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School Segregation is Alive and Well in America

March 9, 2017

Contributor and Photosanity founder Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick tackles the subject of school segregation in NYC and beyond. 


Last December, I attended a Town Hall at BRIC Arts Media in Brooklyn on “Breaking the Pattern of School Segregation”. You can listen to a recording here.  I highly recommend it and it informs much of what I’ll be covering in this post.

Before we go any further, let me be clear that, unlike the amazing panelists at that Town Hall, I am NOT an expert in this topic. I haven’t read all the research and I’m new to the discussion. I don’t know all the right language to use when discussing these issues. And as an NBPOC (non-black person of color) with a great deal of privilege, I do have a certain perspective. But it’s a topic I’ve been very interested in and increasingly passionate about ever since I first started touring local schools as a parent, when my oldest son began to approach pre-K and Kindergarten.

What I noticed when I started touring those schools, and what I (perhaps naïvely) found astonishing was how segregated those schools were. The private schools were predominantly white, and the public schools were predominantly black, with increasingly large groups of white middle class “gentrifiers” touring the mostly black public schools and trying to figure out if they would be comfortable sending their child there.

Even in New York City, the “melting pot” of the world, school segregation is a big issue. In fact, I ran into some friends at the Town Hall mentioned above who talked about growing up in the US and going to desegregated schools – and realizing that their kids were going to attend schools that are more segregated than theirs were.

A little bit about my background: I’m a BBC – British Born Chinese. I was born in London, and I grew up in the south of England where, as far as I can remember, I was the only non-white child at the “infant school” (the equivalent of K-2) that I attended. Even as I grew older and went to schools that were more diverse racially, I grew up a minority, and when there were eventually other Chinese students, they were typically from Hong Kong and had grown up there, so I felt different from them too.

Today, my husband is white, so my two boys are bi-racial and it has been very important to me that they grow up with a more desegregated experience than I did. However, as I mentioned earlier, I grew up with—and continue to enjoy—a lot of privilege. So keep that in mind.

There are five things to consider when thinking about desegregating our schools:

1) Diversity is not a commodity. For some white middle and upper middle-class families, diversity is a “nice to have” that is on a wish list along with other amenities such as a science lab, art room, language specialists, etc. And let’s be honest, this is not an attitude limited to education; it’s prevalent throughout our culture, and while it may be well-meaning, and preferable to not paying attention to diversity at all, it’s a hallmark of privilege that is worth calling out.

In fact, the use of the term “diversity” is worth questioning, too. At the aforementioned Town Hall, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the widely circulated New York Times article “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”, said, “Diversity doesn’t require us to do anything. When I’m talking about desegregation and integration, I’m talking about racial equality, I’m talking about justice, and “diversity” just means we have a mix of people that makes us feel good, but it’s not actually ensuring equal education for students of color, particularly Black and Latino students.”

This leads to my second point, which is that:

2) The curriculum has to be integrated, not just the school. It doesn’t matter if you put children of color next to white children in the classroom. If the curriculum is still largely centered around a white narrative, that is problematic for non-white kids, and, I would argue, for white kids as well. True integration is when every single child receives a “culturally responsive education”.

“You can have physical diversity where we are placed next to each other, but the content of the curriculum… if we don’t desegregate the curriculum, if we’re still providing a white centered curriculum to African and Latino descendant children, we have a fundamental problem,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, speaking at BRIC Media Arts Town Hall (December 2016)

This begs the question: What does an integrated and culturally responsive education look like?

The school my kindergartener and second grader attend has students and teachers from a mix of racial and socio-economic backgrounds. It’s amazing to think about the fact that I didn’t attend a school with any Asian teachers until college, whereas my younger son’s kindergarten teacher is Asian.

But more than that, consider that their school has made a conscious decision not to celebrate Black History Month or Women’s History Month but to integrate those studies into the curriculum year round. The kindergarten classroom walls are covered with quotes from leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi. They learn about Ruby Bridges, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Civil Rights movement.

The second graders gave presentations earlier this year about leaders that included Susan B. Anthony, Malala Yousafzai, Cesar Chavez, Mae Jemison, Sally Ride and Jackie Robinson (some I had not heard of myself!). They are reading about immigration, DAPL, the MLK Jr.’s speech, etc. and they went on a class field trip to see an Alvin Ailey dance performance. School-wide activities have included projects on Brazil, India, Australia, as well as historical Constantinople and Kyoto.

They also have tools available in the classroom for different learning styles. For example, more kinesthetic learners (Nikole Hannah-Jones noted at the Town Hall that research has shown African American descendants tend to be more kinesthetic learners) can sit at an exercise bike, bounce on a yoga ball, play with fidgets, or work at kneeling height or standing height desks. These tools are available to all.

In addition, the teachers use “pick sticks” to call on kids (they have sticks with each child’s name on that they pick at random) to circumvent unconscious bias.

These are just some examples of how the curriculum is racially integrated; other types of diversity are also addressed. What I appreciate is how authentic and natural it feels, rather than superimposed for political correctness. In fact, it is done with so little fanfare or publicity that I wasn’t aware of this approach prior to attending the school, and it has only gradually dawned on me over our almost three years there.

I will admit that while I was looking for an integrated classroom, I didn’t know to look for an integrated curriculum, or what that would even look like. I’ve been humbled by how much I’ve learned and how much I have to learn.

3) A school that isn’t good enough for your kid shouldn’t be good enough for any kid. This is a really uncomfortable idea for those of us with privilege. Would you send your child to the local low-performing public school serving mostly low-income students of color?

Hannah-Jones and her husband did, and her article speaks to the courage and questions in that decision, but the presence of even a few white (and non-white) middle class families can make a big difference in a struggling school.

4) Parent communities need to be integrated too. This is a hard one for me. Our school’s teachers, classrooms and curriculum are integrated. The parent community less so. I’ll admit that this is an area of discomfort for me, and I’m not sure how to fix that dynamic.                                            

5) We need to talk about race with our kids… and with each other. I recently attended a workshop on “Raising Race Conscious Children” (for NY-ers, the second one is next week). Even though I’m familiar with why colorblindness contributes to racism rather than solving it, I have to admit the workshop was pretty eye opening for me. I’ve been part of the conversation about women my entire life, but the conversation about race? Not so much, and I’m not even white.

In fact, to be honest, talking so openly about race in writing this post is not entirely comfortable for me. I’m very conscious that I am joining a discussion that many have been engaged with far more than I, and yet I believe it’s a conversation that needs to happen more. I look forward to its continuation.


Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents. She founded Photosanity to help parents find joy & connection through photographing their kids. Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5.

Alethea has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity.com and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.