School Colors Episode 6 : Code Switch Though a lot of parents and educators agree there needs to be some change in District 28, the question remains: what kind of change? When we asked around, more diversity wasn't necessarily at the top of everybody's list. In fact, from the north and south, we heard a lot of the same kind of thing: "leave our kids where they are and give all the schools what they need."

We went to the Southside and asked parents and school leaders directly, what do the schools need?

School Colors Episode 6: 'Below Liberty'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1105664098/1105784548" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:

This season, we've gone deep on the history of District 28, how it became both segregated and diverse. But the reason we started looking at this district in the first place was because of a proposed diversity planning process and some parents' reaction to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A plan to diversify a Queens school district is prompting a protest from parents tonight.

JILLIAN JORGENSEN: A contentious meeting with parents lashing out over a plan to boost diversity in their school district, a plan the Department of Education says doesn't even exist yet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just call the fire department.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Actually, we're going to make it sure that you guys don't get this plan done.

FREEDMAN: These parents made so much noise and got so much attention, you might assume they stopped diversity planning in its tracks. But that's not what happened.

MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:

Instead, in early 2020, quietly and deliberately, the Diversity Working Group started to work. This was a group of 20 volunteers - parents, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders. They'd meet in the evenings to learn about each other and the district, plan a series of big public workshops and strategize for how to get as many people to those workshops as possible. And Aki Younge says it was going well.

AKI YOUNGE: It was going very well. It was such a beautiful part of the process.

GRIFFITH: Aki worked for an urban planning firm called WXY that was hired by the city to facilitate this process.

YOUNGE: People didn't really know each other in the working group when they started. And then you could see, like, just even a couple meetings in that people felt more comfortable with each other, that they would, like, stay longer to chat with certain people afterwards, that they would, like, ride the train home together and, like, keep talking about the things that we were talking about.

And that gave me hope that, like, OK, if we just, like, get people in a room, if we just, like, get these workshops going and have, like, small groups where people can really get to know each other, I think people will, like, think differently about this process and maybe even, like, think differently about each other and, like, what school and education should be. We had a meeting where we, like, presented data about the district that we were hoping to present at the first workshop.

PAT MITCHELL: So you get to see with a map and the dots where the resources are and how they're being allocated. And I was just like, what? This is crazy.

FREEDMAN: Pat Mitchell was a member of the Diversity Working Group. She was the longtime principal of P.S.48 in South Jamaica. She'd spent more than half her life working in the Department of Education, and she was still shocked by what she learned in that meeting.

MITCHELL: You can't imagine. I mean, I knew it was ugly when I started this work with Aki and Diversity Plan. I knew that there were some disparities. I knew that - you know, I couldn't put my finger on it. But when we started having these courageous conversations about race and we started having these talks about what the data is telling us in District 28, it became, like, the haves and the have-nots.

GRIFFITH: It was too early in the process for the working group to start talking about solutions. But Aki believed the conversation was going to be about more than just mixing kids up, putting Black and white kids in classrooms together. She knew the district was too complicated and too diverse for that.

YOUNGE: With an internal understanding that that wasn't the solution - the, like, just putting people proximate to other people - I think there was going to be a lot more space to talk about, like, resource allocation, a lot more space to talk about culturally responsive curriculum. There was going to be a lot more space to talk about the more, like, squishy stuff that wasn't just about student diversity metrics, and I think we just didn't get there.

GRIFFITH: There would be no more meetings, no workshops, no process. But it wasn't angry parents that stopped the diversity plan. It was the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DAVID MUIR: And in New York, a ban on crowds of 500 or more, Broadway dark, concert halls and museums set to close.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Breaking news - Mayor de Blasio announces he is shutting down New York City's school system all in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

GRIFFITH: I was on the Diversity Working Group for a different district when COVID-19 hit New York. At first, we naively thought we could just wait a couple of weeks for the pandemic to pass. But eventually, the process was put on hold. It was never officially canceled. After a while, it was just left for dead.

FREEDMAN: For some people in District 28, that was good news. Pat Mitchell would disagree.

MITCHELL: This diversity plan has never been more needed than it is in District 28. After 29 years, you can't ignore the dysfunction. You cannot ignore the disparities. You cannot ignore the inequalities. So the discussion has to begin again. People have to have these very, very difficult conversations. Otherwise, there will be no change. There needs to be some change.

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. As we talked about in the last episode, Queens has changed a lot in the last few decades, and so has District 28. New immigrant communities have taken root, and the district is, on the whole, pretty diverse.

GRIFFITH: But most Black folks still live on the South Side, and the schools below Liberty Avenue continue to struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ODESSA EAGLES: The South Side does not get the fundings or even the treatment as they do on the North Side.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Every school below Liberty is below the city and state average.

EAGLES: Everybody sees the divide.

FREEDMAN: A lot of parents and educators agree there needs to be some change. But what kind of change? The diversity planning process was supposed to be an opportunity for people in District 28 to talk about this, but they never got the chance.

GRIFFITH: That's where we come in. When we asked around, more diversity wasn't necessarily at the top of everybody's list.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't agree with diversity and integration and mixing it up. I agree with being honest, which is that we are failing these Black kids, and we don't know what to do.

GRIFFITH: From the north and south, we heard a lot of the same kind of thing. Leave our kids where they are, and give all the schools what they need.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Keep their kids over there. Keep our kids over here. But give us the same tools you give to their kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No matter where you live, what neighborhood you're from, all the schools should be great schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: If you feel that there's inequity in the schools, then it's not the kids that are - the students don't need to be moved. You need to fix the schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Why don't we invest in the schools, the broken schools that we have in certain neighborhoods and fix them and make them better?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What needs to happen is that we need to focus on where the problem is, where the need is - here.

FREEDMAN: So what do the schools need?

GRIFFITH: After so much time and so much change, what does inequality look like in District 28 today?

FREEDMAN: Is it just a question of resources? What resources are we talking about?

GRIFFITH: And how does the never-ending struggle for these resources affect Southside principals, parents and kids?

MITCHELL: It was not on anyone's radar that these kids were underperforming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: The school has lost students each and every year. So when you're losing students, you're losing funding. So how can I offer that type of round-the-clock service that I know this community needs without the funding to do so?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: I don't think there's not one person on this side of Queens that don't have a story of rejection or B.S. about their child's education system.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I feel like we have to fight. Why do we always have to fight? Education is free, right? Why do we have to fight for that?

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAMENT")

AVERY R YOUNG: (Singing) I would do it for myself, but I can't.

MITCHELL: I literally learned how to fly this plane while I was in it. No one taught me. I've never been to a class to learn how to deal with irate parents or how to provide PD or how to do a budget or how to do enrollment projections or - all on-the-job training.

GRIFFITH: When Pat Mitchell was offered the top job at P.S. 48, she'd never been a principal before. She'd never even been an assistant principal.

MITCHELL: I was a RIS - a regional instructional specialist. The acronyms are crazy.

GRIFFITH: But one day, her supervisor came to her with a surprising decision.

MITCHELL: You know, I have a school opening up, and I think you're ready. And I said, I'm not. I am absolutely not. Why would you give me a school? Like, don't do that.

GRIFFITH: P.S. 48 was already suffering from inconsistent leadership. They had had four different principals in seven years. But Pat would stay at P.S. 48 for more than a decade. She became something of a local legend, a mentor to many of her peers.

MITCHELL: Some of it was just a longing - right? - to be the principal that I never had, to run a school that I never attended - right? - that kind of thing. That, I think, you're born with. You either have a vision, or you don't.

GRIFFITH: But Pat says she had no mandate from above, nobody looking over her shoulder, no support. In her first two years, the District 28 superintendent never even visited her school.

MITCHELL: It was not on anyone's radar that these kids were underperforming. Like, 7% of the kids were reading on grade level - 7%. You can't even make that up. I mean, that is, like - that is sick.

GRIFFITH: And she knew what these numbers really meant. These kids had so much potential they deserved to fulfill. But she saw a straight line from poor reading scores in elementary school to a life of missed opportunities and underemployment.

MITCHELL: And I began to see that I had to open up the doors to the community and say, hey; we need help here. Like, these kids are dying in here. And I can't - that can't happen. There are too many of us who have a vested interest in making sure they do well.

GRIFFITH: So Pat hustled. She partnered with community-based organizations. She recruited volunteers. She appealed to politicians. She hobnobbed with foundations.

MITCHELL: Fourteen years later, we're still not where we need to be. You know, we only have 48% of our scholars who are reading on grade level, but it beats 7%. For me, I think there's a sense of accomplishment in that because I know from whence I came - I mean, I know where we were. So if you look at 48, you're like eh, 48. Fifty-two percent of the kids are not proficient. Like, really? But I know the stories. I know the struggle. I know the history. Will we ever break through 50%? I would like to think we are capable of doing that.

GRIFFITH: What do you think it will take?

MITCHELL: Oh, my gosh.

FREEDMAN: It's not just P.S. 48. As of spring 2019, the last time state exams were given before the pandemic, every elementary school in South Jamaica was below the city average. Fewer than half their students were proficient in reading and math. Now, the South Side is not a monolith, and neither is the North. There's a lot of variation from school to school. But on average, the pass rate for North Side schools was more than 20 percentage points higher than South Side schools in reading and more than 30 points higher in math. Those numbers correlate to the poverty rate. According to the Department of Education, the average poverty rate for the schools in Forest Hills and Rego Park is 42%, which is significant. But the average poverty rate for schools in South Jamaica is double that.

GRIFFITH: How to close the achievement gap, why high-poverty, majority-Black schools continue to struggle - educators and experts have been trying to figure this out for generations. It's easy to say that schools on the south side just need more resources, but the word resources can mean almost anything. We had to start somewhere. So let's start with the most obvious - money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: How schools are funded in New York is pretty confusing, even to us. Most schools in the U.S. are funded by local property taxes, which is nuts, but it's easier to wrap your head around when we're talking about school inequality. Poor kids live in districts with lower property values and poorly funded schools. Wealthier kids live in districts with higher property values and better funded schools.

GRIFFITH: That's not how it works in New York City. District 28 is actually a subdistrict of the New York City Department of Education, which is technically one massive school district. That means, theoretically, all the money goes into the same pot and gets divvied up between the schools, not just equally but according to a formula that's supposed to account for different needs.

FREEDMAN: So we crunched the numbers for District 28, or at least the numbers we could get. The DOE makes this much more difficult than it should be, but I'll spare you the gory details. And we found something surprising. At least on paper, south side schools generally spend as much, if not more, money per pupil than north side schools.

GRIFFITH: If the schools in the south are spending more money to get worse results, it's reasonable to ask, what's going on? We talked to principals on the south side of District 28 to try to understand, and there's a lot the numbers don't tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: First of all, when families have less money, principals have to spend more of their budget on the basics. At Pat Mitchell's school, P.S. 48, nearly 90% of the students are living in poverty, and 20% live in temporary housing.

MITCHELL: I got a real reality check when parents said to me - I used to make visits to the homes where the kids were absent, right? And I'd say, you know, how come, you know, Jackie (ph) is not in school today? Ms. Mitchell, it costs a lot of money to wash these clothes. They don't have a clean uniform. And if I send them to school without a clean uniform, you going to be calling me anyway, so I might as well keep them home until I can wash these clothes. So I said, wow. So if you hear that over and over again, I'm like, OK. So I bought a washing machine and dryer. And I told parents that if you want to wash a uniform, bring it on. I'm not washing anything else, right? But if that's going to get your kids in school, so - let's do it.

RAEVAN ASKEW: I walked to the bodega across the street. I was grabbing a snack. And I saw a parent, and she said, my son's school supplies are going to be late. Is that OK?

FREEDMAN: Raevan Askew is the principal at P.S. 354.

ASKEW: And I said, well, what happened? And she said, well, we're having a birthday party this weekend. So basically, I got to pay for the birthday party. And then when I get more money, I'll get the school supplies. So I have a parent who already told me that all this work that you're doing to get ready for the school year, I'm letting you know I'm sending my child in unprepared. And from that following year, my students have never purchased school supplies. We buy every school supply for every kid. We literally tell parents, just send in a book bag. If you want to send them with lunch, you can. But we take care of everything else. And it was because of that conversation in the corner store. You know, my parent community is very happy that I buy school supplies. And it's something we're very proud to say that we do. But I would love to spend that money on something different.

FREEDMAN: While some of Raevan's budget has to be used for the basics, she does get additional money for being a Title I school. That's the federal designation for schools with high poverty.

ASKEW: There are schools on the north side that might say, well, we don't have Title I funding. And I'm like, but I'm buying notebooks. It's not like I have a recording studio in the back of my building. You know, if I got an extra $25,000, it's meant to literally level the playing field. I'm not - you don't need the $25,000. And if you had that extra $25,000, it's just going to put you even further ahead of us.

FREEDMAN: But Pat Mitchell says the state and federal funding reserved for Title I schools isn't all it's cracked up to be.

MITCHELL: The reins are so tight on how you can spend the money. And most people don't understand that.

FREEDMAN: Public money has strings attached. Pat has to pay whatever prices are set by specially approved vendors.

MITCHELL: The DOE and their cronies are charging me top dollar for the same and/or lesser quality, and so you end up getting shortchanged. Have you ever been in a hospital and you get the bill and you say, the gauze was fucking - excuse my language; sorry, Max - was $7? Like if you itemize the bill? Same with DOE. What we're paying for the moneys that are allocated for us for stupid stuff that I could get at the Dollar Tree for pennies on the dollar, that is where the disparities lie. That is what enrages me. It's not that we don't get the money; it's how we're able to spend the money.

GRIFFITH: And sometimes the money you get is only temporary.

TIFFANY HICKS: So I walked into a million-dollar grant to become a magnet school of the arts, which was an amazing thing. I was like, oh, wow, this principal thing is pretty good. There's no money issues, no problems.

GRIFFITH: Tiffany Hicks is the principal of P.S. 160. When she got there, the school had just received this federal magnet grant, although the money was not really intended for her students.

HICKS: So the magnet grant was pretty interesting because the whole premise was they wanted us to be able to diversify this - the school community. And so we had to, you know, do flyers and host open houses.

GRIFFITH: But in four years of this grant, not one family came to P.S. 160 from the north side of the district. It just didn't happen.

HICKS: So I just focused on making our community better and providing our students with experiences that they would have not had before, really trying to open their eyes to the world outside of the radius of their school.

GRIFFITH: They had free field trips, project-based learning, engineering and ballet.

HICKS: All types of clubs happening, sports programs happening. Student engagement was at an all-time high - like, happiness was at an all-time high. Parents were excited. They were coming out to our family-night events.

GRIFFITH: Yet once the grant was done, the money went away.

HICKS: I mean, there was something happening in this building every single day. Like, we were just here, and now that that's gone, it's like, OK, parents need an after-school program, so how can I offer that type of round-the-clock service that I know this community needs without the funding to do so?

FREEDMAN: But one thing everybody told us, from educators to experts - it's not just about money. There's financial capital, and there's human capital. If it's hard to reallocate dollars, it's even harder to reallocate people.

MITCHELL: It was hard. It was hard getting rid of teachers who were lazy. And I must say that. I don't know how many principals would say it. I had some lazy-ass teachers. And it's criminal. You can kill a kid with - two consecutively ineffective teachers will kill a kid. I promise you. And we didn't have the best teachers coming over to teach either. Let me just put that out there. So no one is going to like that I'm saying that. I guarantee you. We are not on the top of people's - like, oh, you know what? I'm - when I get out of school with my master's degree and I'm ready to teach, I want to go to the South Side. It's not happening. So we have been blessed to have some new teachers in who understand what this gap - achievement gap looks like. And they have - they feel a moral imperative to do something about it. But then not everybody has that same outlook. So that's been a struggle.

FREEDMAN: Obviously, not all teachers are lazy, but there's often not enough professional development or mentorship, even for teachers with really good intentions. Raevan Askew knows that all too well. Like most principals, she started out as a teacher herself.

ASKEW: When you're not getting feedback to improve, when someone else is not coming in and giving you, you know, their perspective on the changes that you can make, you get frustrated 'cause you keep trying new things but without clear direction, so sometimes you get the same result.

FREEDMAN: Teachers are a resource - maybe the most important resource - and so are parents.

GRIFFITH: A year before the pandemic, the highest grossing PTA on the North Side raised more than $2,000 per student. The most money any South Side PTA raised per student was 35 bucks.

FREEDMAN: But again, money isn't everything. Parents contributing their time and their voices can be just as important. The DOE is the kind of system where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You have to make a lot of noise to make things happen.

MITCHELL: In communities where parents don't speak up, there is a perceived apathy. We absolutely know that is not it. But if you're underrepresented at CEC meetings and you don't show up for PTA meetings and you don't know who your elected officials are and you don't kind of complain about allocations, for grants or anything of the sort, you kind of get left by the wayside.

GRIFFITH: But Tiffany Hicks from PS 160 understands that her parents' time is limited. If they don't show up to a PTA or CEC meeting, they usually have pretty good reasons.

HICKS: It's like, am I going to come spend an hour at this meeting, or am I going to go to work? Like, if I'm going to lose an hour, I'm going to work because that is what's paying my bills. That is what's keeping food on my table. As long as my kid is not coming home saying the worst thing in the world has happened and you don't think your child is learning, that's just not where their energy is right now. So we just try to meet that need.

FREEDMAN: Many of Pat Mitchell's families have similar circumstances.

MITCHELL: So a large part of our population is living under the poverty level. They just are. And that doesn't mean that we treat them any differently. I certainly do not. I will say that our immigrant parents revere education almost like they - the teachers are, like, kings and queens to them.

FREEDMAN: In recent years, Pat's school has seen an increase in immigrant families, especially from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

MITCHELL: So there's a lot of respect put on the education and the system and the whole privilege of being able to go to school. Not so much for my Indigenous people here. Right? They don't really take advantage of all that we have to offer as a school community, and that's something I'm working on. That's about culture.

GRIFFITH: This is the elephant in the room - parent culture. I've heard some version of this all my life, the idea that immigrants come here, work hard, and learn how to get ahead while African Americans can't quite figure shit out. As a Black person who is American-born and the child of immigrants, I know how loaded and toxic this belief can be. But I didn't want to just avoid it because it made me uncomfortable. So we followed up with Pat on the phone and asked her to explain.

MITCHELL: For those of us who've been around for a long time, we know that in areas that are impoverished, we get the worst facilities. We get the worst teachers. We get the fewest resources in terms of resources that really support good academic foundation. Right? And so people recognize that. I mean, that's not a secret. And so they figured, what the heck? You know, nothing's going to change anyway. So a lot of people have adopted that kind of laissez-faire attitude, like, you know what? Nothing's going to change. We still - you know, we walk on. Suffer. We still going to get frisked by police. We still going to be subjected to, you know, all of the inequities and all of the, you know, horrible, you know, atrocities that racism brings on. So we have a generation, or maybe two, that have kind of given up on what an education can do for us. Sometimes I think that history is a double-edged sword. It kind of hinders us and prevents us from really putting our best foot forward because, you know, most of us are so used to getting knocked down that you don't even try anymore. And if you're here fresh - you know, in America for the first time and you don't really have that anvil on your back, you don't have the fear of what might happen. You don't have these restrictions on what you think you can't do. And that's a good thing. But just the culture is so important.

GRIFFITH: As difficult as this is to hear, it's Pat's truth. And I think it reinforces that some of the challenges that south side principals face are generations in the making.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Of course, parents can make for easy scapegoats, and principals get their fair share of criticism, too. Leadership can make or break a school. And some parents say their principals are unresponsive, unaccountable and undemocratic.

GRIFFITH: But south side principals told us they're under a lot of pressure.

HICKS: Compared to ourself, we are making growth. So now we are at 34% and then maybe 25%, which is a nice jump, but I'm still at the bottom of the district.

FREEDMAN: Again, Principal Tiffany Hicks.

HICKS: So I've had, you know, visits and - you know, when we've had, like, principal events, and they're like, wow, these kids are so articulate. What did you think they were? You know what I mean? But again, when you're only basing it on that number, and if I'm the bottom school in the district, you would think I'm doing absolutely nothing all day, and nobody's teaching, nobody's doing anything. It's like, what did you think? Like, oh, my God, that school is so beautiful. These kids are so articulate. Yes, they are. We just have to figure out, how do I translate that onto paper and then make that show up in the test? And that's just - it's hard. It's not an easy task at all.

And there are so many variables that, you know, it's hard to figure out which one is going to be it. Data-driven instruction? That's it. Nope. That just - it wasn't - because it's not just one thing. Like pedagogy? It's not just that. OK, small group instruction? Nope. It's not just that. OK, now, culture? Nope. It's not just that. Social and emotional learning? Nope, it's not just that. Parent involvement versus parent engagement? Nope. It's not just that. It's this whole puzzle, and you're trying to, like, put together these pieces. And when you think you have your puzzle, then here comes another mandate. Oh, yeah, do this, do this, do this. And you're like, that's not what I need right now. Time - like, these things take time. So I need four or five, six years to, like, really turn it around. But it's the pressure. Like, that needle on that metric where it said low school, low improvement, like, that's like a foot on my neck. Like, I can't - I don't - after a while, you as a principal, as a person who, like, has strong work ethic and I want to go hard, like, you don't feel successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HICKS: My colleague said, well, if you're bleeding all over the battlefield, how are you leading?

GRIFFITH: Pat Mitchell feels that.

MITCHELL: I wouldn't recommend this job to anybody that I liked. I wouldn't. Just keeping it real. I just wouldn't. It burns you out. There aren't many - too many people that I know who have been principals for more than 10 years. It's just an impossible - it really burns you out.

FREEDMAN: The burnout is real, but so is the pride these principals take in their schools and their students.

GRIFFITH: We were lucky enough to visit Raevan Askew at P.S. 354 during the school day.

This is great. I mean, describe what we're looking at right now.

ASKEW: So what we're looking at is a few things. Over on the left, what you see are flower garden beds. And as we pan over to the right, what looks like picnic tables on the surface, what you see on the left-hand corner of all of them are chess boards. And then that's a sound panel.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Cool, right?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Oh, careful.

ASKEW: So that was pretty cool. And then we have these giant Legos.

GRIFFITH: It's obviously - it's for physical activity. It's outside. People - kids are having fun. But it's not seen as strictly, like, a playground, but it's, like, a learning environment.

ASKEW: This is a learning space. We call it our outdoor classroom.

GRIFFITH: OK.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

ASKEW: So we're really intentional about that, that we call it an outdoor learning space so that people are always looking for opportunities to engage students in thinking.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I can do a split.

ASKEW: You can do a split? Let me see. Oh, my goodness.

GRIFFITH: (Laughter) Nice.

ASKEW: Oh, my - oh, my goodness.

GRIFFITH: That's a split.

ASKEW: Yeah, that's a split. No more splits because the last time you guys showed me splits, somebody split their pants. But that was a good one.

GRIFFITH: (Laughter).

According to the 2019 state exams, only 38% of students at this school are proficient in math, 39% in reading. But according to the learning environment survey, 96% of parents are satisfied.

And so people are not, like, saying, oh, the proficiency rate is not high enough. You know what I'm saying? That doesn't seem to be even a factor.

ASKEW: I think what we lack in proficiency, we excel in culture. Like, this is a great place to be. And I think it's still very clear that we still prioritize education. It's not like we're so busy having fun that we're not trying to be better at consistency and high-quality instruction. And I think because we celebrate our continued growth is why people also continue to stay invested.

GRIFFITH: I have to say, I found myself skipping down the street by the time we left 354. This might sound mad corny, but to see all those joyful Black children thriving in school left me hopeful and inspired. And yet, as a parent, I know how difficult it is for children to hold on to that joy as they make their way into adolescence. By the time they get to middle school, their world becomes much more complicated, and the stakes get higher. To middle school, after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: As the principal of a Southside elementary school, every year, Pat Mitchell would see her fifth graders off to middle school and hear a lot of their parents anxiety.

MITCHELL: So they were concerned about the fighting in the schools, the quality of the education and the ability for their kids to go from these schools to a specialized high schools. And I said - I would have to say to parents openly, I know your concerns. I hear them, too. And I just don't know. I feel like I'm helpless because I don't know what to do. I mean, I felt bad for parents because I could not say, oh, no, the rumors are - they're not true. That's - it's - that those things don't happen at the school. They were. And middle school can be rough. If you remember back when you were in middle school, for me, it was the toughest time of my life in terms of, you know, just being a student. It was tough because of the social climate, because of the things going on, you know, the hormones the kids are going through, adolescence. It is crazy. So I definitely understand why parents are really concerned about where their scholars go to middle school.

GRIFFITH: When we talked to parents, we heard a lot of the same concerns. So we went to a middle school principal to find out what was going on.

ATIVIA SANDUSKY: Some parents said, I'm not sending my kids to 72. And of course, my - that's fair because of the reputation 72 had.

FREEDMAN: Ativia Sandusky is the current principal of MS 72. When she took over in the fall of 2019, the school had been on the state's list of persistently struggling schools for seven years. But the school's reputation went back even further.

SANDUSKY: It's funny. I lived in Rochdale Village right here in Building 2 for 14 years. And I didn't send my daughter to any of the schools in this neighborhood. And I was an educator.

FREEDMAN: Now that she runs the school herself, she sees many other parents doing what she did.

SANDUSKY: You know, I have a staff member that lives in Rochdale, and she says every morning when she's leaving to come to work, she sees parents outside waiting for a bus to pick up their child.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Used to be there were five big middle schools in District 28, each built to serve over a thousand students - two on the north side, one in the middle, two in the south. MS 72 is one of them. Today, those middle schools in the north and in the middle are still teeming with students. In fact, they're so much in demand, they're overcrowded. But on the South Side, the landscape is very different. There is a larger number of smaller schools.

GRIFFITH: This reflects one approach to the problem of, quote-unquote, "failing schools" in places like South Jamaica - choice and competition. Give parents choices, make schools compete. It's hard to argue with the idea of parent choice, but competition has its downsides. For Principal Ativia Sandusky, each of those kids waiting for the bus instead of going to MS 72 represents a loss of resources.

SANDUSKY: Every year, we have to meet a projected register. If we don't meet our projected register, we have to pay back funding. Last year and this year, they waived that due to the pandemic. But in the past, historical data shows that this school has lost students each and every year. So when you're losing students, you're losing funding.

GRIFFITH: In many Black and Latinx neighborhoods, the competition has come from charter schools. But mostly, the schools that 72 has to compete with are regular public schools, including one in the same building.

SANDUSKY: If you have one middle school in the building, why would you open up another one? So there's another middle school upstairs on the fourth floor.

GRIFFITH: Last year, MS 72 was down to less than 300 students. Even with two schools in there, the building is half empty.

FREEDMAN: Low enrollment makes it difficult for MS 72 to offer the kind of programming that would make families want to go there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDUSKY: When I think about schools on the North Side in District 28, I think about all of the arts that they have, the opportunity to have more than one foreign language. I mean, nobody wants to send their child to a failing school or a school that doesn't offer Regents. Again, those schools on the North Side offer Regents.

FREEDMAN: The Regents are New York State's exams and core high school subjects. Many middle schools offer Regents prep classes to get students ready for higher-level learning.

SANDUSKY: If I'm interested in my child taking Regents in all these subject areas and being able to participate in several different arts and having a choice of the arts, then that's the middle school that I'm going to want my child to go to. I can't fault parents when they live in this community and schools don't have what they want their child to be exposed to. If families that live in Rochdale Village or own homes behind here choose not to come to the school because of its reputation. Where is the funds provided or the support provided to help this school be successful so that there is a great middle school in this area? I often think and toss and turn and wonder why schools don't receive what they need when they're in this predicament. Yes, we received federal funding. But is it enough?

FREEDMAN: It's a downward spiral. Without programs, enrollment goes down, which means you have even less funding for programs and enrollment goes down. And on and on it goes. But Principal Sandusky is trying to turn things around.

SANDUSKY: Last year, we advocated, really, to have students come to our building, apply. And this year, for the first year, we had an increase. So with that increase, we received funding.

FREEDMAN: With that funding, she got new laptops, smart boards and printers, professional development for her teachers and a drum line class for the kids.

SANDUSKY: I'm a true believer that we're coming off that list sooner than later. I truly believe word of mouth and really exposing yourself - whether it's social media, open houses - and letting people really see makes a difference. And the only way change is going to happen is for people to actually take a chance.

GRIFFITH: Change appears to be happening. After years of decline, enrollment is up at both MS 72 and the other legacy middle school on the south side. But many parents in South Jamaica are still looking for other options. And if you want to go to middle school beyond the South Side, the system doesn't make it easy.

ALLISON BELL: New York City's school system would drain you. As a Black or brown parent, they would drain you.

FREEDMAN: Allison Bell (ph) is one south side parent who's fought to get her kids into schools outside her zone. She's zoned for MS 72. But the middle school she picked out for her older daughter was MS 217.

BELL: They said MS 217 is, like, on the border. But I don't get that from their school. They have a lot of activities for the kids that we don't have on this side. That's what bothers me.

FREEDMAN: What she means by on the border is that 217 isn't on the north side or the south side, it's in the middle, which means they don't have a lot of white kids or all that many Black kids. It's mostly Latinx and Asian. The poverty rate is comparable to MS 72. The test scores are better, but they're still under 50% proficiency in reading and math.

GRIFFITH: But it's a huge school, more than 1,500 students. That's enough kids to support a lot of programming.

BELL: They have so many programs. I'm like, how does this school have all these programs and some of the schools on my side of town doesn't have these programs?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BELL: OK. They have a swim team. They have a cooking class, a gourmet cooking class, a Latin cooking class, a chess club, a dance club, a drama club - like, all these different activities. You don't even need a after-school program for your child because they have so many different programs for your child to participate. It's unbelievable. And it's so diverse, you know? It's everybody in that school. I feel like we are the minorities there, which is a good thing in my eyes because everybody gets to know each other culture. And they learn to respect it. But it was, again, a hard time getting her there. It was ridiculous.

GRIFFITH: Allison explained to us just how hard it is to actually take advantage of middle school choice in District 28.

BELL: When you're filling out your middle school application - right? - they'll tell you that you can list any school within your district? But they try to keep the south side kids on this side. And they give you a hard time crossing the bridge. You know what I'm saying? So...

FREEDMAN: OK. Strap in, folks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: We're going to give you a crash course on middle school admissions in District 28. All families have to submit a ranked list of their preferred middle schools. And technically, they can apply to any school in the district. But it's much more difficult to get into one of the big legacy schools on the north side and in the middle.

GRIFFITH: That's because they have what's called zone priority, meaning if you live in the immediate school zone, you get first dibs on that school. And the students who were zoned for the big middle schools above Liberty tend to want to go to those schools.

FREEDMAN: For example, by our calculations, only 32% of students who live in the zone for MS 72 are choosing to attend MS 72 or the other school in that building. But 88% of students who live in the zone for Halsey and Forest Hills are choosing their zone school.

GRIFFITH: Halsey does reserve a limited number of seats for kids outside the zone. But for the most part, kids in the zone have priority.

FREEDMAN: There are also schools that aren't zoned at all. Instead, they have academic screens, meaning they take your grades or other factors into account. Then there are schools that are un-zoned and unscreened. They admit students based on a lottery. Some of these are 6-8 schools. Some of these are 6-12 schools.

GRIFFITH: It's a lot. The process is overwhelming, confusing and opaque.

BELL: You know, I put down nine schools on a application. I went to all nine open houses. I spoke to all nine parent coordinators. Her grades were excellent, you know? So the system randomly selects the school, right? That's what they claim. How do you randomly select a school that I didn't even put down on the list?

GRIFFITH: Allison called the superintendent's office. And they gave her what she considered a bullshit answer.

BELL: I said, no, you have to really give me a better explanation than that. Don't worry, I'll be down at your office. Then I started to call the board of education corporate headquarters. You know, I went on Twitter and found out everybody's email address. And I started to email them. Like, you're going to give me a better answer than this. And I'm not saying that I just feel that my daughter's special. All the kids - right? - should have this same type of energy that their parents - but they can't. So let me do for my child right now.

And they told me what to do, and I did it. And they was like, all right, all right. We have room for her. I said, I thought you - yeah, I thought so, because I was not playing anymore. Like, my child was going to go to the school that I selected, either the first choice or the second choice. Or she was going to go there anyway and they would just have to kick her out every day. So I think, with my perseverance - and I was determined to get her to where I wanted her to go. But a lot of parents don't have that energy or that networking power to do that.

GRIFFITH: That was all for Allison's older daughter. She's got a younger daughter nearing middle school age.

BELL: I'm getting ready to do this whole cycle again. The only difference is that more people know my name. And they know my network. And they like, we don't want to hear a mouth. It might be - and I shouldn't have to do that. You know what I mean? I shouldn't have to do that, especially if I'm telling my daughter that somebody died for you to get your education, and that's what you have to pay them back with. You know, like, I need you to get good grades. Right? I need you to have perfect attendance because when they tell me no, I'm going to pull up your resume. You know what I mean? So that's what we teach our kids on this side, that we need your resume to fight for you. You know? And it's a lot of pressure on her at times, too. I'm sure. So having to fight since kindergarten for the school system is very hard. It's very depressing. It's a lot of work. It's very much unfair. I don't think there's not one person on this side of Queens that has - that don't have a story of rejection or BS about their child education system.

GRIFFITH: So District 28 has middle school choice, but not every family in the district feels the need to take full advantage of that choice. On average, Black students in the district are traveling 2.2 miles to get to middle school. Farther than any other racial group, and more than twice as far as their White peers.

FREEDMAN: Next up, we're going to meet a family that travels more than four miles for middle school from one end of the district to the other. After the break.

CHARMAINE BAPTISTE: I feel like we have to fight. Why do we always have to fight? Education is free. Right? Why we have to fight for that?

GRIFFITH: Charmaine Baptiste (ph) is originally from the island of Grenada, and she lives in South Jamaica with her son, Elias (ph). When Elias was applying for middle school, Charmaine had her heart set on a school in Forest Hills called the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, or MELS. But when she was going through the process, she put MELS 5th on her list.

BAPTISTE: Because they always said, the school that you want to go to, don't put it first because you may not get it - something like that? Like, they didn't tell you - I don't know, like, where they get that from. So I was - like, I didn't put that school because they said if you put the first school - the school that you really like first, they know that you really want to go there. There's a lot of conspiracy theories out there about that.

GRIFFITH: After she submitted the application, she waited and waited.

BAPTISTE: When I speak to his guidance counselor, I was like, I don't get an approval for Elias. I don't know what's going on. Is he in middle school? And she's like, yeah, he got approved. I said - she said, MELS. I said, what?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAPTISTE: He'd wanted to go to middle school - since he's in first grade, he's like, I want to go to middle school. I want to go to middle school. I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a scientist. And from that time I'm, like, whatever he do, science is part of his education. So I try to feed that interest in him. You know? Nothing is good enough for Elias for me. You understand what I'm saying? Like, he gets the best. I wanted him to experience something different. I want it to be out of his neighborhood. And I wanted him to be in a different environment and to meet different kids. And again, because of the diversity of Asians, Caucasians, Blacks, Chinese, Indies - you know what I'm saying? I wanted him to be around different people - like, see a different world, not just his own kind. I wanted - I want him to experience world in a different way.

GRIFFITH: MELS is unzoned and unscreened, which means that in theory, any kid from any part of the district has an equal shot at getting in. MELS is also one of the only schools in the district whose demographics are close to that of the district as a whole. The school calls itself intentionally diverse.

BAPTISTE: He needs to broaden his mind and his, like, you know, experience. So I wanted the best for him. And I feel MELS is the best for him right now. However, I got to get here. I'm going to get here 'cause we take two buses and sometime the bus take forever. And it's crazy, like...

FREEDMAN: Charmaine worked out a schedule with Elias's dad. Monday, Thursday, Friday, he would take Elias to school in his car. Tuesday and Wednesday, Elias would take the public bus - actually, two buses. And when Elias takes the bus, his mom goes with him. I asked Elias how long it takes.

ELIAS BAPTISTE: Car, on average, 20 minutes? On the bus - well, OK, so there's two factors on the bus. First factor is when the bus actually gets there and how long it takes to get there. 'Cause the traffic is horrible, so it - sometimes in - on bad, like, rainy days, takes 40 minutes to get there, but on good days it comes - 20 minutes. And the bus ride is at least 40 minutes long.

FREEDMAN: Riding the bus with Elias is just the beginning of Charmaine's commute. When I met her, she was working at a Costco in New Jersey, which meant after taking two buses with Elias, she would then take another bus to another state to her job. Two or three hours back and forth.

BAPTISTE: So I hate taking the bus Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I love when his father - but his father just recently got a job, so now I'm going to have to do it Monday through Friday (laughter).

FREEDMAN: To make it work, she had to cut down her hours at Costco.

BAPTISTE: So I was working full-time. I just got full-time status in September, so I have to go down to part time and I have to work four hours now instead of eight hours.

FREEDMAN: Which meant less money coming in.

BAPTISTE: Yes. I've had to downgrade everything. It's not easy. It's very, very difficult. Thank God, like, I have other things going on that I could provide for him 'cause I wouldn't want to be homeless. Like, sometime I see those people on the train, and I'm like, that could be me. But I do everything that I can not to get to that point. I want to show him something else. So whatever I can - I try to do the best that I can, you know, just to - I want to show him that even if you live in the hood or you live in a specific neighborhood, you do not have to be a product of that. And he see me every day get up, even if I don't want to get up, and I stand up and I get up and I fight because I have to give him - I have to show him. I'm the only person he has to show him, you know, that there's something else better out there, so. I'm talking to you now, and I'm tearing up because I never had to talk about this before. Even if I feel it, I don't have to talk about it. But he's hearing me speak about it, you know? It is a struggle, but I do it every day for him, so. It's not easy, but I do it, and it's all because of him. Even if we're living in South Jamaica, he still needs the best. He didn't ask for this life, so he shouldn't have to suffer.

GRIFFITH: For Charmaine, it's all worth it. Elias is thriving at Mel's.

ELIAS: They prioritize community. They care about, like, your mental health. They care about who you are. And the teachers are really nice. And they're not - you know, they're not just there to be there, to make money. They're there so you can learn and you can thrive. My life is good right now. I feel happy. I feel accepted. I feel like, you know, everybody wants to be around me, and, you know, I feel happy.

FREEDMAN: Elias, let me ask you this. Why is it that you think that you have to come all the way to Forest Hills, spend all that time on the bus to get everything that you just described?

ELIAS: This is a hard one. Well, to be honest, I don't know. I don't see why they can't have schools over there. I mean, yeah, Jamaica can use some improving, but with the right people and the right ideas, you can change a lot of things. I don't understand why - I mean, I'm pretty sure they have the power to do that, so I'm not sure why they haven't done it already. And maybe - I don't know. I don't want to jump to conclusions. Maybe it's a thing about race. Who knows? I mean, I like to think that it's not, and it's just they just don't want to do it. But, you know, the truth can sometimes be a little hard to bear.

GRIFFITH: The truth is, there are so many things that south side schools are contending with, most of which are tied to race and class in one way or another.

FREEDMAN: It's limited and unpredictable funding.

GRIFFITH: It's indifferent and ineffective leadership.

FREEDMAN: It's not enough good teachers and too little training.

GRIFFITH: It's low expectations for students and their parents and a system that is near impossible to navigate.

FREEDMAN: And still, there's so much more we could have talked about - class size, curriculum, facilities, language access, chronic absenteeism.

GRIFFITH: These problems are overwhelming, complicated and deeply entrenched.

FREEDMAN: We're just two guys with a podcast. We're not going to figure this out. But one thing that became clear as we reported this episode - most people we interviewed have never even had the opportunity to talk about this stuff.

GRIFFITH: At the very least, that's what the diversity planning process was supposed to do before it got derailed. Why were some people so threatened by that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Next time on School Colors...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Diversity plan sounds amazing - right? - 'cause that's what we want. That's why we live here. But when I started hearing that they were going to dezone the schools, that's when I was like, oh, wait, what? No, we can't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: They had very clear ideas about what they wanted to impose on not just our school district, but citywide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: People just don't understand power, or what they do understand about power, they're not willing to admit to themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: They just started calling people out as racist. And I can't believe people here are saying things that are racist. And, you know, people weren't saying things that were racist. They were saying their concerns, their genuine concerns about putting a 10-year-old on a subway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: I'm glad they didn't want our students over there 'cause I didn't want them over here either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Things got pretty ugly on Facebook.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: That scared the shit out of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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. Research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original music by Avery R. Young and De Deacon Board. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

FREEDMAN: Special thanks to Tammy Pate (ph) and Sonja Roeda (ph), Allison Brinker (ph), Robyn Hasbury-Signal (ph), Tatiana Lusaint (ph), Manuela Remy (ph), Brendon Mims (ph), Patrick Finley (ph) and Damon McCord (ph), Gary Orfield (ph), Shaniqua Carr (ph), Odessa Engels (ph), Ralph Greer (ph), Don Zhang (ph), Venus Ketchum (ph), Belinda Lewis (ph) and Denise Raya (ph).

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 the Brooklyn Movement Center.

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

FREEDMAN: Until next time...

GRIFFITH: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: This episode was recorded in our homes because we got COVID. Shout out to COVID.

(LAUGHTER)

FREEDMAN: Oh, Lord.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.