Mission Impossible: Hopelessness in NYC’s Segregated Schools
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Vijay Ramkissoon ’17
Mornings at the Westchester Square Academy resemble a crowded airport. Every student at Westchester Square Academy (WSA) starts their day with this routine: remove your wallet, keys, cellphone, and any other metallic objects from your pockets and place them in a bin on the nearby conveyor belt; hand your bag to a security guard; slowly walk through the metal detectors and wait for the guards to signal approval; collect your things and hand your cellphone to Mr. Larry for the day. When the sound first bell approaches to signal the start of the school day, lines begin to form as the remaining students halfheartedly try to avoid another late arrival. The two-hundred and fifty students enrolled at WSA probably wouldn’t take too long to process, since the NYPD’s school security department seems to have streamlined their methods. But WSA shares the Herbert H. Lehman campus with six other Bronx public high schools, which raises the student population to over three thousand. These morning lines can sometimes stretch past the gates and even down the long city block.
Situated in a relatively poor neighborhood in the Bronx, Westchester Square Academy was founded in 2012 as a part of New York City’s initiative to replace large, failing schools with “smaller, more customized schools” in the hopes of increasing the city’s graduation rates. Prior to this initiative, the condition of New York City’s public education sparked many residents, lawmakers, and civil rights activists to call for educational reform. This call for change resonated especially well in low-income neighborhoods populated mostly by blacks and Hispanics, a demographic with some of the most disenfranchised youth in the city. The well-documented recognition that poor education systems perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime within these places forced the city’s government to take drastic measures to reduce this gap in equality. However, many students and residents of the neighborhood don’t see the benefits of these reforms.
“You’re lucky to have come here on a quiet day,” says Michelle Ramkins. A short blonde woman with a big smile, Michelle works at WSA as one of six paraprofessional teacher assistants (TA). She had agreed to guide me through her school for the day. Fearing that I would get lost in the extensive security, Michelle meets me near the end of the school’s block at 8 o’clock in the morning. Although this time signals the beginning of the academic day, at least fifty students lag behind us, with no sense of urgency surrounding their impending lateness. After leading me to the faculty waiting room, she continues, “If you had been doing this last year, you might have been trampled by a stampede.” The other TA’s in the room nod quietly in agreement, but the assistant principal glares at Michelle before quietly finishing her breakfast and leaving the room in an uncomfortable silence.
During the first week of December, 2015, only a few hours after the routinely long morning lines outside had subsided, the fire alarm blared through the crowded building. Students immediately began to rush from their classrooms. There was no palpable panic; this incident marked the third time within the week that a student had needlessly activated the fire alarm. Within minutes, three thousand students flooded the surrounding streets. Naturally, chaos ensued.
Dozens of fights broke out throughout the heavily populated neighborhood. The frequency and severity of these fights, aptly described as a “week-long spree of fights and false alarms” by the Bronx Times, forced local law enforcement and city government officials, along with the Westchester Square Business Improvement District, to get involved with the school principals. A vibrant center of business and interborough travel for many Bronx residents, the Westchester Square area had become routinely unsafe. “The students are overtaking the streets, blocking traffic, fighting and terrorizing pedestrians,” wrote the WSBID, the association representing the majority of the Square’s businesses. Many reports featured multiple instances of firearms among the students themselves. Additionally, the NYPD found a wide range of evidence that suggests conflicting gang affiliations within the student population played a major role in sparking this violence. This controversy marks just one of many that have plagued this Bronx school in its infant years.
With blacks and Hispanics from low-income households comprising over 80% of its student body, Westchester Square Academy exemplifies the failure of New York City’s supposedly innovative approach towards social equity and upward mobility. The fact that the population of the Bronx, one of New York City’s poorest regions, consists mainly of ethnic minorities should not be considered a coincidence. It’s an undeniable reality that, for most of this nation’s history, the political institutions of the United States intentionally neglected the needs of minorities and created a socioeconomic deficit along racial lines. Despite the removal of these overtly skewed policies, we have clearly failed to remedy this issue. Undoubtedly, since these problems stem from past governmental laws and policies, the federal government remains responsible for addressing this societal rift and its lasting consequence. Malcolm X once famously stated: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Schools possess the unmatched ability to mitigate the adverse effects of our nation’s racist history. So why have all the efforts to bolster these failing institutions produced such discouraging results?
A severe deterrent to productivity and safety comes from the sheer number of students crammed into one building. While teachers and police officials never officially reported any WSA students participating in any fights, every student involved in the brawls attended a school in the same building, the Herbert H. Lehman campus. Apparently, New York’s mission of reducing schools to more manageable sizes doesn’t include actually separating these institutions from each other in terms of location. Prior to 2012, the giant building that encompasses 3000 East Tremont Avenue contained only one large school, the Herbert H. Lehman high school, with a student population of over four thousand. But years of low graduation rates, poor attendance, and frequent student violence eventually mandated political intervention, and the administration faced pressure for immediate change not only from the city government but from state government, too. The resulting resolution called for a reduction in the high school’s large number of students and dividing the building’s remaining space between five new specialized schools: Westchester Square Academy, Hamel Lab High School, Schuylerville Preparatory High School, Bronx River High School, and the Renaissance High School for Musical Theater and Technology.
Once she explains my schedule for the day, Michelle escorts me through the maze of hallways and staircases. A few wrong turns lead us out from WSA and into an entirely different school, but we eventually find our back into the school’s sector. Aside from some bulletin boards and the occasional cockroach, the halls appear almost identical: blue lockers, white walls, and two red stripes on each edge of the ceiling. She stops in front of a classroom with a red door, opens it, and introduces me to Kerrisha Brown, who, after a short greeting, begins to answer my questions about the neighboring schools.
“There are some plusses and minuses about sharing with other schools,” said Ms. Brown, an algebra teacher at Westchester Square Academy. As part of WSA’s original staff, she witnessed the initial integration of the five new schools. “Obviously, students from other schools have created a lot of problems for us. But, being a founding member of the school, I’ve seen where its benefitted. It makes sports and extracurriculars possible. We would never be able to find an entire football team among our own students. With these larger schools readily available, our students can join teams that are successful, recognized, and competitive. I’ve definitely seen a positive, there. However, I don’t know if it’s worth all of the other problems that arise from this campus.”
Ms. Brown pauses when I laughed at her last sentence. “Yeah, I guess you really can’t call it a campus. That’s a bit of an overstatement,” she admits. The general perception of a campus probably resembles a generic college or at least a high school comprised of multiple buildings. But the Herbert H. Lehman campus certainly stretches the definition of that word. The “campus” consists of a flat, gray building that continues for a few hundred feet before ending abruptly at the edge of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. A domed, concrete auditorium, which none of the six schools use with any frequency, consumes almost a quarter of the building. The overgrown football field, already stripped of its paint and littered with beer cans and students cutting class, lies on the opposite side of the building. The remaining space must be divided among the six different schools, each with entirely different missions, administrations, and students. Each school constitutes approximately two floors and a portion of the basement. If you’re walking down the hallway and make one wrong turn, you could end up in another school, with only the colors of the classroom doors signaling any change.
So, while the city has tried to gradually shift away from its previously flawed approach to schools, it simply won’t dedicate the resources necessary to truly separate schools and avoid the inherent problems of larger schools in toxic urban environments. To be fair, the smaller schools have performed better than Herbert H. Lehman High School, which recently became the subject of the state government’s investigation into Bronx education. But the proximity to these students who lack either the same guidance or motivation would create unnecessary distractions for most students.
“We structured ourselves to have limited interactions during the academic day, so that we could cut down on bullying issues and other concerns of a larger school environment,” Ms. Brown conceded. The administration has definitely acknowledged the drawbacks of interacting with one of the worst schools in the city. However, once the academic day ends, teachers can no longer regulate their student’s affiliations. “We can’t control what our students do once the school day is over. We can’t stop them from meeting up with kids from those other schools.”
Once the final bell rings, hundreds of students from each school find their way outside and congregate into a rowdy patchwork of social groups. The only way to distinguish whether a group of students attend the same school rests solely on if they wear their school uniform. Most of them don’t. Although Ms. Brown’s comments may seem insensitive towards the students attending the neighboring schools — after all, they too are the products of the same institutional deficiency that harms their peers — it would be irresponsible of these educators to encourage their students to enter a social environment riddled with gang affiliations and a culture that stigmatizes academic achievement.
In fact, the widespread lack of motivation towards academic excellency already underscores much of the dialogue surrounding student performance not just at WSA, but throughout the Bronx. Four decades after desegregation efforts punctuated the political atmosphere of this nation, New York City remains a microcosm of racial inequality within the school systems and residential programs, and this polarization continues to rise. Black and Latino students consistently attend schools where less than ten percent of their peers are white. Furthermore, NYC’s white students tend to go to schools with less than thirty percent of its student body comprised of low-income students, despite that fact that more than half of the city’s students come from low-income households. Assisted by the New York City zoning system, the white students enroll in schools situated in neighborhoods within a higher tax bracket. Then, they can continue to pursue educations in institutions that benefit from the same socioeconomic surroundings or use their stronger academic foundation to gain admission to the highly coveted specialized high schools. This complex cycle has persisted for years and prevented the city’s minority populations both from gaining exposure to white students and from accessing the few schools that offer a quality education. Since this experience has pervaded multiple generations within the black community and a comprehensive solution has yet to be offered, we cannot blame minority students and their parents for neglecting to place an emphasis on education. Motivation begins to fade when you’ve never achieved success. They’ve seen that it leads them to nowhere. For this exact reason, we need to ensure the success of initiatives like Westchester Square Academy, which can serve as a stepping stone towards a more equitable future.
Yira Salcedo, now beginning her first year as principal of Westchester Square Academy, has dedicated herself to helping these disadvantaged youths in her high school. Since before beginning her career in the Department of Education, Ms. Salcedo worked in the context of giving back to her community.
“Once I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corp,” begins Ms. Salcedo, as she explains her journey to WSA. A short, stocky Hispanic woman in her thirties with an unsmiling face, Salcedo never relinquished her severe demeanor. She appeared to dislike my presence, as if I were a hostile entity trying to attack her precious school. Yet, no one should doubt her commitment to serving the common good. “I went to South America with the goal of empowering underserved communities. After two years down there, I returned to the Bronx. I realized that I was committed to New York City. Bronx public schools have been my home ever since.”
Ms. Brown told me that society often uses teachers as a scapegoat to explain the dearth of motivation. Though many teachers crumble when faced with the challenge of inspiring the disenfranchised youth of inner cities, the most dedicated ones, such as Ms. Salcedo and Brown, truly persevere with the strength to make a difference.
“The vast majority of students are not self-motivated,” Ms. Brown stated. “That’s where as a teacher, we come in and we try to push in. We try to reinforce the importance of the content, of pushing through, developing grit, and doing something that you don’t think you can do.”
Hopefully, that message of motivation seeps into the minds of their students. But many times, the urgent words of a teacher aren’t enough to dissipate a teenager’s skewed priorities, especially when fostered by years of systematic neglect. In terms of the current generation of minority high schoolers, we can’t expect staggering amounts of these teens to rapidly change their prioritization, as their surrounding cultural imperative justly lacks an appreciation for education. So, when this message resounds within a group of students, for whatever reason, whether it be a well-structured home life or an incredibly inspiring teacher, shouldn’t those few students gain access to an intensive academic environment, for the sake of their own personal achievement and also the advancement of their own ethnic group?
Schools like Westchester Square Academy claim to provide such academic spaces, but the reality of this school’s rigor and its selection process paints a different picture. Admission to WSA relies on two imbalanced systems. For the majority of applicants to Westchester Square Academy, the student applies through the discouragingly unsophisticated ‘limited unscreened’ process. Essentially, this method culminates in a basic lottery system, in which applicants who attended WSA’s information sessions maintain a better chance of selection. They need to only submit biographical information and official documents to merit consideration. For the current WSA applicant class, eighty-four of the one hundred thirty-six available seats are designated for the limited unscreened applicants. The remaining fifty-four seats belong to the applicants of the ‘screened’ process. This procedure requires the submission and subsequent evaluation of a prospective student’s seventh grade transcripts and standardized test scores. Although other schools may require essays or interview, WSA hasn’t yet implemented either of these aspects into their admissions decisions. This ratio of limited unscreened to screened ratio has remained relatively constant throughout WSA’s five-year existence.
Essentially, the school picks more than half of its students almost arbitrarily and relies on minimal academic material to refine a smaller pool of students who are supposedly more qualified. Thus, the process fails to effectively discover truly talented and motivated students. Consequently, teachers and administrators must lower their expectations and levels of academic rigor in order to cater to the widely varying abilities and priorities of their student population. In many of WSA’s classes, this deficit manifests clearly.
Halfway through my day-long visit to WSA, Michelle Ramkins, the ever-friendly teacher’s assistant, invites me to accompany her to her next assignment: chemistry class. Mr. Rich, one of the school’s five chemistry teachers, boldly presents his students with an opportunity to seize their own learning. Instead of subjecting the class to another lecture, Marques Rich asks groups of students to walk their peers through solving a series of chemistry problems that they were assigned for homework. However, his students respond with general apathy and demonstrate the complete absence of rigor.
When Mr. Rich instructs the first group to present their problems, four students stand up, two boys and two girls, all of who appeared utterly confused and unprepared. The students approach the Smartboard, an interactive combination between a computer and a whiteboard, and began to slowly collaborate towards a solution for their first problem: completing a Lewis Dot structure of a fluorine cation. A simple problem for many of those who study chemistry, the students work through the problem with hesitancy, as though they had never seen it.
“I can guarantee you that none of these kids did their homework,” Michelle whispers in my ear. We both look up as one of the boys, Luis, begins muttering something about electrons and protons to the class before returning to his groupmates to solve the problem. Mr. Rich, probably hoping to salvage this valuable class time, quickly intervened and gave the group hints about the differences between the different types of ions and the significance of a molecule’s electrical charge. Only then could they proceed to complete the Lewis Dot diagram. Although the group displayed relatively increased momentum in solving the remaining problems, they still spent most of their time consulting each other and offered only vague utterances to the class about their methods as they slogged through the presentation. A quick survey of the classroom revealed that almost none of the students in the audience had filled out their corresponding worksheets. When the audience Q&A portion of the presentation began, only two students asked substantive questions, with Mr. Rich offering the rest. Yet, when their ten minutes ended, the teacher heaped mostly praise onto the group.
“I appreciated your clarity and your diagrams on the board,” Mr. Rich said, referencing the half-drawn illustration of a hydrogen bond. He listed a few more positives before finishing with, “Overall, that was a pretty good presentation.” Rich turned to the rest of the class and said, “You all should take note of this.” Hearing this last piece, Michelle stifled a laugh. Then, her face stiffens.
“That was horrible, right?” she whispered to me. “Do you want to know the sad part about that?” She gestured towards Luis, one of the group members. “That’s a straight-A student. And many of our straight-A students are just like that.”
As a former employee at many of the city’s more elite institutions, both public and private, Michelle possesses a basic understanding of what constitutes proficient schoolwork. We both knew that the previous academic display certainly did not fall under that classification. Schools like WSA insist that they can help the borough’s high-achieving, underprivileged minorities on the journey to success that larger schools can’t accommodate, but they evidently maintain dreadfully low expectations for their students. And, once again, the problem becomes far too complicated to surmise an easy solution. The improvement of the student performance within standard public schools would necessitate an entire shift in both the cultural imperatives that downplays education and the socioeconomic desegregation of the entire city. Although these two somewhat quantifiable aspects demonstrate a trend towards resolution, the current rate of progress would require more than sixty years in order to significantly impact the educational deficit that plagues New York City’s minorities. Since the creation of smaller schools hasn’t yielded promising results, a student’s only opportunity for escape comes from gaining access to one of eight Specialized High Schools, the most coveted public high schools New York City, through a process that a former teacher of mine aptly terms “a citywide crapshoot.” These schools base their admissions solely on a student’s performance on the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test), which the city administers to tens of thousands only once per academic year. But the already compromised middle schools of low-income neighborhoods don’t prepare students well enough for this one-shot admissions process, as black and Hispanic students account for just over thirteen percent of specialized high school students. Thus, these underserved groups are once again left with no real option, other than grinding through four more years at failing institutions.
Although this truth may not be apparent to the school’s younger students, many of juniors and seniors have begun to decipher their unfortunate situation. During the summer of 2016, I tutored some WSA students as they completed schoolwork that they didn’t finish during the normal academic year. While most of the students purported a similar level of apathy for their work, the contrast in their reasoning showcased the depressing development of student mentality at this school.
“I don’t think that I’m going to college,” stated Steven Casado. I had just approached the seventeen-year-old junior and attempted to convince him to finish his essay on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I hesitantly brought up the topic of college and careers, but he responded with quickness that suggested that he had contemplated this issue many times before. “My friends who went to college say that it’s just as shitty as this place. They can’t even get into colleges outside of this city. I have two cousins who went to college and one who didn’t. And now they’re all working in their father’s corner store. It makes no difference. They’re still poor. With the type of schools that we can get into, our degrees are just pieces of paper that hang on the wall and make our mothers proud.”
Last year, WSA graduated its first set of seniors. In a class of approximately one hundred students, seventy-eight percent met the graduation requirements, a number higher than the borough average. Less than half of that group moved on to higher education or even trade schools. And those fortunate enough to attend college lack the qualifications to gain admission to the city’s selective universities, so they must limit themselves to the surrounding community colleges. With those facts in mind, I didn’t know how to reply. But Steven looked up at me, and his frown softened into a reluctant smile. As I started to walk away, he added, “But I can still try.” He picked up his pencil and continued to write.
No matter how you approach New York City’s convoluted mess of a public education, problems arise from these institutions, one after another. It serves as a microcosm of the social, economic, and racial tensions that have plagued the nation since the early twentieth century. Six decades have passed since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, yet the results are barely visible within the Bronx and other low-income neighborhoods. New York City, one of the most liberal regions in the nation, remains deeply segregated, and the minority communities continue to suffer through the government’s inability to address racial inequality. The black and Hispanic populations of this city deserve better. Social mobility and cultural stabilization begins in the school system. So, even though deriving a solution to its inadequacies might appear to be an impossible task, we owe it to these historically underprivileged youths to never stop advocating for change. Hopefully, they can eventually experience the same opportunities for success and a more fulfilling life. But in the meantime, they remain caught in the confusing web of system-wide failure.
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=8732