Intentional Integration: This School Has Lessons to Share in Navigating the Race Inequity Issues

Intentional Integration: This School Has Lessons to Share in Navigating the Race Inequity Issues

School District 13 is a classic example of gentrification in Brooklyn, representative of the last decade and a half in the borough. As local schools learn to navigate the challenges that come with rapidly changing demographics of neighborhoods that surround them, the Academy of Arts and Letters in Clinton Hill, has lessons to share.

The district serves the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Bed-Stuy. Back in 2010, the district’s student-body was 61% Black, 8% White, 15% Hispanic, and 16% Asian. These days, Black students are 43.6% of the population, while 15% are White, 21% Asian, and 16.3% are Hispanic.

Academy of Arts and Letters is located in Clinton Hill, just a few short blocks from Fort Greene Park. Established in 2006, the school started off as a middle school, serving grades 6 through 8. Its students were nearly all children of color. But quickly, a lot of parents who came to tour the school were not.

“It was like, ‘oh my gosh, what happened here?’” says Principal John O’Reilly. “You could see it in their facial expressions. Black and Brown kids are like, ‘whoa! If all these people come in, do I belong here?’ So, that’s hard.”

With the student population changing, the school was also losing its Title 1 Funding, which is federal funding that gives financial assistance to schools that have high numbers of low-income students, under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We lost Title 1 in 2009 when we dipped below 60% free lunch,” O’Reilly says. “We lost a bit more than $250,000.  We were going from having all kids of color to a vastly majority white school.”

Around the same time, UCLA released a study showing New York City schools were the most segregated in the country.

Academy of Arts & Letters/PS 20 via the Academy of Arts & Letters

Addressing Race – Principal Takes Action

O’Reilly decided it was time to take action. A native New Yorker who grew up in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, O’Reilly has been part of the Department of Education for 22 years, nearly 8 of those as the principal of this school. He exudes enthusiastic energy that makes his role as principal of a K – 8 school, especially one focused on integration, possible.

Located at 225 Adelphi Street, the Academy of Arts and Letters shares space with P.S. 20, which had plenty of space to be utilized back in 2006, when Arts and Letters opened. It became a K – 8 in 2010 when it began to add two classes for both Kindergarten and 1st grade, allowing the school to nurture its student body over a longer time period.

“We were inspired by the learning culture of a number of K-8 schools. They were incredibly warm and smart,” O’Reilly explains.

On its website, Arts and Letters, which currently has 525 pupils, explains its mission is based in the belief that “the purpose of public education is to work in partnership with parents and communities to raise young people who are strong and flexible thinkers, and caring, responsible stewards and leaders of a vibrant, democratic society”, where all students “should find and share their voices.”

This mission has enabled the Arts and Letters’ to tackle integration head-on.

“We were very responsive to the UCLA study,” O’Reilly says. “I would say we certainly lead the charge, we were a part of that.”

Principal John O’Reilly chatting with a student while holding another student’s doll during recess. Courtesy of Academy of Arts and Letters

Diversifying Admissions

Arts and Letters became proactive. It was among the first schools to take part in the DOE’s pilot program that was trying to promote diversity, in this case, through admissions. Arts and Letters is an unzoned District 13 school that uses a lottery system for admissions. Because, as Principal O’Reilly explains, the school’s Kindergarten admissions pool is “disproportionately white and affluent,” they have a goal to have 40% of its student body to be free lunch. It’s a goal that has remained elusive.  These days about 25% of Arts and Letters students qualify for free lunch and O’Reilly believes the competition with charter schools plays a role in attracting students.

Even so, the changes to the admissions method have made an impact on the diversity of the student body. Though white students began to outnumber the black students as the district gentrified, O’Reilly maintains that his school has always had a student-body of color.

“The percentage of Latinx and Asian students at Arts & Letters has increased over the past years,” he explains.

According to the DOE, of the 2017-2018 school year, Arts and Letters’ population is 32% Black, 37% White, 16% Hispanic, and 7% Asian.

Getting Parents on Board

Though many of the school’s community supported the effort to make it more diverse, there were some concerns and reluctance.

“The main counterforce, the push against integration, were white families,” O’Reilly says. “Their worry was that their child’s education was going to decline because of whatever the code words they were trying to use if they were trying to be slick, and not overtly racist.”

School assembly in the gym. Courtesy of the Academy of Arts and Letters.

O’Reilly says all students at his school have academically benefitted from integration, especially the children of color who may otherwise have been in more segregated schools, as he points to studies, such as “Children of the Dream” by Rucker C. Johnson of U.C. Berkeley, that have shown that integration helps all.

As O’Reilly and the school’s staff aimed to confront race issues, they began to realize that there was more than just diversifying the population. There are students of color who don’t do as well academically or participate as much as their white peers. Some parents and students of color told their principal that they didn’t feel safe, visible or even heard at Arts and Letters.

“It felt very racial,” O’Reilly said. “It is racial. And it’s something that we need to approach with open minds and open hearts, with like a quiet humbleness but with great determination that we’re going to keep going, despite making lots and lots of mistakes.”

Talking About Race, Intentionally And A Lot

To fix those mistakes, O’Reilly and his staff – which is currently half white, half educators of color – began creating programs and opportunities to discuss race.

Although the DOE helped Arts and Letters with its initial diversity admissions program, there were no funds dedicated to supporting such programs. The school turned to the Neighborhood School Grants Program, funded by one of the largest Brooklyn real estate developers, the Walentas Family Foundation, to help get the programs going. Last year, and again for 2019, Arts and Letters were given $18,000 from the program to fund what they call “Intentional Integration at Arts and Letters”.

The grant money enabled Arts and Letters to truly focus on addressing race and white supremacy across its constituent groups – the students, the faculty & staff, and parents.  There has been professional staff development focused on this issue, workshops for parents, and a racial equity/anti-oppression working group led by faculty. Teachers are also focused on the racial gap in assessments and finding ways to create more equity to reduce it. Then there’s a support team at the school’s Student Life Center, where students, staff, and parents meet once a week to discuss race issues.

Seventh-grade science teacher Sasha Swift is part of the Racial Equity Team, which is dedicated to making sure that the school is integrated in all aspects. She leads staff advisory groups, which are smaller staff groups that gather to discuss classroom issues. During the last school year, the groups met about five times to do team building activities, talk about their own racial identities and what it meant to them.

“In the beginning, it may have felt uncomfortable,” Swift says. “But I felt like at the end, the ideas to just build a space where people feel like they can say the things they need to say. It’s a safe space, and you won’t be judged. I think that’s been really helpful. It also makes it clear to everyone in the school what our mission is and what the goal is.”

Group hug. The Academy of Arts and Letters.

Unpacking Race – Students

There’s a similar group for the middle school students who also meet twice a week to discuss race –  15 students sit in a circle with a teacher overseeing the meeting.

“They’re not afraid to talk about it,” O’Reilly says. “It can be playful, it can be fun. But it can be tense, too.”

One thing that has been noticeable is that when it comes to identity, white students are far less likely to describe themselves according to their skin color compared to other students.

“Kids of color label their cultural identity, their racial identity,” O’Reilly snaps his fingers to indicate how quickly those students do so. “Whereas white kids, their kind of ethnic connection is distant. And that’s interesting, kids notice that.”

There was one moment, O’Reilly remembers, where things got very tense when a 7th-grade girl of West Indian heritage called out a white friend for not inviting her to her birthday party.

“It didn’t go so well,” he says. “But that was very courageous for her to say that. When she said that, she was tearful. They were tears of rage and hurt.”

He also points out that such a discussion would not have happened in a segregated school.

Even in the classroom, there have been energetic discussions about race. When 8th grade humanities teacher, Liliana Richter, brought in a New York Times article about Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools as unconstitutional back in 1954, she asked her students what was more important: a good education or to be a diverse school?

“It was a student-led discussion,” Richter says with excitement. “Kids really know you can’t have a good education without diversity.”

The staff is also conscientious to how the students interact with each other, from overnight school trips to being on the playground together.

“We’re constantly looking at how students play,” Sasha Swift says. “Are they self-segregating? What could we do about that? It is something we think of all the time.”

Unpacking Race – Parents

As for the parents, there have been efforts in getting them to discuss race as well.

Judith Jean-Bruce & Blanca Ruiz. Megan McGibney/Bklyner

When it came to facilitating workshops at Arts and Letters for the parents, two mothers, Blanca Ruiz and Judith Jean-Bruce, volunteered. Both had been trained by the Center for Racial Justice in Education and are former teachers themselves. Starting two years ago, they began organizing monthly events where parents would meet in groups at each other’s houses. Over time, these events were solidified by the PTA as workshops.

Back in June, the two women explain, there was a popular workshop as part of a four-part series, where between 30 to 50 parents attended. It required self-examination in how racial trauma shows up and how to discuss racial messages in social media, ads and television.

“It was a well-attended session,” Jean-Bruce says. “There was a desire to discuss race in an age-appropriate moment. People are triggered, and there’s unpacking in front of everybody.”

“We named race as often as possible,” Ruiz adds. “Some missed the first three workshops and you could see the discomfort in their faces. People were saying, ‘as a black man’ or ‘as a white man’.”

There is a lot of work to be done, Ruiz points out. But, she says, the white parents are trying.

“I’m open to having conversations,” she says. “They ask, ‘what can I do as a white parent?’ And they share their struggles with other white parents.”

The two women also mention that Brooklyn itself is a deeply segregated borough, and schools are just a small portion of a bigger issue. They even bring up how gentrification makes the discussion of race uneasy.

“It’s pushing out a community,” Ruiz says. “There’s a lot to unpack there. Then there’s the false white liberalism that say they’re all for integration until it impacts their child. So, are they all for achieving equity? Or just being cool? That is why we do work with parents.”

No G&T, No Tracking

Despite all the challenges, the Academy of Arts and Letters is determined to achieve full integration. That also means on an academic level. The school has no gifted and talented program, and there is no tracking of anyone. This is because, O’Reilly says, such classes are mostly white, and don’t allow those white students to mingle with nonwhite students.

“In order to have integration,” O’Reilly explains. “Every kid, family and staff member must feel like they belong. Our school model allows itself integration. We’re committed to inclusion.”

Lessons: Go Deep, Lean Into Discomfort, and Take Your Time

The school even communicates with other schools in Brooklyn about integration and how to do it. The staff also has strong beliefs about Brooklynites who are reluctant, or even against, any form of integration.

“Why wouldn’t you want all kids to have access to a great education?” Sasha Swift would ask those people. “What is the fear? Wouldn’t you want to raise people who are sensitive to other races and also knowledgeable about other races? It’s hard for me to understand. Why in 2019? In Brooklyn? And in New York?”

Swift wants school districts who are hesitant to be considerate of what integration means, how it is beneficial to them, as well as to “go in deep” with it.

“If the start of that initiative is just reserving a certain amount of seats,” Swift says, “that’s not enough; it can’t just be the seats. There has to be a commitment, not only to what the population looks like, but what the day to day feels at the school. It has to be an agenda.”

Richter has this encouragement for other schools: “Be prepared to lean into discomfort. Celebrate victories, and don’t be afraid to go slow.”

“It’s good for everyone,” she adds. “No one is hurt by integration. The Brown v. Board ruling shows segregation is bad for individuals and society.”

As for Principal O’Reilly, his determination is as strong as ever for the coming school year.

“We want to shrink the racial gap in assessments,” he says. “We want to develop a more trusting and positive relationship with our families. And work on more bridges than walls.”