in that case literally — the image of black people in the news. But it would take years before she returned to that image and other examples of bias with a critical eye.

After high school, Bell pursued a course of study at the University of Chicago that included classes on media, race, politics, and film; she graduated in 2005. Soon after, she moved to New York and found work in communications, and it was here, a few years later, that she began to take stock of an evolving national trend. While public violence against black people has long been a function of American society, a barrage of shootings and live-streamed death at the hands of law enforcement would rattle the black community in new ways, beginning — but not ending — with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The 24-hour coverage of each new death, and the resulting unrest, furthered Bell’s understanding of the news as a uniquely precarious function in the lives of black people.

“Why do I have to read this shit every day? It’s just black people dying, drowning in the boats trying to get somewhere where they think they won’t die but they probably will,” she recalls thinking. She described the exhaustion as a kind of PTSD.

“Somewhere between a Kara Walker show and Glenn Ligon’s ‘America’ show” at the Whitney in 2011, she says, her admiration for text-focused art grew. Bell was encouraged, for example, by Ligon’s rewriting of runaway-slave broadsides, the newspaper ads taken out by slaveholders offering rewards for the return of their “chattel.” Bell’s interest in the manipulation and maneuvering of words and newspapers grew.

Her hometown is a city steeped in a rich history of journalism — the Chicago Defender. And while Bell says she was not hypercritical of the news growing up, it is perhaps unsurprising that she wound up a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2011.

It was then that she began to consume mass amounts of news media as part of the curriculum. But though the school is considered the premier training institution for journalists, her teachers did not engage her classmates in conversations about media bias.

[related_posts post_id_2=”421080″ /]

Over the summer of 2016, Bell began tinkering with the Brown story, one that had stuck in her mind for what she considers grave but all too common mistakes. “I started thinking, you know, I should maneuver these things,” she recalls. She rented a car in late December and went on a solo mission to wheatpaste the first iteration of “A Teenager With Promise” in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was a shove back at the New York Times,” she says.

Since then, she has gone on about ten late-night runs in Brooklyn and Manhattan to put up her work. A jumbo version of “A Teenager With Promise” was displayed, with permission, on an outside wall at Sincerely, Tommy, a shop in Bed-Stuy that sells clothes, housewares, and coffee, and at We Buy Gold, a gallery in the same neighborhood. It has sparked the interest of a diverse crowd of New Yorkers, sometimes in ways Bell did not expect.

“I want people to slow down and think more critically about what it is like to reframe what you read,” she says. “When I read something, I try to [think about] if these things were different, what would it look like? How would it change what I think and how I see something as important or valuable? That’s a big part of what I was trying to do. What does it mean to make space for another perspective?”

Her inbox on Instagram is frequently flooded with messages from strangers offering their thoughts, thanks, and links to problematic stories her fans believe could benefit from her annotations and alterations, an assumption of labor she has taken in stride. But she did not anticipate the ways in which black people would view “A Teenager With Promise” — her first public art piece — as a much-needed memorial to the teenager whose untimely death reignited protests against police brutality across the country.

“While I didn’t see this as a memorial, I can’t lie and say I didn’t see it as a sort of restorative justice,” she says. “What has been most rewarding for me has been when black people tell me they needed this. It matters to me when a black person is like, I needed to see it in the paper. And then other people are just like, Drag they ass! They can handle it!

While Bell says she has felt personal swells of pride and closure as people all over the city — and thousands more on the internet — have reacted to her work, it’s the quiet ways we become acclimated to what was once new and surprising that have been symbolic. She described to me a scene at the Montrose Avenue stop on the L train, where “A Teenager With Promise” survived for eight days before it was taken down. While it had demanded the eyes and attention of nearly everyone who passed when it first went up, that day subway riders displayed a sort of quiet, calm reverence for the remarkable, in a way only New Yorkers can master.

“People are still really strongly reacting to [it], but there’s some spaces where it’s blending in. It just blends in to the day, and that to me is where the accomplishment comes in. If anything, that might have been the goal,” she says. “That you believe this [counternarrative] so much that it lives in your space with you. It’s there, you see it every day, and you’re sad because you know what happened, and you’re even annoyed in some ways. But it’s become the truth.”

The second piece in the Counternarratives series, titled “Olympic Threat,” tackles an egregious story from 2016: When it became known that swimmer Ryan Lochte and one of his teammates had fabricated a violent robbery to hide their vandalism of a gas station in Olympic host country Brazil, the Times ran the story on the August 19 front page. The headline, “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” ran above the fold. Directly underneath it was a large photo of Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, a black man, who had nothing to do with the crime.

[related_posts post_id_3=”559172″ /]

In “Olympic Threat,” Bell marks up the original story, etching such questions as “why this photo” into the margins, and adds a racial description (“White-American”) to the headline, something she says news organizations hesitate to do only when the assailant is white. Next to it, she mimics the layout of the original story but redacts most of the text, leaving visible the word “privilege” and the phrase “in a society where many Brazilians themselves often lament their exposure to alarming levels of violent crime and police corruption.” She replaces the large, vibrant photo of Bolt with one of Lochte and changes the caption. The decisions made by the editors who constructed the original layout so fail the test of logic that viewers often confuse her reconstruction for the real thing.

“I want people to have a clear sense of the history of journalism,” Bell says. “When you do, you understand what the implications are behind what you’re writing. You need to think more critically about how, historically, people have been framed in newspapers, what decisions you’re making that may be contributing to that even if that’s not your intention.” The placement of Bolt’s image (he’d just won the men’s 100- and 200-meter dashes, making him the first to win gold in each at three consecutive Olympics) above a story about a crime he did not commit, Bell says, is the perfect example of subtle, sexy, liberal racism.

“There’s no way, with a better understanding of race and crime and newspapers, that you opt to keep that there. We’ve been dragged through the mud so much. It’s time for a reprieve. This can’t happen.”

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of stories worthy of Bell’s — and all of our — scrutiny. The New York Daily News’s repeated use of the word “brute” to describe black men accused of crimes, as well as a third Times story, on a white man from Tulsa whose terrorizing of a Lebanese family ended in murder (the headline identifies the race of only the victim, and fails to name the violence as racism), are among Bell’s current interests. And while she hopes journalists will more carefully consider the power they wield with words, she is under no illusions.

“If I felt like the revolution was me scratching out articles and putting up posters, I’d have been done it,” she says. “I’m interested in the conversation.”


Integrating NYC Schools Will Take More Than A ‘Diversity Plan’

Mayor Bill de Blasio had just taken office in January 2014 when UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released a damning report that identified New York’s schools as the most racially segregated and economically stratified in the United States. Yet the man who ran on a platform criticizing the “tale of two cities” wouldn’t announce his own initiative to address the problem for another three years.

De Blasio’s thirteen-page plan, presented earlier this month, doesn’t once use the word “segregation.”

“I don’t get lost in terminology,” the mayor explained to a roomful of reporters. Fixing segregated schools will require fixing segregated neighborhoods, he explained, an effort so mammoth that it makes more sense to solve the problems we can today, while we figure out how to tackle the harder stuff tomorrow.

“I would love perfectly diverse and integrated schools. If I could achieve that with the stroke of a pen, I would do that right now,” de Blasio said. “But we can have a conversation where we don’t come to grips with hard realities or we can level with the people of this city. And I’m trying to level with the people of this city.”

But experts the Voice spoke with found the mayor’s proposal long on goals and short on specifics. De Blasio’s new plan will seek to increase the number of students in racially representative schools — buildings where at least 50 percent but no more than 90 percent of students are black or Latino — by 50,000 in five years. There are more than 1,800 schools across the five boroughs, serving more than 1.1 million students; only 31 percent of schools meet these criteria today. The mayor’s plan will also aim to decrease the number of economically stratified schools by 150, or roughly 10 percent, over the same time period. The city defines “economically stratified” as any school whose economic need is more than 10 percentage points from the city average in any direction. Seventy percent of New York City schools are economically stratified.

The mayor’s plan does not lay out exactly how these goals will be met.

Gary Orfield, the co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said that part of New York’s integration challenge stems from the fact that historically it was never forced to implement a real plan to fix the problem.

“New York really never had a serious desegregation plan,” Orfield told the Voice. “It was never sued; there was never a court order. People have had much less experience with integration than people in almost every part of the South. This is new for New York.”

The most vigorous attempt at integration in New York City happened shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. But anger from resistant white parents and the absence of simultaneous housing desegregation crippled the effort. In 1963, the New York State commissioner declared that schools where over 50 percent of students were black were racially imbalanced and incapable of providing equal education. Today, 70 percent of public schools remain majority-minority, and even in racially diverse neighborhoods where parents have great choice in elementary schools, classrooms remain starkly segregated.

As part of its Equity and Excellence agenda, the de Blasio administration has undertaken some sweeping reform for kids in segregated schools. Advanced Placement courses in computer science have expanded to 115 schools citywide, 32 of which had never offered an AP class before. The mayor’s signature universal pre-kindergarten program offers high-quality early education to any child for free — a move that research shows improves future academic outcomes. And College Access for All seeks to provide every middle school student a college visit before high school, and graduates high school students with an individualized college or career plan.

According to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, these sorts of moves will be impossible without the extension of mayoral control of schools. “That’s what happens when you’re able to, with one voice, say to all the superintendents, ‘This is what our expectation is. This is what we want to see you do,’ ” she said at a press conference in support of a renewal. “And then everyone gets out there and gets the work done. And that could not have happened if every community was making their own decisions.”

But with the state legislature failing to resolve the issue before adjourning their session on June 21, mayoral control is set to expire on June 30, with authority shifting back to local school boards for the first time in nearly ten years (it expired briefly in 2009). That would make top-down leadership mandates difficult, though by and large the city has shied away from them anyway when it comes to addressing the segregation issue.

The preferred approach has been a few grassroots initiatives developed at the district level, something experts say can produce good results while avoiding community backlash. Parents in Brooklyn and Manhattan are using grants to design integration plans, changing middle school application processes that encourage segregation, and ironing out a program known as “controlled choice,” developed by District 1 in Manhattan, that would allow schools to take parental preference and socioeconomic status into consideration in enrollment.

But these are just a few of the city’s 32 school districts. The rest remain largely homogeneous. And the problem is getting worse: Intensely segregated schools in the New York metropolitan area — those that house between 90 and 100 percent students of color — increased by 70 percent from 1989 to 2010, according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project. That’s nearly half of all schools in the city and its surrounding suburbs.

When the Department of Education has stepped in to address overcrowding in hypergentrified, racially segregated neighborhoods, angry parents have moved to block the efforts. A 2015 rezoning proposal in Brooklyn would have reassigned students from the well-resourced but overcrowded and heavily white P.S.8, which serves kids from a huge chunk of wealthy Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill, to P.S.307, an under-enrolled, lower-performing school whose mostly black and Latino students are from the nearby Farragut Houses. Parents from both schools fought back. A more recent rezoning effort on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, designed to alleviate overcrowding and produce racially representative student populations in eleven school zones, had angry parents threatening legal action, though the DOE says it will move forward.

While mayoral control has over the years helped systematize things like academic standards, testing, and curricula, it left decisions about zoning untouched.

“The irony of mayoral control in my mind is that after centralizing standards, the curriculum, the assessments, what it left decentralized was student access to schools,” said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, referring to Community Education Councils in each district that must approve all school zoning changes.

“It’s the opposite of what it should be. If you go back to Ocean Hill and Brownsville, what they were fighting for was to have a say over their own curriculum and what kids learn and who taught it. So thirty years later when Bloomberg took over and won mayoral control, that’s the thing they took away. We leave it up to locals, where cronyism and power play, where people with more money and whiter skin [tend to benefit]. Any system that is going to address segregation, you have to centralize some of it and have strong incentives, mandates, and sanctions, and there has been none of that.”

Can de Blasio’s new plan untangle these problems? Halley Potter, an education researcher at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said that while the city’s proposal is an important first step full of reasonable goals, the strategies outlined in the plan won’t be enough.

“Programs focused on individual schools or tweaking admissions and specialized programs will get us part of the way there,” Potter told the Voice. “But in order to move significant numbers of students [into racially representative schools] the DOE is going to have to think about how we make diversity directly a priority in different enrollment strategies.”

Potter offered examples such as controlled choice and rezoning efforts that help alleviate the consequences of housing segregation, especially in elementary schools.

Orfield, the Civil Rights Project co-director, said the city’s plan is so unspecific that it’s hard to predict whether it will have a lasting impact. If the city really wants to get serious about desegregation, he said, it will need to pair plans for schools with plans to address systemic segregation present elsewhere in the city: “What the city needs to get toward if they’re going to be serious would involve housing desegregation. It would be good to hear some talk about how to make sure the subsidized housing sector, which is large in New York, be administered in a way that fosters this process rather than undermines it.”

Columbia’s Stuart Wells said that correcting the racial and other demographic imbalances in student populations in every school building could achieve desegregation, but that true integration requires taking a hard look at biased curricula and teaching practices, retraining teachers so they’re racially literate and equipped to deliver equitable education to newly diverse classrooms full of kids, compensating for inequitable resources in students’ home lives, and correcting segregation that occurs as a result of academic tracking.

At a rally on the steps of City Hall on June 19 — organized by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) — parents, students, and activists chanted in English and Spanish for just that. A crowd of about 45 protested in support of an expansion of culturally responsive curricula, a method of teaching they say is crucial to the mayor’s plans for integration. Many wore red in honor of the 152nd anniversary of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the liberation of the United States’ last slaves, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They criticized de Blasio’s plan for failing to address needed changes to the curriculum and additional training for teachers.

“When we think about integration we think in terms of shifting bodies but we don’t think about worldview,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the CEJ. “You can’t be serious about integration without mentioning anti-bias training for teachers, without talking about how you recruit and retain teachers of color and administrators of color. You can’t be serious unless you talk about what students are learning.”

Malachi Davidson, eighteen, who will graduate this month from Scholars’ Academy in Far Rockaway, said that the picture of American history offered to him throughout his schooling has been incomplete.

“We need to know the whole story. There is no reason I’m eighteen and just learning what Juneteenth is. That’s ridiculous,” said Davidson. “There is no reason why the first thing we think of when it comes to blacks in this country is slavery.” Similarly, a Chinese-American student criticized her U.S. history curriculum, which glossed over Asian-American contributions to society and excluded South Asians and Pacific Islanders altogether.

Fatoumata Kaba, a mother of three public school children, moved to New York City from Guinea five years ago and said that teachers with more cultural-competency training could, for example, more readily understand that when her children fail to look them in the eye while listening to them, it’s not insubordination, it’s a sign of respect.

And Felicia Alexander, whose four children attend schools in districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn, said that until all students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, racial and other hierarchies that harm kids will continue to thrive in schools.

“The fact that Columbus Day is still taught as the day that Christopher Columbus discovered America is troubling. That’s not what happened. He decimated a culture, he stole their land. And we celebrate that day,” she said.

Experts like Stuart Wells echoed their concerns. “It’s more than just the racial balance across schools that’s important,” she said. “In the 1970s, we moved kids around so numbers in buildings looked better, but what we learned was that creating diverse student bodies is only one step. We’re not addressing what’s happening inside schools, how curriculum is segregated.” And if that doesn’t happen, Stuart Wells said, “You’re just going to repeat segregation again.”


Betsy DeVos’s ‘Life-Shattering’ Education Budget

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her budget proposal on Tuesday — and the cuts are $9.2 billion deep.

The plan, whose fate ultimately rests in the hands of Congress, sticks to the campaign promises of President Donald Trump, cutting the department’s spending by 13 percent by eliminating or reducing more than thirty programs the department says are redundant or ineffective. Among those on the chopping block are teacher preparation and professional development, after-school programs, student financial aid services, funding for gifted and talented education, Special Olympics education, child care funding for student parents, American history and civics education, and funding for arts education.

The New York State Board of Regents education commissioner MaryEllen Elia and chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement that “the severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.” In their estimate, New York State stands to lose nearly $285 million in funding, including for homeless youth, English language learners, special education, and community schools in New York City, a program city officials announced an expansion of two weeks ago.

Education department officials said the cuts are designed to help bolster only “programs proven to drive successful outcomes” while “continuing support for the most vulnerable students.”

DeVos is a champion of controversial school choice initiatives — namely charter schools and vouchers that allow public dollars to be used for private (including religious) school tuition and other education expenses. Her budget reflects these priorities: It calls for a $1 billion infusion of cash to the existing Title I program that would be directed to the new Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) grant program. It would send money to districts who volunteer to abolish zoned schools, opening enrollment to any student regardless of where they live. Open enrollment already exists in New York City, where a complicated admissions process lets students apply to the school of their choice, anywhere in the city. (FOCUS also requires that funding from the grant follows the student from school to school). 

The program essentially creates a fiscal incentive for states to adopt school choice policies, one that is not dissimilar to the approach the Obama administration took in an attempt to encourage states to voluntarily adopt the Common Core State Standards eight years ago, a move that was largely derided as federal overreach. DeVos, in a recent speech to the American Federation for Children, a powerful school choice lobbying and advocacy firm she used to lead, said that “we won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money,” even as her budget attempts to do exactly that.

While school choice supporters have cheered on the administration’s move, other areas of the budget contradict the idea that the department is one concerned solely with the success of the most needy students across the country. The budget makes what education officials said are tough choices: It cuts $166 million from career and technical education, an educational option crucial for the working-class communities in rural areas across the country whose votes ushered President Trump into office. And among the thirteen eliminated funding streams are pools of money dedicated to Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, academically underperforming groups who are owed special attention by a government that has historically been complicit in the neglect of their communities and education.

The budget also asks for $370 million for the Education Research and Innovation program, a $250 million increase from 2016 levels, to be used for competitive scholarships that will allow students to attend private (both secular and religious) schools. Recent research on private school vouchers, which are politically volatile in some states, has found them to be unsuccessful in improving the academic achievement of the low-income students they purport to benefit, including federally funded vouchers in Washington, D.C. Charter schools would see a $167 million increase for new schools and facilities compared to current spending.

Even as the administration attempts to sell choice as the preeminent value in K-12 education, the budget proposal seeks to eliminate choices for students once they get to college. College tuition continues to rise, and students today are saddled with more debt than any other generation before them. Yet the budget proposal would see the eradication or scaling back of a few crucial programs that help students pay for college and manage their loan repayments after graduation.

Trump’s budget would eliminate all federally subsidized student loans, which means students would have to pay interest on their loans even while they’re in school. And it eliminates funding for Perkins loans for disadvantaged students, even as Congress recently approved a bill reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

The most egregious elimination is the loss of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, which forgives the loans of public servants after 10 consecutive years of payments (plus, loans forgivable under PSLF are not taxable by the IRS). The program’s first participants are set to see their loans forgiven this year. Though estimates say as much as 25 percent of the American workforce could be eligible for the program, only about 550,000 borrowers are currently enrolled, according to Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis.

“I fear we’re discouraging people from going into public service. It’s going to cost borrowers and parents more money while student loan companies and millionaires get richer,” said Abrams. “This just feels cruel.”

The budget would also streamline the five currently offered Income-Based Repayment options — which caps monthly payments at 10 percent of a borrower’s income and offers forgiveness after 20 years for undergraduate loans and 25 years for most graduate loans — into a single option. The new plan would raise the monthly payment to 12.5 percent across the board, a change Abrams says may cause some borrowers to pay more under income-based repayment than is required by the standard, 10-year repayment plan. The new plan would also reduce the repayment term to 15 years for undergraduates, while adding 5 years for graduate students, requiring 30 years of payments. Married couples would no longer be able to apply for income-based repayment separately; the new plan would consider both spouses’ incomes.

“It’s a really bad deal for graduate students. I don’t see a reason to differentiate between undergraduate and graduate students,” said Abrams. “A student is a student.”

And while Abrams’s organization has in the past advocated for streamlining income-based repayment options, she questions the way the Trump administration is addressing it. “I don’t think this is the answer,” she said.

The romanticized concept of working your way through college has long been a darling of Republicans, who condescend to millennials wading through tuition payments tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than those of their parents and grandparents. Yet the budget proposal would nearly halve funding for federal work study programs that help both undergraduate and graduate students do exactly that.

All of these changes would impact new borrowers, beginning July 1, 2018 — so anyone currently enrolled in income-based repayment or working toward public service loan forgiveness is not affected. But there is one major exception: If you’re a recent graduate headed to medical, law, or any other advanced degree program this year, PSLF and the multiple income-based loan repayment options are off limits for you too.

Abrams suggests that anyone working in an eligible PSLF job register with the program immediately. Applications are sometimes denied and must be contested — it’s better to do this sooner rather than later. And for those on an income-based repayment plan, qualified borrowers should consider switching to the Pay As You Earn plan, the most generous one. It offers low monthly payments (though this means you’ll pay back more than you borrowed), forgiveness after 20 years (the amount forgiven will be considered taxable as income by the IRS), and subsidized interest payments for anyone whose monthly payments don’t cover the interest on their loan.

“For now, the biggest thing to remember is that this is a proposal. Enroll, enroll, enroll. Send messages to members of Congress. This is where we have to scream at the top of our lungs that this will not stand,” said Abrams.

Read the full budget proposal here, and read the congressional budget justifications here.


Driver Who “Wanted To Kill” Times Square Pedestrians Charged With Murder

The Bronx man who plowed through pedestrians in Times Square yesterday — killing one and injuring twenty others — has been charged with murder after saying he “wanted to kill them,” prosecutors said.

Richard Rojas, 26, was charged with second-degree murder, twenty counts of attempted murder, and one count of aggravated vehicular homicide at his arraignment today, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Just before noon on Thursday, Rojas jumped the curb in a 2009 Honda Accord at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, striking pedestrians as he drove three blocks down crowded sidewalks, according to police.

“I wanted to kill them,” Rojas, a Navy veteran, said after the crash, according to his criminal complaint.

Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Portage, Michigan, was struck and killed. She’d been walking with her 13-year-old sister, who was also injured in the crash. Nineteen people were hospitalized, five in critical condition, some with head injuries and one with a collapsed lung and broken pelvis, officials said.

Rojas told police that he was under the influence of marijuana and PCP, according to the complaint. He was arrested on DWI charges in 2008 and 2015; this month, he was arrested after pulling a knife on someone inside his home in the Bronx, according to news reports.

The crash received widespread attention, even reaching the attention of President Donald Trump, who was briefed on the issue.

The incident comes as the city continues to struggle to protect pedestrians.

Steve Vaccaro, a leading lawyer and advocate of cyclists and pedestrians, said the crash video is “the most shocking” he’s ever seen. The severe charges facing Rojas were appropriate, he added, but not representative of the city’s treatment of other crashes involving the deaths of pedestrians or cyclists, and especially of the crashes that don’t result in death and are much more common.

“The danger is in people seizing upon this as an outlier and saying this needs to be punished this harshly without recognizing that other drivers, who only make it half a block on the sidewalk, and only take out one or a handful of victims instead of twenty, are also deserving of strict and meaningful consequences,” said Vaccaro.

He cited the cases of Sian Green, a British tourist whose foot was severed in 2013 when a cabbie who had been arguing with a cyclist jumped the curb and struck her (her leg was later amputated below the knee), and Denim McLean, a toddler who was hit along with eleven other pedestrians as they sat at a bus shelter in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, also in 2013. No criminal charges were filed in either case.

On April 5 of this year, Kelly Hurley was killed while riding her bike in the East Village after a driver in a truck made an illegal left turn into the bicycle lane. Hurley had the right of way. The driver walked away, free of any charges.

And just under two weeks ago, Xin Kang Wang, a 74-year-old cyclist, was knocked into traffic in Union Square when a passenger opened the door in the bicycle lane; he died on Sunday. The driver, a 32-year-old man from New Jersey, was ticketed but no arrests were made.

In 2014, the city passed the local ordinance Section 19-190 of the New York City Administrative Code, or the Right of Way Law, which spells out civil and criminal consequences for drivers who do not yield to pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way.

Arrests under the law are negligible; of 38 fatalities last year identified by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives as caused by drivers violating the Right of Way law, a third resulted in no charges, as reported by the Voice last month.

“The Rojas incident is criminal and everyone can agree it should be punished,” said Vaccaro. “But the driver in the same crowded Times Square who is going to stick their front bumper into a crosswalk full of people and keep pushing — maybe pushing at two miles per hour — but they’re bullying their way through a crowd of people, the problem is that the city doesn’t see that that driver also needs to be treated in a matter, proportionally, like Rojas.”

He added that the bollards Rojas’s vehicle eventually crashed into, installed as part of the Times Square pedestrianization project, likely saved many more lives.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program was launched in 2013 to address chronic issues surrounding pedestrian and cycling deaths and injuries at the hands of reckless drivers.

Since then, the city has made improvements at some of the most dangerous intersections across the five boroughs.

Traffic deaths dropped to record lows in the first two years of the mayor’s term, but by 2016, they’d inched back up.

And half of all pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the city since 2015 have occurred in locations designated as priorities for safety redesigns by the city, according to Transportation Alternatives.


Reminder: Kids Are Small Adults

The world has spent the last five months twisting and contorting itself into a new normal, and we adults have spent much of that time glued to our televisions and phones. The news consumes conversations with our families, friends, and colleagues, but the most vulnerable among us — children — rarely get a word in. Yesterday, in Union Square, middle schoolers from all five boroughs gathered to unveil a citywide public art project that they’ll use to register their concerns about the state of humanity, and engage with those of us who often forget to ask what they think.

Just under 400 students from 10 public schools (two in each borough) worked for months to design, sketch, and paint classic school cafeteria tables with murals that illustrate social issues selected by the students themselves. The program, which works in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, is organized by LEAP, a forty-year-old nonprofit arts program that brings professional artists and art educators into New York City public schools to teach. For the tenth year, LEAP will install the cafeteria tables in public parks across the city from June to August, where the public will be invited to sit and talk around them.

This cafeteria table, which addresses gang violence, was designed by Robert E. Peary School 75Q students and will be displayed at Forest Park in Queens.
This cafeteria table, which addresses gang violence, was designed by students at Robert E. Peary School and will be displayed at Forest Park in Queens.
This cafeteria table, which addresses domestic violence, was designed by Eugenio Maria De Hostos School 318K students and will be displayed at Sternberg Park in Brooklyn.
This cafeteria table, which addresses domestic violence, was designed by students at I.S. 318 Eugenio Maria De Hostos School and will be displayed at Sternberg Park in Brooklyn.

“In cafeterias, kids hang out and talk, so to bring that symbol of conversation to parks would be the best way to bring their message into the community,” said Alexandra Leff, director of LEAP’s public art program. The program pairs students with teaching artists who serve as mentors as the children identify a social issue unique to their schools and neighborhood, and decide how best to engage their communities in talking about — and solving — the problems.

The kids did not hold back. Students in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan focused on child abuse, domestic violence, gender inequality, animal abuse, and diversity and inclusion. Other students from I.S. 25 in South Richmond, Staten Island, used acrylic paint and oil-based paint markers to draw a mural addressing climate change, a risk that is perhaps more potent for them than for their peers anywhere else in the city.

Lilly Juste, 11, and Richardson Medina, 12, students of PS MS 165 pose for a portrait.
Lilly Juste, 11, and Richardson Medina, 12, students of P.S./M.S. 165 pose for a portrait.
New Venture Community School 219 students Andrew Perez, 12, and Alexa Ortiz, 12, address the crowd at Union Square.
I.S. 219 New Venture Community School students Andrew Perez, 12, and Alexa Ortiz, 12, address the crowd at Union Square.

At I.S. 219 New Venture School in Claremont Village in the Bronx, students chose an issue that remains tragically close to home: gun violence. Their table, which will be displayed in Claremont Park at a gazebo near the Mount Eden Parkway and Monroe Avenue entrance, also addressed drug abuse and bullying.

“We talked about the stuff going on in our area and decided on those three conflicts. Because all these things happen, you can’t trust people outside,” said Ashley Cortorreal, 13. “You can’t be outside by yourself because there could be a gun shooting out of nowhere, and that affects my everyday life. I’m just trying to come to school and leave school. I’m just trying to have fun.”

Joy Langer, who worked with students from the New Venture School as a teaching artist for LEAP, explained that the daily news cycle out of Washington, D.C., didn’t deeply factor into their art. “The Bronx has some tough neighborhoods. These kids have tough lives,” she said. “I think the choice of gun violence — it’s so in their faces that they didn’t talk about politics or the election. They didn’t talk about these more global issues.”

But it was clear that the young artists were very much attuned to local political debates. One student created a sketch of the Wall Street bull as a symbol of bullying, and State Street’s controversial Fearless Girl statue as a symbol of triumph. His design made the final cut. And students say that while bullying is definitely a school issue, it reverberates far beyond classroom walls, too.

“A lot of people say he’s being racist and trying to kick people out [of the country],” Nicole Frias, 12, a student at New Venture School, said of President Donald Trump. She pointed out that just like bullies at school, “he judges them because of their skin color and not for who they are. I’ve been watching the news more.”


Noribel Santana, 11, also a student at New Venture School, said she hopes that people will gather around their table to talk about issues facing their borough, and the country at large. But mostly, she hopes people will show up ready to listen. “Students of all ages should talk freely about how they feel about [political] situations, because we have feelings and emotions just like adults do.”

Frias echoed that hope. “Most kids feel like when adults do something, we have to pay for it,” she said. “We come out harmed or hurt. We did this [art project] so adults can see what ways they’re injuring kids.”

For Andrew Perez, 12, from New Venture School, the goal is to turn dialogue into action. “Maybe word can get out and help New York City, the Bronx, and the state as a whole,” he said.

Langer, his teacher, thinks they have a pretty good shot: “I think all these tables have a little bit of hope sprinkled on them,” she said.


In Durga Chew-Bose’s Debut Collection of Essays, the Delight Is in the Details

She entered quietly, without fanfare, the soles of her black boots tapping the ground. The writer Durga Chew-Bose had been invited to the packed lower level of the McNally Jackson bookstore to talk about her new book, Too Much and Not the Mood, an essay collection whose title is borrowed from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she bemoans the writerly duty to appease readers — the very thing we’d all eagerly gathered to watch Chew-Bose do. She knelt in front of someone in the front row, her hand moving instinctively to their knee. Intimate and precise, performed in plain view, the gesture recalled a moment from the collection’s second essay where she muses on the dirty, quiet satisfaction of watching a stranger from between the panels of a wooden fence:

“The devotional quality of someone going about his or her day, of having to stand on her tiptoes to secure the corner of a bleach-stained towel on her clothesline or pace and pause, pace and pause, while talking on his cordless phone, was an intimacy I’d never deemed intimate until it belonged to a stranger who had no idea I was bearing witness. The thrill of a quick look provided me with pure, almost hysterical voltage.”

The 31-year-old, Montreal-born writer’s meticulous attention to detail will feel familiar to fans of her earlier work, which has appeared in Hazlitt, the Hairpin, the New Inquiry, the Guardian, and others. In Too Much and Not the Mood‘s fourteen essays, an almost compulsive use of imagery doesn’t come across as literary garnishment. The opposite is true: These descriptive details are what Chew-Bose notices first. They are the subject. Calling to mind the airy, meandering dialogue of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, her finely tuned attention span evinces a rare, almost sneaky quality. In one scene, she describes her father’s glasses sliding down his nose as he stood watch over the family pool. What she first registered as fatherly satisfaction on his face she later clarifies as a resolution of guilt — the type of constant mitigation necessary for those among us who leave our homes and do not return to them.

Such details lead readers through a variety of memories: of the end of her parents’ marriage, the frenetic worship of the coming New York City summer, the freedoms and punishment of living alone, the answers that live in the pauses before we speak. Chew-Bose tackles topics traditional to memoir — family and friends, past relationships, and all the ways that childhood turbulence becomes adult-size. An essay that begins by marveling at the human heart’s ability to continue beating through uncontrollable excitement slips without warning into a meditation on the tortuous writing process, and then to a foggy recollection of a grandfather she met only once and could remember nothing about but the texture of chiffon. These are abrupt transitions but they do not feel impulsive; her denial of plot teases.

In the tumultuous first 100 days of the Trump administration, writers have turned their attention to the fallout that has trickled from the political to the cultural to the interpersonal. Few other demographics are as well versed in this vertigo as women of color. Chew-Bose tackles the politics of racial identity and culture in past and present tenses. In “Part of a Greater Pattern,” she writes not about white privilege, that dense, buzzy thing bogged down by theory, but about the “big and loud” mannerisms of the older white girls whose budding womanhood was on constant display throughout her childhood:

“In comparison, these older white girls made the rest of us appear like we were waiting in perpetuity. For what? It didn’t matter. The rest of us were girls-postponed,” she writes. I am reminded of girls from my own childhood whose ascension to womanhood shrouded my own in darkness, an eclipse it took me years to name.

Chew-Bose returns again and again to her family, exploring the duality that is the result of her parents’ immigration from Calcutta, India, to Canada, and weighing that with the vertigo of her own coupled existence. It’s no accident that she uses daughterhood as the point of entry or clarification for nearly every other subject. Chew-Bose is a first-generation Canadian who grew up with not just her “family’s knotted DNA but also the DNA acquired from their move.” She spent her time stepping into and out of many worlds: a North American one, a Canadian one, a South Asian one. Her parents lived here but were from there, and while she was born here, she was in a way from there, too. She sees exploring the evolution of that reality through the lens of her experience of daughterhood, one of the few modes of identity so hyper-specific it is difficult to criticize, as a kind of defense mechanism.

A description of a writing course Chew-Bose teaches at Sarah Lawrence College declares the nonexistence of procrastination: ” ‘Not writing’ is, in a manner of speaking, a variety of writing. It’s the writer accumulating and accessing new points of entry. It’s the writer drawing connections over time, without coercing meaning but, instead, allowing it to surface.” The class promises to show students — through “exploration of lists, correspondence, transcriptions, and film,” which all make frequent appearances in Too Much and Not the Mood — that writing is “a series of non-choices.” But by the end of her book, it is clear that she has in fact made choices, namely, rejecting conventional form and structure. As with her students, Chew-Bose invites readers to reject the binaries inherent in decision making. Opt instead for the freedom of smallness: “Smallness can make you feel extra porous. Extra ambitious. Like a small dog carrying an enormous branch clenched in its teeth, as if intimating to the world: Okay. Where to?” she writes. Chew-Bose promises to lead the way.

Too Much and Not the Mood
By Durga Chew-Bose
221 pp.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux


Pre-K For Three-Year-Olds Is Coming To NYC — If Someone Steps Up To Pay For It

On the heels of what was perhaps the fastest rollout of free, universal prekindergarten in the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s newest investment in early childhood education yesterday: free prekindergarten for all three-year-olds regardless of family income by 2021.

The project, dubbed “3-K for All,” will begin by expanding prekindergarten seats in the mayor’s existing universal program for four-year-olds to younger children in historically neglected neighborhoods — District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville — over the next two years. By the fall of 2018, the city hopes to reach 1,800 children in these districts — triple the amount of children in early care programs in those areas today. Research says that every dollar invested in high-quality early education saves taxpayers as much as $13 in the long term, according to a City Hall release on the program. The initial expansion in the Bronx and Brooklyn will cost the city $16 million.

“This extra year of education will provide our children with a level of academic and social development that they cannot get later on, while at the same time, alleviating some of the strain New York City’s working families face today,” Mayor de Blasio said in the same release. The city has committed to funding the program in eight districts by 2020 and hopes to secure additional funding to make the program universal by 2021. Once fully rolled out, the program is expected to serve 62,000 students in 3-K, an effort that will cost over $1 billion — an admittedly early estimate, according to the mayor.

Perhaps the mayor’s most successful citywide initiative yet, free, universal prekindergarten for four-year-olds went from ambitious campaign promise to reality in under two years — a massive feat. Through the universal prekindergarten program, more than 70,000 four-year-olds in about 1,800 public schools and community centers now have access to early education — learning that education research has long proven crucial in helping to level academic achievement gaps between wealthy and low-income children. The city hired and trained thousands of teachers to fill the new classrooms and, in the program’s second year, found evidence that widespread access to prekindergarten didn’t mean that programs would be low-quality.

Still, there is significant evidence that the program, like much of the city’s public elementary, middle, and high schools, is highly racially segregated. Researchers say the program could benefit from a more explicit dedication to racial integration, a stance the city continues to duck in favor of parent choice.

It comes as no surprise that the mayor would pick another popular, major education goal in an election year, particularly as his other re-election promises have been criticized, including the dubious Brooklyn-Queens streetcar; an all but abandonment of the city’s growing homelessness problem, which includes 33,000 school-aged children; and the closure of Rikers Island jail, a popular notion for sure, but one that has been met with skepticism (the mayor has refused to say whether construction of a new jail on Rikers Island will be allowed to continue and put the timeline for the current facility’s closure within a decade — beyond his term of office).

While the expansion of prekindergarten to three-year-olds is definitely a good thing, it will not come cheap. The city will need to train and hire 4,500 teachers and find classroom space for thousands of children. Making the program universal will depend upon the state and federal government getting on board with de Blasio’s vision —to the tune of $700 million. And while Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump are certainly not friends, they share a common distrust of the mayor. The city says it will spend a total of $177 million per year on the program, and the Administration for Children’s Services already contributes $200 million yearly to the existing EarlyLearn NYC program, which serves about 10,000 three-year-olds. The rest will be up to the state and the federal government, neither of which have inspired much faith as of late.

Read more about the mayor’s proposal here.


Saturday: March For Science While We Still Exist

Tomorrow is Earth Day and, around the globe, supporters of science — including scientists, politicians, and average citizens — will take to the streets in order to defend the planet they rest on.

The March for Science will take shape in the form of more than 500 demonstrations in every corner of the world, from Hawaii to Finland, from Alaska to Uganda to, of course, New York City. The main event will be held in Washington, D.C., where organizers hope to blanket the nation’s capital with demands that the government fund, support, and rely on scientific research to make important policy decisions that impact not just Americans but people worldwide.

This latest iteration of what has become a season of large-scale political protest comes as the Trump administration continues to lean into its disregard for demonstrable, widely accepted research. But organizers say characterizations of the march as partisan and left-leaning are inaccurate.

“The reason we advocate for research to inform policy is because the scientific method exists to try to reduce biased interpretations of the world,” said Caroline Weinberg, one of the march’s organizers, in an interview with Scientific American. The march has been criticized by some for its overt entrance into what some consider a politically charged debate. “Science works to give you answers that transcend partisanship — and so everyone should be behind it. Painting science as specific to one party is how we ended up in this situation,” she said.

Despite the agnosticism of the scientific method, the field has long been necessarily partisan, even more so as the Trump administration has demonstrated its dangerous indifference to research, beginning with the president’s sordid love affair with the coal industry (which will kill us all) and the miners to whom he’s promised jobs that aren’t coming back. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who spent much of his career suing the agency he now leads, continues to question humans’ role in climate change and has characterized a cleanup of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay as “federal overreach.” And he has staffed his office with like-minded folks such as Steven Milloy, who called the EPA finding that greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health “the original climate sin.”

Early in his tenure, Pruitt rejected the findings of his own agency that had, in 2016, led to the recommendation that the EPA ban a commonly used pesticide that causes neurological damage to children who are exposed to it in utero. Dow Chemical, a primary manufacturer of the pesticide, gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, and its CEO leads a presidential advisory committee. Trump has proposed major cuts to the EPA’s budget, signed an executive order eliminating former president Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. And while Trump makes frequent visits to Mar-a-Lago, 70 or so miles north of Miami Beach, which is literally drowning, his associates in Congress are providing handy assists.

Trump’s attacks on science often begin with the environment, but they don’t end there: He has suggested that data scientists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics aren’t to be trusted, rejects data that shows the wide array of health services other than abortion that make up the majority of Planned Parenthood’s offerings, and undermined the Congressional Budget Office’s findings that the Republican health care bill would spell disaster for Americans.

The New York rally will begin at Central Park West at 62nd Street at 10:30 on Saturday morning. The march, which starts at 11:30, will encompass Central Park West from 72nd Street through Columbus Circle, from where it will head onto Broadway and finish at 52nd Street. Dress for the weather, attach your signs to soft handles (no metal or wood — these are considered weapons by the NYPD), and think green: Bring reusable mugs and water bottles for breaks and take mass transit, carry your trash with you, and don’t ditch your signs in the street, recycle them.


How to Avoid the Tuition Trap: A Student Buyer’s Guide

One of the quandaries of figuring out how to pay for college is that by the time you’ve figured out how heavy a debt load you’re likely to find yourself crushed underneath, it’s too late to do anything about it. (Colleges don’t offer advanced degrees in financing your education — and if they did, you’d only end up having to figure out how to pay for those, too.) There are some things that college-bound high school seniors and already matriculated college students can do to help avoid the worst pitfalls, though; we asked a pair of college-finance experts for their tips.

Check the Scorecard

In 2015, President Obama introduced College Scorecards on the federal Department of Education website, which provide a wealth of data on graduation rates, average earnings after graduation — and student debt load. “At some schools in the country, students are virtually guaranteed to leave school with debt, and a lot of it,” says Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success in California. “Whereas at others, they may be able to graduate debt-free, or with an amount of debt that’s manageable. So look carefully into the schools you’re choosing, to make sure yours is not one that’s likely to leave you with debt you can’t repay.”

Read the Loan Fine Print

Once you choose a college, scrutinize loan offers carefully, says Cochrane, not just for their interest rates, but for what protections they have in case you have trouble repaying them. “Not all debt is the same,” she says, noting that private loans are particularly suspect but that even some public loans can come with snags: “New Jersey has a state loan program where students are encouraged to take out a form of life insurance, because their debts will not be discharged if they die. It’s horrendous. Students need to understand those differences, and proceed incredibly cautiously if the school is encouraging them to take out private loans.”

Use Income-Driven Repayment

If you hit hard times after graduation, head immediately to the DOE to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which caps your monthly loan payments at between 10 and 20 percent of your discretionary income, after necessities. (Note: Only federal student loans are eligible for this repayment form, another reason to think carefully before deciding what loans to take out.) “The number of borrowers in these plans has grown in recent years, which is a good thing,” says Cochrane. “No student should be forced into the poorhouse, or to go hungry or homeless, because of their student loans.”

Pricier Isn’t Always Better

There are nearly five thousand degree-granting institutions in the United States, some of which come with price tags upwards or $60,000 per year. But an expensive school does not always a better school make, something you should consider carefully when choosing a college. “The quality of most colleges is great, so in going to a less expensive school you’re not really going to sacrifice quality,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college admissions and financial aid website Cappex. He notes that you can find professors educated at the top schools at all kinds of campuses: “The Ivy League graduates more Ph.D.’s than they hire as faculty. They have to go somewhere to teach.”

Seek Out Scholarships

Pursue college aid via every avenue you can find, beginning with what Kantrowitz calls “gift aid” — money you won’t have to pay back. In addition to government free-tuition programs such as those offered for community colleges in Tennessee and Kalamazoo, Michigan, look for scholarships offered not just from your university, but also from community organizations or special-interest groups in your hometown that cater to your personal identity or talents.

Consider Transferring Credits

While community college tuition can be much cheaper, Kantrowitz warns that students who detour through community college may never reach their final destination. “Only one-fifth of students who start at community college get a bachelor’s degree in six years,” says Kantrowitz, versus two-thirds of students who start at four-year colleges. He recommends taking core or prerequisite classes at a community college during summer session, then transferring them to a four-year school — just check in advance that the new college will accept them.