As school ended this summer, Chancellor Carranza and Mayor de Blasio announced plans to spend $23 million on anti-bias training for teachers in New York City, and create a new Chief Academic Officer position to help ensure, among other things, that curriculum supports the DOE’s goals for equitable schools. As parents at a public elementary school in Manhattan’s persistently segregated and unequal District 3, we welcome these commitments. They come on the heels of some spectacular racist incidents in public schools that made headlines – and one year after the Charlottesville rally, when it’s clear that white supremacy must be directly confronted, not simply disagreed with.
But we are also acutely aware that NYC schools perpetuate racism and other injustices in many ways that don’t make the news, like white-centric curriculum and small, everyday acts of “implicit bias” that diminish students. Addressing these issues has largely been left to individual schools and overburdened administrators, a heavy lift that literally has to be reinvented in each school that takes it on. We’re seeing this in the form of parent-driven “diversity and inclusion” work – important, well-intentioned and, as we’ve learned, completely inadequate to the task.
Our school, PS75, truly diverse (unusual in District 3), and it’s filled with teachers and leaders who care about equity. That’s why we’ve all been surprised that it’s so hard to do what NYC DOE and Mayor de Blasio say they want: to make schools safe havens that produce critical, informed thinkers despite the rising violence of the Trump administration and the culture it has empowered.
Kids need curriculum that reflects their reality in order to learn, and families under attack need schools where they send their kids to be actively committed to defending them. Most families at PS75 (including ours) are some combination of brown, immigrant, LGBTQ, and low-income. Our kids’ lives are intensively shaped by events outside of school, particularly by bigotry and violence, and particularly state violence. In 2016, motivated by police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement, a School Leadership Team (SLT) workgroup began planning culturally-responsive curriculum based on our communities and experiences. In 2017 we expanded our efforts, anxious to oppose the welling up of violence and fear particularly around immigrant, Muslim, and other targeted families.
What seemed like an obvious project at our school has been hamstrung by questions about how we’re allowed to stand up for ourselves: Is opposing Trump’s bigotry “partisan politics” and therefore not allowed in school? Is discussing the discrimination our families experience “too negative” for kids? Is curriculum about Muslims “teaching religion” or is it geography, history, and science? Can gender identity be discussed as a matter of shared interest, or should it be treated as a private medical secret, alienating those who are gender non-conforming? In one recent conversation about a unit on Black Lives Matter – a movement of urgent national importance – someone asked “but what will we call it?” – reflecting a fear that Black Lives Matter and police violence are too hot for a school to discuss, despite their constant presence in students’ lives. The difficulty of having basic conversations about what’s happening in the United States makes the school’s other laudable work, including a staff-wide anti-racism training last year, feel almost futile.
Such questions reflect the urgent need for DOE leadership – both to provide expertise, and to give schools cover in a contentious climate. These issues are hot, and therefore not avoidable. In recent memory, two NYC schools targeted by conservative media have received frightening threats from across the internet: once over a kindergarten class project that celebrated immigrant students, and once when high schoolers mourned the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces.
As a result of these struggles, over the past two years our school has covered just two of eight topics that the SLT approved. One unit covered LGBTQ families, sort of. Many classrooms discussed a book about the same-sex penguin couple of the Central Park Zoo, but a DOE speaker (a lesbian parent) was cancelled. The other unit, on Muslim families, culture, and experience, went forward in many classrooms, and teachers reported that Muslim students were visibly excited and happy to feel seen. Unfortunately, it also created a firestorm over lack of prep time and an unprepped teacher’s alleged Islamophobic response. Around the same time, PS75 teachers heard a professional development speaker contrast China to “civilized countries.” Efforts to address these incidents yielded more tension. A beloved teacher left the school.
This is the story of a school that’s committed to the work; it must be harder still in schools where parents and staff are less engaged. And it matters. A learning environment that feigns equality and safety is traumatic for children who aren’t experiencing that. It leads to significant consequences in mental and physical health.
We have also learned that even where good policy exists, it doesn’t change school culture without strong pushout from DOE. NYC DOE has very progressive policies on gender bias and LGBTQ families and kids. PS75 has tried to comply with those policies. But DOE does not provide step-by-step implementation mandates—and hardly anyone seems well-versed in the policies—so the school falls short, to the detriment of gender non-conforming kids. A sign explaining that anyone can use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity is posted only on the inside of an adult women’s bathroom. Students are still identified by gender on some classroom doors. Queer parents called for a staff training on gender issues two years ago. To our principal’s credit, a training will likely happen next year. But meanwhile, parents (and teachers) are too easily cast in the role of agitators. We need DOE, not parents, to the roll-out of such deep culture shifts.
PS75 is diverse and engaged, and we have an administration that cares about all our kids. And still we’re struggling to get this right. We hope that the Chancellor will learn from our efforts: just as schools need DOE’s mandate forbidding cooperation with ICE (because without it, standing up to ICE is frightening and hard) schools need a DOE mandate to teach culturally-responsive curriculum in all grades, and establish school environments that address the racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, trans- and homophobic bigotry pervading the United States.
So yes please, let’s have anti-bias training. But to translate that training into change, we need DOE to lead and drive significant work on curriculum and school culture. It must be specific, with plans, problem-solving, ongoing support, and basic standards for each school. We can’t do it on our own.
Prantik Saha is a teaching and practicing pediatrician, and Emmaia Gelman is a doctoral student. Both are parents at PS75 in Manhattan.