School Colors Episode 4 : Code Switch So much of the present day conversation about District 28 hinges on the dynamic between the Northside and the Southside. But why were the North and the South wedged into the same school district to begin with? When we asked around, no one seemed to know. What we do know are the consequences.

School Colors Episode 4: 'The Mason-Dixon Line'

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What's good, y'all? This is Gene. We've talked about this on the podcast before. Schools are the site of so much anxiety - like moral panics over textbooks and curriculum, you know, battles over teacher pay, etc., etc., etc. - because they're where people send their children, where their kids spend most of the waking hours of their young lives. And so we're about to turn to the latest episode of School Colors. And we wanted to just nod to the fact that if you're listening to a podcast about schools in this moment or just thinking about schools, then you're also probably thinking about what happened in Uvalde, Texas.


DEMBY: Uvalde is a ranching town, mostly Latino, just 80 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. And it is now the latest scene of this uniquely American occurrence. This week, a gunman walked into Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers. There is still so much we don't know at the time we're recording this. But in a town of just 16,000 people, it's a nightmare that will touch, basically, everybody. We don't know what the shooter's motive is, if it was ideological, like the gunman in Buffalo, or if he was "just" - "just," I'm doing air quotes - a petty, angry man with an axe to grind. The motives matter, they do, but they also kind of don't. Because, again, in a country where there are more guns than people, a country that takes a laissez-faire approach to protecting most rights but a maximalist, near-absolutist approach to the right to have guns, any sufficiently motivated person with any reason can author a calamity.

This, at one point, is the kind of thing that politicians or TV pundits used to call unimaginable. The problem is that people in the United States, especially young people, are really used to imagining it, are forced to conceptualize it and prepare for it. I mean, Americans under the age of 30 have grown up in a world where school shootings are a frequent occurrence, where active shooter drills are just a fact of school-going life, you know, where school-aged kids share these morbid memes on their social media accounts about their classrooms and cafeterias coming to national attention for the worst possible reasons. None of this is what this episode of School Colors is about. But we felt it was important to hold space for this news and for these children and for these teachers, just as we did for the people who were recently killed in Buffalo. All right. Onto the show.


VANESSA SPARKS: My name is Vanessa Sparks. I am a lifetime resident of Queens, N.Y. - the entire time, living within the confines of School District 28.


Vanessa grew up and still lives in south Jamaica. But she didn't go to school in the neighborhood.

SPARKS: Looking at it as an adult, from where I went to school from where I live, it wasn't - you know, it wasn't an hour away, maybe a 15, 20-minute drive, but it was a world away.

GRIFFITH: It was the early '70s. And her parents felt like she had to leave the south side for better schools.

SPARKS: That was the narrative that was spun then - better schools, i.e., schools in white communities.

GRIFFITH: To get from one world to the other, she had to cross what people called the Mason-Dixon Line.

SPARKS: We used to always call Hillside Avenue the Mason-Dixon Line in terms of District 28. Most Black people in District 28 did live south of Hillside Avenue. Most white people in District 28 did live north of Hillside Avenue. It was just the Mason-Dixon line they used to call - I think they used to call it that just for that reason. All the Black folks are here. All the white folks are there. This is kind of, once you cross Hillside Avenue - and it's still, and believe it or not - you want to know a secret? It's still, to some degree, like that now.


We spent the last two episodes talking about the history of the north side and the south side of District 28. But for most of that history, there was no District 28. The district in its current form didn't exist.

GRIFFITH: When Vanessa Sparks started traveling between worlds, District 28 had only just been created, putting north and south together for the first time.

FREEDMAN: So much of the present-day conversation about District 28 hinges on this north-south dynamic. But why were the north side and the south side wedged into the same school district to begin with? I've always thought it was strange.

GRIFFITH: So we asked around. And no one in the district seems to know - like, no one.

FREEDMAN: Luckily, we're not the only super nerds in New York interested in this. I got on Zoom with Judith Kafka, a professor of education, history and policy at Baruch College, to try to find out how the district got this way.

JUDITH KAFKA: I just was trying to get an easy sort of, here's where the district boundaries came from.

FREEDMAN: But it turns out it wasn't that easy. As she started researching the evolution of New York City school district boundaries, Judith couldn't find any physical maps, which meant she and her team had to make their own maps based on records of verbal descriptions.

KAFKA: If you'd like, I can show you our maps. Do you want to see your maps?

FREEDMAN: Do you want to share the screen with me?



FREEDMAN: Judith started flipping from one map to the next.

KAFKA: It works well if you keep your eye on the district you're interested in. When you go from page to page, you can see the changes really quickly.

FREEDMAN: As you go from map to map, for the first half of the 20th century, there's nothing even close to the shape of District 28 today until you get to the 1964-'65 school year.

Can you just flip from this one to the next one again?

KAFKA: Yeah.

FREEDMAN: And then back? I feel like I'm at the optometrist's office (laughter).

KAFKA: Yeah. No. Totally. I've done this a ton within Brooklyn, too. And actually, when you can do it like this, it's really cool to - because you can really see the changes.


KAFKA: Minor changes.

FREEDMAN: But this is a big one.

KAFKA: This is a big one.

FREEDMAN: Like, this thing in the middle of Queens is a big change between '64-'65 and '68-'69.

It's somewhere between 1965 and 1968 that District 28, with its Mason-Dixon line, emerged. That's about as much as we know for sure.


GRIFFITH: But here's the thing - these new district lines didn't just combine north side and south side. They cut through and separated Black neighborhoods in the south side into different school districts.

KAFKA: And it didn't happen by accident, right? I mean, it definitely wasn't sort of path of least resistance. It was an intentional thing.

FREEDMAN: Why was the district drawn this way?

KAFKA: We do know that there was an effort to try to foster integration. We do know that there was a lot of conversation around that.

FREEDMAN: So it's plausible that whoever created District 28 had integration in mind. But Judith says it's also possible that their intentions were not so benevolent.

KAFKA: A district like 28 is a good example of - you could say, oh, they drew it intentionally for integration. That's good. Or you could say, they drew it intentionally to dilute Black power. That's bad.


GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman. The mystery of why District 28 was made to include the north side and the south side may never be solved. Was it to promote integration or to break up Black power? No one we asked seemed to have a definitive answer.

GRIFFITH: But what we do know are the consequences. As white and Black folks looked over that Mason-Dixon Line, they saw each other not as neighbors, but as competitors for scarce resources.

MELINDA SHEARER: It was rough. When the money was tight, it was very rough.

SHIRLEY HUNTLEY: We never got we supposed to get. We didn't have the books. We didn't have the materials.

BILL SCARBOROUGH: You know, anything you would logically think, well, this is what I need in my school, the lion's share of that always went to the northern part of the district.

FREEDMAN: Putting these two communities together didn't correct the power imbalance between them, just exposed it.

HUNTLEY: They did everything in their power, everything to keep our schools from being even with this.

HOWARD ABADINSKY: Here you have a predominantly white school board telling the Black community that you can't appoint this Black principal because you don't - well, it's easy to see how that can be converted into a racial issue.

GRIFFITH: And the south side always seemed to get the short end of the stick.

SPARKS: We weren't being heard. We weren't being seen. Our needs were not being met.

HUNTLEY: You fight hard enough, you get what you get. If you don't fight, you get nothing.

MANNY MARTINEZ: It wasn't like we were looking at other schools and saying, well, how come they get this and we got that? We just survived.


FREEDMAN: In this episode, how the first three decades of District 28 baked in many of the conflicts and disparities that persist to this day.

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.


HUNTLEY: I've been around a long time, OK? I'm 82. Thank God I'm healthy and I can still ride a bicycle. But anyway...

GRIFFITH: Shirley Huntley spent most of her adult life fighting for Black schools on the south side of District 28, first as a parent, then as a member of the school board. But she isn't originally from Queens. She grew up on Long Island in the 1940s.

HUNTLEY: I was raised in integration. My friends were white. Joanie Pokaski (ph) and this one and that one - they were all white children. We used walked to the dairy together to get bottles of milk in those little things. I don't know. You're too young to remember that. But anyway, why am I asking you? Oh, God. I mean - they were all white, the majority. And we got along. We went to school together. I went to an integrated school, you know? And that's a hundred years ago.

GRIFFITH: According to Shirley, her family was one of only two Black families on their block. But that didn't seem to be a problem.

HUNTLEY: Did I suffer any racism there? No, only because my grandfather was well-respected. And we weren't poor.

GRIFFITH: When she got married and had a family of her own, she moved to South Jamaica. Things were very different there.

HUNTLEY: In fact, when I got involved with the schools, I realized the racism 'cause in those days when my kids went to school, it was totally racist. All the Black kids stayed in the white schools, and all the white kids stayed in the white schools. And they didn't want to integrate. They did not want to integrate.

GRIFFITH: And the way white teachers treated Black parents in an all-Black school became clear the first time she walked into a school with her oldest child.

HUNTLEY: I introduced myself, and I could see that, you know, the teachers were kind of offish. I don't think they were accustomed to dealing with families that were on that level that way. I asked a lot of questions. I want to know, you know, what the curriculum was, even though they were babies. I wanted to know, what would they be doing all day? And, you know, I just had a lot of questions. And naturally, that made a lot of the teachers very nervous.

GRIFFITH: She became a constant figure at the school. She had to.

HUNTLEY: We never got all we supposed to get. We didn't have the books. We didn't have the materials. We had absolutely nothing in our schools in the early days. Everything we got, we had to fight like hell for - everything.


HUNTLEY: Naturally, I was known as the No. 1 troublemaker. And I do make trouble. I make trouble when I know that things are wrong, when I know that our folks are being mistreated. I will show up.

FREEDMAN: What Shirley saw in South Jamaica was a version of what Black and Puerto Rican parents were facing all over New York City. In the late 1960s, their frustration sparked a movement for community control of schools. The school system responded, or tried to neutralize this movement, by creating new local school boards - school boards that promise to give more power to parents. But in District 28, because of the way the lines were drawn, parents like Shirley felt like it was same old, same old - a way for white folks to keep Black schools under their thumb.

GRIFFITH: Even though this new district was almost 50% Black, the new school board elected in the spring of 1970 didn't reflect that. Out of nine members, only three were Black, and the rest were white. On top of that, the district office was moved to Forest Hills. That was very convenient for the north side, but pretty inconvenient for the south side. South side parents were not happy. So in the fall, they did something about it - at Shimer Junior High School, where Shirley was on the parent association.

FREEDMAN: What was going on at Shimer Junior High School. How did you decide...

HUNTLEY: Nothing was going on. There was no education. We had no materials. We didn't get decent books. We didn't have a budget like the other schools did in Forest Hills. It was almost like we were nonexistent.

GRIFFITH: Parents at Shimer complained about overcrowded classrooms, broken lights in bathrooms, boarded-up doors and windows. The district superintendent blamed these conditions on community neglect and noninterest. But the community was very interested. They begged the district for more funds, more staff and better security. Their pleas were ignored, so they decided to go public.


GRIFFITH: One day in November, a group of parents and young Shimer alumni occupied the building and let in members of the press to tour and photograph the school. The next day, Shimer parents started a boycott. Fewer than a third of the students showed up for class.

FREEDMAN: The superintendent told The New York Times this was a conspiracy of radicals to make Shimer a showplace of educational disaster. Instead of responding to parents' concerns, he asked the school board to remove the principal, which was an affront to Shirley and the other parents because of who this principal was.

HUNTLEY: We had the first Black principal - Desiree Greenidge. There was not one Black principal in this district when my kids were in school, and they didn't even interview Black people.

FREEDMAN: Mrs. Greenidge had allowed parents and activists use the school to stage their protest. So at the urging of the superintendent, the school board voted to remove her. Of course, they didn't say it was retaliation. They said she wasn't doing her job.

GRIFFITH: The vote was 6 to 3 along racial lines.

ABADINSKY: And that led to a great deal of acrimony.

GRIFFITH: One of those white school board members was Howard Abadinsky.

ABADINSKY: Because here you have a predominantly white school board telling a Black community that you can't appoint this Black principal because you don't - well, it's easy to see how that can be converted into a racial issue. We didn't see it that way, but I could understand how it can be converted into a racial issue.

GRIFFITH: Mrs. Greenidge would not go quietly.

ABADINSKY: The principal said, no, I am the principal, and you're not going to keep me out. I'm going to run the school. So we said to the superintendent, you're going to go, and you're going to tell her she doesn't have a job anymore. You're in charge, OK? Well, she refused - literally refused to leave the school.

GRIFFITH: The superintendent had Mrs. Greenidge arrested for trespassing and taken to criminal court. This was a major escalation, and the parents responded accordingly.

HUNTLEY: We closed that school. We boycotted. We called it for 19 weeks. And we demonstrate every day, every night. And we took the school over and locked everybody out. You know, we slept there overnight. We had food bought in. I'm very proud of those parents that we had then because they were there. They were there. There was no shortage of parents.


FREEDMAN: In the end, they won, at least in the sense that Mrs. Greenwich got her job back. Yet in some ways, the principal was just a symbol.

GRIFFITH: What they'd really been fighting for is more resources and power. But the balance of power in the district was hard to change.

HUNTLEY: Every superintendent that we've had in 28, except in the recent years, were always on the side of white people, never on the side of Black folks, Black parents, never. You know, I mean, they used to wine and dine and eat with them and dance with them and laugh and whatever, and we got nothing.

FREEDMAN: The school board had the power to hire and fire the superintendent. So Shirley says white parents on the school board had the votes to hire a superintendent who was beholden to them and would do things in a way that benefited northern schools. This is hard to back up since the records of the old school boards are lost to history. But we tracked down someone who would know - the district's go-to guy for budgets and finance for almost 30 years, Neil Kreinik. Neil confirmed what Shirley told us.

NEIL KREINIK: The Forest Hills school board members had the superintendent arrange the budget so that whatever benefits they could get, they got.

FREEDMAN: He explained that certain sets of money had to be divided equally. You couldn't play games. But there were discretionary funds.

KREINIK: They were looking for ways that they could take that money and move it to schools in Forest Hills, whatever they could. And as I said, when it was discretionary money, which the superintendent had, they wanted most of it to go to their schools.

GRIFFITH: One of those Forest Hills school board members was Howard Abadinsky. Howard saw things a little differently.

ABADINSKY: With respect to the budget, we were very, very limited. That was under the control of the Central Board of Education. We prepared a budget, but that was more like a request than it was an actual control over that budget.

GRIFFITH: Parents from the north may have had the power on the school board, but Howard says the school board didn't have all that much power.

ABADINSKY: Basically, the school board served as a, if you will, a flycatcher - OK? - for all that hostility towards the board of education. You're not spending enough money on our school. OK, well, complain to your community school board. Don't bother us. You got a school board. You elected them. You go to them, complain to them that you're not receiving enough money.

GRIFFITH: In his second term on the school board, Howard became the president. That means Howard was president when the city went through a catastrophic fiscal crisis in 1975, leading to budget cuts, which amplified every existing inequality in the school system. Howard certainly saw the disparity between schools in the north and south of District 28. He just didn't think funding had anything to do with it.

ABADINSKY: No. I don't believe the problem was money.

FREEDMAN: Howard worked as a parole officer at the time. He lived in Forest Hills and sent his kids to P.S. 196, which had then and has now some of the top reading scores in the city. But he wasn't actually all that impressed by the school.

ABADINSKY: This whole idea - and I know we hear it constantly. Oh, I don't - I want to move to an area that has a good - you know, good schools. There's no such thing as a good school. You're moving to an area that has, you know, predominantly white, upper-middle-class kids; it's going to be a good school - OK? - because these kids will have all of the support that they need. Their parents can spend money on that kind of support.

GRIFFITH: Although you did say that 196 had a good reputation. You did use that term.

ABADINSKY: Yes. Yes, it did have a good reputation. And 196 was exactly the kind of school that I'm talking about.

FREEDMAN: They weren't doing anything special?

ABADINSKY: No, nothing, absolutely nothing special. Nothing, absolutely nothing special. It has nothing to do with the inherent ability of the school; it has to do with the advantages that these students have. You have advantaged students - you're going to have a school that's full of advantages. That's all it is. It's sad to say, but that's our society.

FREEDMAN: So your position, just so I'm clear, is that the - there is really nothing that the school board could have done about the disparity between the north and the south.

ABADINSKY: No, short of integrating the schools through cross-busing, which, you know, was suggested, OK?

FREEDMAN: Cross-busing would have meant kids from the south going north and kids from the north going south. This was suggested, but Howard opposed it.

ABADINSKY: Yeah, absolutely. I - you know, who wants their child to be on a bus - and it was at least a half hour to whatever school you want - you were going to send them, to spend a half hour on a bus, OK? For what reason? Well, because that school has more white or more Black - no, that's - that would not be a sufficient reason to have my kid, you know, on a bus for a half hour.

FREEDMAN: But you just said that would be the only way to ameliorate the disparity between them.

ABADINSKY: Well, you would have to ameliorate the housing patterns. I mean, the housing - if your housing patterns are segregated once and your school assignment of students is based on your housing, then unless you do something about the housing, you're going to have segregated schools.

FREEDMAN: But you also oppose the low-income housing in Forest Hills.

ABADINSKY: No, I opposed a - originally what was a 20-story - remember, Forest Hills, if you know that area at all, it's small homes.

FREEDMAN: This was the subject of our last episode. When public housing was planned for Forest Hills in the early '70s, the neighborhood erupted. The opposition was accused of racism, but Howard says race had nothing to do with it.

ABADINSKY: And I think the major opposition to it had to do with the scope and the size of it. I mean, literally, you're plunking down this enormous edifice.

FREEDMAN: Talking to Howard reminded me of a lot of people we've met while reporting the story of the diversity plan in District 28 today. He says he sees these systemic problems, but he throws up his hands, says, it is how it is, not my kid, and rejects all possible solutions.

GRIFFITH: So the burden of integrating schools continued to fall on Black children, kids like Vanessa Sparks.


SPARKS: Initially, it was very scary. You know, I was 7 years old, 7 or 8 years old.

GRIFFITH: Many years later, Shirley Huntley and Vanessa Sparks would serve together on the District 28 school board. But in the early '70s, when Shirley was a parent fighting for her kid's school, Vanessa was still a kid herself. The local school board was opposed to cross-busing, but there was busing in the district. It just went in only one direction, from south to north. Students like Vanessa were offered the chance to go to school in Forest Hills, and Vanessa says, for her parents, it was an offer they couldn't refuse.

SPARKS: My family was part of that - of those generation of Black people, that migration. So if you're talking about hordes of families that came from Jim Crow South and they're here in New York - and wow, my child has the opportunity to go to this school - you're not going to question. Or they - many, most of them didn't question it. You know, they really didn't.

GRIFFITH: This is how she realized there was a Mason-Dixon line - when she crossed it.

SPARKS: Looking at it as an adult, from where I went to school from where I live, it wasn't - you know, it wasn't an hour away, maybe a 15-, 20-minute drive. But it was a world away.

GRIFFITH: In South Jamaica, all of her classmates and many of her teachers had been Black. That was not the case in Forest Hills.

SPARKS: There was no overt backlash. What I found out later - there was a lot of backlash. It just wasn't overt as it was - as what we saw in Boston and some other cities around the country around the same time that had implemented busing policies where, you know, they were turning over school buses with kids in it. We didn't have that. In District 28, that racism was very subtle because it wasn't in your face. It was, did they just - and then you had to scratch your head and go home and kind of sleep on it and talk to two or three other people to authenticate that what you felt was actually what happened. That's how it was in District 28 then.

GRIFFITH: In fourth grade, she and another Black girl were called into the principal's office and accused of stealing Girl Scout cookies from a white girl. He threatened to have them arrested. They were 9 or 10 years old.

FREEDMAN: That doesn't sound so subtle to me.

SPARKS: Black students were almost - you know, we couldn't just be. We weren't allowed to just be who we authentically were. There were some kids that were - you know, had a lot of academic prowess (ph), myself included. We were made to feel like we were the special Black people. And those Black students that may not have done as well academically, we were put up as, see, you should be like these Black people. And they thought it was a compliment in saying that, not understanding how racist and offensive that is. You know what I mean? Because they didn't do that to anyone else. They didn't say to white students, you see Billy? All the rest of you should try to be like Billy. He makes A's. That was never done to them.


GRIFFITH: From P.S. 144, she was able to keep going to school in Forest Hills at Russell Sage Junior High School. For middle school, there was no more yellow school bus. She had to take two public buses to get there. But she says it was well worth it.

SPARKS: Believe it or not, I enjoyed my tenure at Russell Sage Junior High School. I learned a lot academically, but I also learned a lot about people. Truth be told, I think I learned more about people in middle school than I have at any time in my life. So I have no regrets.

FREEDMAN: I mean, you said you have no regrets. You're glad you went to these schools. This program doesn't exist anymore, right?

SPARKS: No, it's - no, it absolutely - it doesn't. And I'm going to tell you something, and I'm glad it doesn't. And I'll tell you why. Because let's fast-forward when I become a parent.

GRIFFITH: Vanessa becomes a parent. After the break.


SCARBOROUGH: People from this part of the area were angry because of a sense of not getting the resources that they wanted. People from the northern part would get most angry when it seemed as though they were losing something that they already had.

FREEDMAN: Bill Scarborough served on the District 28 school board in the late '70s and early '80s. The south side was still underrepresented. The district was still unequal.

SCARBOROUGH: You know, anything that you would logically think, well, this is what I need in my school, the lion's share of that always went to the northern part of the district.

FREEDMAN: Like more or less every Black person we've spoken to about school integration, past and present, Bill saw integration primarily as a means to an end.

SCARBOROUGH: There was always an effort to integrate because there was never an equal allocation of resources.

GRIFFITH: And where did you stand on that? Like, were - did you ever find yourself in a position sort of advocating for integration for these very reasons we're talking about?

SCARBOROUGH: Not really. My push was always to try to get resources for the schools in my part of the district. My sense was always that we were not being treated fairly, that if we had the same resources that other schools had, that our kids could fare very well.

FREEDMAN: Bill says part of that push for resources was trying to keep families from the south side in the south side.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. We were trying to get them to keep their kids here. And, you know, because they were - unfortunately, a lot of them were the most committed, most concerned about the education of their children. And we're saying to them, use that energy here to fight for better schools as opposed to sending your kid, you know, to what might be considered a better school in the north.

GRIFFITH: As time went on, this attitude towards integration became more and more the norm. One parent who felt that way was Vanessa Sparks.

SPARKS: So when I become a parent - I still live in District 28. But here's the difference. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad worked. My mom stayed home.

GRIFFITH: Vanessa had been bussed to Forest Hills starting in 1972. By the time her daughter was set to enter elementary school, it was 1988. The world was different. Her own circumstances were different.


SPARKS: When my daughter came along, I was a single parent. I worked.

FREEDMAN: The busing program Vanessa had been a part of provided you a school bus. That program ended sometime in the '80s when the federal funding for the bus itself went away. After that, if you lived in South Jamaica, you could still get into a school outside your zone, but it was up to each individual family to go to the district office in Forest Hills and try to get a variance, which wasn't impossible, but when you got a variance, you had to pay for the bus or provide your own transportation.

GRIFFITH: Working parents like Vanessa, who didn't get home until 6 o'clock or later, couldn't chauffeur their children to and from school.

SPARKS: That was the first thing. But the second piece was by the time my daughter got ready to start elementary school, by this time, I - my zoned school was P.S. 48. Now we're talking about the late '80s in New York City, and of course - and it - so it was very different. And I had heard all of these terrible things about P.S. 48. Even my mother said, well, you know, maybe you could get her into - I'll tell you, I went to Public School 144 - well, maybe you could get her into 144 because you went there. And I thought about it for a second, and I said, wait a minute. I pay taxes for P.S. 48.

GRIFFITH: As an adult, Vanessa was concerned about a brain drain from schools on the south side.

SPARKS: I was a very active and involved parent, so I knew my daughter would be an asset wherever she went to school because, one, who she was and also because of me. And I understood when you pull academically strong children of color and those very involved parents of color out of a school in their community and they go someplace else, it - you're draining that school of what I call that resource.

GRIFFITH: So Vanessa wasn't going to rely simply on the word on the street about P.S. 48. She went to visit the school, and she really liked it.

SPARKS: I found P.S. 48 was a lovely, lovely school, had some of the best teachers you ever want to see. P.S. 48 was very much a school in a community struggling with a lot of the challenges that went on at that time. So they had a lot of kids whose parents were battling drug addictions. They had a lot of kids who were being raised by individuals other than their biological parents, so, you know, grandparents or other - so you had a lot of that. But the school itself was - when I say such a lovely and sweet school. I said, you know, what are these people talking about? This school is fine.


FREEDMAN: Vanessa Sparks made a choice to send her daughter to her local school instead of going north to Forest Hills. A lot of people in the neighborhood either didn't have that choice or didn't know they had it.

GRIFFITH: You went to P.S. 40, but did you ever have a sense that you could go to any other schools in District 28 or any other schools, period? Or was it - you just sort of made a beeline for 40?

MARTINEZ: It was where we were supposed to go, right? We didn't really have too much, you know, selection. It's like, all right, if that's where I'm going, all right. And so...

FREEDMAN: Manny Martinez (ph) grew up and still lives in the South Jamaica Houses, better known as the 40 Projects, because they're down the street from P.S. 40.

GRIFFITH: Did you know kids who went outside of the district or didn't go to 40?

MARTINEZ: Well, you have P.S. 48 that's over here, and I guess some parents thought that that was - might have been a little bit better. And so they put them over there. But if you didn't go to P.S. 40, we ain't know who went to P.S. 48, right? So it's like, P.S. 40 was the clique.

FREEDMAN: And being part of that 40 clique was something Manny loved.

MARTINEZ: Where you from, son? Forty Projects. Of course. Yes. I was proud that I was from here, right? I was raised here. I went to school at P.S. 40 for elementary, I.S. 8 (ph) for junior high school, August Martin.

FREEDMAN: But he knew the projects had a reputation.

MARTINEZ: So 40 Projects has - it's notorious, right? It gained infamy back in the crack era.


GRIFFITH: By the late 1980s, New York City was struggling through a crack cocaine epidemic. But instead of the media portraying it as a sickness, the way the opioid crisis is seen today, crack addiction was depicted as part of a complete breakdown of law and order that needed to be aggressively prosecuted, and Black and brown people were primarily seen as the criminal element.

FREEDMAN: Nowhere was this more true than in South Jamaica, which became a national battlefront in the war on drugs. Here's a sample of how South Jamaica was covered in the press at the time.

GRIFFITH: (Reading) Living with violence. Disbelief and fear shake South Jamaica.

FREEDMAN: (Reading) South Jamaica has come to symbolize the violent depredations of the crack-based drug culture.

GRIFFITH: (Reading) Hard-working men and women are struggling against terrible odds to keep their dreams alive in a neighborhood that has lately become the hub of a violent drug marketplace.

FREEDMAN: (Reading) At almost any hour of the day, drug dealers abound in and around the South Jamaica houses. Residents say the police pay little attention to the projects and the rundown neighborhood that surrounds it. And the drug business is flourishing.


MARTINEZ: I'm a kid during that period. I'm not blind to what's happening. You see some off-putting circumstances, right? You'll see somebody OD in the staircase, you know, people - you know, narcotics, especially crack and heroin, they change you, right? They have a very strong influence over a person, changes their character. You're aware of that, right? You're aware - you're also able - as a child, you try to isolate the safe spots and, you know, where to stay away from, you know? And then also more reason to be cliqued up, you know, and to have your group - right? - and have your peoples. See, one thing about South Jamaica - right? - South Jamaica houses, remember these schools are the cornerstones around this area. We have a strong community, strong sense of community. The fabric of, like, our community is evident. There's a character here. That never changed. Regardless of what we went through - right? - what circumstances came about, we still had this sense of community.

FREEDMAN: Manny's school, P.S. 40, may have been a cornerstone of the community. That didn't make it paradise.

MARTINEZ: It was a poorly maintained school. We had overcrowded classes.

FREEDMAN: In sixth grade, Manny had six different teachers over the course of one year.

GRIFFITH: How were your teachers?

MARTINEZ: Well, just like every other school, right? You got some great ones. You got some good ones. You got some crappy ones. We didn't have a contrasting view. So what we had is what we dealt with. It wasn't like we were looking at other schools and saying, well, how come they get this and we got that? We just survived.


FREEDMAN: It wasn't just kids who didn't have a contrasting view. Generally speaking, folks in the north didn't know what was going on in the south and vice versa. But the divide was only growing. In 1989, P.S. 196 in Forest Hills was ranked third citywide for reading. P.S. 140 in South Jamaica was ranked 479th. So a group of parents from P.S. 140 showed up to P.S. 196 to see what was going on in that school. What do they have up north that their own school did not?

GRIFFITH: All they wanted was a tour of the school. The principal said no. When they refused to leave, the superintendent called the police.

FREEDMAN: There will be improvements at P.S. 140, the superintendent said. We are guaranteeing it, but the key to it all is getting parents to care.

GRIFFITH: But there were always parents who cared, parents like Vanessa Sparks.

SPARKS: There were a number of battles that we had when I was PTA president at P.S. 48 where you had a school board that was majority white making decisions that were not the best decisions and with no consultation of Black parents.

FREEDMAN: The school board had the power to appoint principals, but they were supposed to defer to parents. So when P.S. 48 was going to get a new principal, Vanessa helped lead the hiring process at her school.

SPARKS: Our committee for eight months reviewed and interviewed candidates. We came down to the person that we had selected, and the superintendent did a switcheroo and put the person that she wanted there, and all hell broke loose.

FREEDMAN: It was a real slap in the face. Vanessa says 200 parents from P.S. 48 went to the school board meeting where a principal they did not want would be voted in.

SPARKS: They called the police, anticipating a riot. And I remember cursing them out, I mean, literally cursing them out. How did - now, no one had done anything, you know? How dare you call the police? And I remember one of the school board members saying, well, it was anticipation. I said, anticipation of what? What did you anticipate to happen?

FREEDMAN: Despite a parent walkout at PS 48, the school board's chosen principal was installed. That's how things went.

SPARKS: All of us on the southern end of the district all kind of felt the same thing, that we weren't being heard. We weren't being seen. Our needs were not being met. That was kind of the overall thing - your parents who say, I'm not wasting my time going with this school board meeting 'cause they don't listen to anything we say.

GRIFFITH: It's a vicious cycle. When parents show up, they aren't listened to. When they disengage because they aren't being listened to, they're accused of not caring. Around and around it goes.

FREEDMAN: If this is starting to feel like "Groundhog's Day," if these stories about Black parents struggling to get a better education for their children are starting to blend together - the same power dynamics in the school board, the same fights over resources and staffing, the same frustrations and despair - trust me, we are right there with you.

GRIFFITH: But then in the early '90s, a familiar face came back on the scene to shake things up. Remember Shirley Huntley?

HUNTLEY: Everything we got, we had to fight like hell for - everything.

GRIFFITH: More than 20 years after Shirley helped lead the struggle at Shimer Junior High School, she ran for school board.

HUNTLEY: The main reason I went on the school board - a lot of it had to do with my children and what they had went through in schools. And I was always involved. And it was something that - when they left, I just didn't want to go 'cause I felt like my job wasn't done.

GRIFFITH: Shirley's return after the break.


HUNTLEY: In 28, we were trying to get as many Blacks on the school board as possible 'cause remember, for so many years it was - the Blacks have - on there, a couple of them - they had no power. They couldn't help us get anything for our community because the ladies would always vote them out. Every group of ladies would vote them out. Forest Hills had all the power.


GRIFFITH: Shirley Huntley was first elected to the school board in 1993.

HUNTLEY: The ladies of the north were a disaster. Oh, God. I used to call them the Forest Hills Mothers. They were mothers, too (laughter). They were real SOBs. They were - they did everything in their power - everything - to keep our schools from being even with theirs. When they worked on the budget or schools are getting special grants, it was always their schools, never ours. We have to fight to get for ours.

They used to have secret meetings when they'd get a chunk of money in the district for a special project or something, and we didn't know about it. They'd have secret meetings at the school board office. And we'd pass there - we'd ride over 'cause we had heard that something was going on. And we'd see the light in the school board office. And they'd be in there divvying out the money to their schools so they wouldn't have to do it in front of us.


SHEARER: Everyone felt they were representing their kid's school.

FREEDMAN: Melinda Shearer (ph) served on the school board with Shirley.

SHEARER: I would say they wanted their schools to get as much as they could - 100%. But I wouldn't say to the exclusion of the schools in the south. No.

FREEDMAN: Even though she was a parent from the north side, Melinda wasn't necessarily one of the ladies of the north Shirley talks about. But she didn't fight them either.

SHEARER: I think, even the early years of my term were more agreeable. It got progressively less agreeable. Yes.

FREEDMAN: The city and state had gone through another fiscal crisis in 1990. Hundreds of millions of dollars were cut from the budget of the Board of Ed. That meant cutting a lot of the extras - arts and afterschool programs - even in Forest Hills. So the ladies of the north were fighting for slivers of a shrinking pie.

SHEARER: It was rough. When the money was tight, it was very rough.

FREEDMAN: Melinda was president of the parents association at her school.

SHEARER: We constantly had to raise money to have extra programs because they got rid of art. They got rid of music, you know, every time the money was tight. And they couldn't raise that kind of money in Jamaica schools. They couldn't. I mean, we used to - in Forest Hills, you tell parents that you need $10,000, you raise $10,000, frankly, even in the '90s, you know? But obviously, it didn't happen everywhere.

And that's why I kind of thought we should make up the difference sometimes. The bottom schools, really, you would think, should get some more resources. But obviously, the parents in PS 196 wouldn't agree with that. They wanted the gifted programs, the art, the music. And when the money got tight and we had to get rid of the art and the music, you know, there was just a lot of animosity at meetings.

FREEDMAN: Animosity between Shirley and the board president and the superintendent.

SHEARER: They came to literal blows at one point. I don't know if that's - I mean, it was in all the papers. And Shirley was unfortunately wearing a wig, which was pulled off her head. It was horrendous - horrendous.

FREEDMAN: When we asked Shirley about this story, she remembered it differently. She says the superintendent lunged at her across the table. No wig was snatched. And if it had been, somebody would have gotten hurt.

HUNTLEY: There were times I pissed people off. I know that, you know? And there were times I meant to piss people off, you know? And, you know, if people got in my way of helping children and doing what was right for our community, hey, their problem, not mine.


GRIFFITH: Shirley was a controversial figure on the north and the south. She was accused of being a race baiter, putting politics over children, seeking power for its own sake for herself and her friends.

HUNTLEY: And a lot of people, I'm sure, upset with me because they always felt like on the school board or wherever that I wield a lot of power. And I did. I did. And that was the whole intent - was to wield power to get what we could get for our children.

SPARKS: Nothing changes overnight.

GRIFFITH: Vanessa Sparks served on the school board with Shirley.

SPARKS: But at least parents felt they had a voice, and they felt they had someone there that was going to listen and champion for them where before they didn't feel that.

FREEDMAN: In the late '90s, Shirley Huntley reached the pinnacle of her power and success in District 28. She became the school board president, and the board finally hired a superintendent who Shirley considered an ally - Neil Kreinik.

HUNTLEY: That's when our schools improved is when Neil was a superintendent because he spread out the money. We got things done. We got principals appointed who were decent and good. And they weren't all Black, so we didn't do - when we controlled the board kind of, we didn't do the color thing; we did the good thing. We would choose what's better for the school and whatever. And we listened to parents sometimes. Sometimes we didn't. And sometimes they wouldn't understand, which is normal.

FREEDMAN: But this moment was very short-lived.

GRIFFITH: When Michael Bloomberg became the mayor in 2002, the education system was totally reorganized.

FREEDMAN: With mayoral control came the end of the school boards. Each school board was dissolved and replaced with a Community Education Council, or CEC. You might remember our first episode started with a raucous CEC meeting. If the school board's powers were limited, the CEC's have almost none.

GRIFFITH: Some people thought this was a good thing. The school boards had a reputation for infighting, and in some districts, outright corruption. So many were glad to see them go. But not Shirley.

HUNTLEY: I was against the mayor taking over schools. I fought hard against that. But, hey, listen - people get what they ask for. Parents didn't fight hard enough. You know, you fight hard enough, you get what you get. If you don't fight, you get nothing.

When I was a parent, we always had parents. We always - every school had parents. It's recently since the mayor that control - parents don't have to come out. What are they coming out for? Think about it. You can make no decisions. All decisions are made for you. You don't pick your principals anymore. You get whoever they give you. There's just no reason anymore. You've got to give parents a reason to come out.

GRIFFITH: Shirley Huntley still lives in the same house in South Jamaica she bought with her late husband in 1955.

HUNTLEY: And I'm still doing what I always did. I still meet with parents. Parents still call me. I help them. I don't know if you're aware, but you probably are, that I was a senator for six years. I went to jail for 10 months for some BS.

GRIFFITH: While serving in the New York State Senate, Shirley was indicted on state and federal charges of stealing or helping other people steal more than $100,000 from two nonprofits she had founded. They were called Parents Information Network and Parent Workshop. When Shirley pled guilty in federal court, she told the judge, my actions have embarrassed my family, my friends and my community and tarnished the good things I've done over the years. Talking to us, she was a little less apologetic.

HUNTLEY: They say I stole money. They never could prove it, though. They never proved that I stole a dime.


FREEDMAN: Looking back on her long career of public service, warts and all, Shirley doesn't see much reason for optimism.

HUNTLEY: Long as you're dealing with, like, District 28, there's only so much you can do. And I think all the parents know that because this fight has been going on for years. Now they're talking different about, you know, whatever, putting it in the school and the Blacks and whites go together, whatever. That hasn't happened. This committee that they have going, frankly, I think it's a waste of time because nothing is ever going to change.


HUNTLEY: Those kids are not coming near here, and our kids are still going to go near there if they can. Nothing is ever going to change.

FREEDMAN: Actually, something's changed a lot. The Black-white north-south divide in District 28 gets a lot more complicated when Queens becomes the most diverse place on the planet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Integration is a radioactive idea, but diversity doesn't have any of that baggage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm living in the melting pot. You know, we've got all these cultures. Everybody's treated equally, and everything's fair. And, like, I remember learning all this stuff in school, thinking how, like, beautiful it was. And then it's not that at all, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I still think we think about race and talk about race as a binary. And I think there are some very good reasons for that if you really think about how race operates. But I do think that it ends up isolating a lot of people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Now we're coming all the way down to America, and now we have to identify by white, by Black, by person of color. It's like - that's just - it's an American phenomena.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I'm like, no, I'm not Indian; I'm Caribbean. And she said, well, we'll check Asian. I said, no, I'm not Asian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Because by talking about it so much, we're making a big deal about it. Is it a big deal?

GRIFFITH: That's next time on School Colors.


GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman. Produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson. Additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna. Fact-checking by Carly Rubin. Engineering by James Willetts. Additional Research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original Music by Avery R. Young & De Deacon Board. Additional Music by Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was recorded at Seaplane Armada.

FREEDMAN: Special thanks to Nick Chiles, Fred Ferretti, Hazel Rollins (ph), Sandra Williams, Liz Whelan (ph) and Venus Ketcham.

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer Yolanda Sangweni and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in education reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

GRIFFITH: You can listen to the first season of School Colors at or wherever you get your podcasts.

FREEDMAN: Until next time...



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