New York City Students Share Plan to Fight for School Integration

Teens Take Charge Founders Nelson Luna and Whitney Stephenson opened their event “We Regret to Inform You” at Brooklyn Public Library’s Dweck Center

Brooklyn, New York – A standing room-only crowd filled an auditorium that seated nearly 200 people, including parents, students, advocates, teachers, and education professionals. Teens Take Charge, a New York City-based, student-led movement fighting for school integration and educational equity, proposed a policy plan that they claim will promote integration in New York City’s public high school system. 

At their event “We Regret to Inform You,” which was held last month, at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Dweck Center, members of the group shared personal testimony about their experience with the high school admission process. The name alludes to admission rejection letters sent to black and Latino students by elite schools.  

“A majority of New York City schools are segregated with 71 percent of public schools intensely segregated and only 23 percent of schools diverse,” according to the Citizens Committee for Children, a New York City child advocacy organization. “One-third of schools are at least 95 percent black or Hispanic. Fifty percent of schools have 12 or fewer white students,” according to The Bell, a New York City-based podcast on iTunes that includes students’ voices in the education conversation. Both organizations analyzed data from The Department of Education for the 2015 school year. 

 Frustrated with New York City’s public high school system, Teens Take Charge was founded in 2017 by Democracy Prep Charter High School students Nelson Luna, Whitney Stephen and is facilitated by Taylor McGraw, founder of The Bell. In less than a year, the movement has held events at the Bronx Library Center, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and has met with the NYC Department of Education Leadership Team several times. 

Teens Take Charge members Coco Rhum, a junior at Beacon High School, and Wyatt Perez, a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men, introduced the group’s PowerPoint presentation of the policy plan, which they called an “Enrollment Equity Proposal.”  

Unlike Mayor Bill De Blasio’s 2014 Renewal and Rise School Program, which poured $582 million into 78 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, the students claim they can actually save the Department of Education millions of dollars.  

“The resources being poured into these ‘renewal schools’ are not making a big difference,” said Perez, who, together with Rhum found that the students’ proficiency rates hadn’t improved in 2016 under De Blasio.  

Michael Aciman, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, did not respond to questions about the renewal schools by deadline.   

The group’s plan also suggests replacing the Specialized High School Admissions Test with proportional allotment, meaning that the top three percent of every middle school’s graduating class would be offered seats in specialized high schools. Specialized testing “requires outside assistance that is not accessible to many low-income students,” said McGraw, which in turn causes segregated specialized high schools.  

Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), deputy leader of policy for New York City Council, agreed that the strategies proposed would help to achieve integration. 

Lander’s recent report “Desegregating NYC: Twelve Steps Toward a More Inclusive City,” which was released last Tuesday, includes ideas borrowed from Teens Take Charge, such as increasing the number of educational optional schools, schools that admit students with a mix of ability levels.  

“What these strategies do is achieve integration in a way that the Supreme Court has said is permissible to do,” said Lander. 

The students see their contribution to Lander’s proposal to be significant as they move forward with future plans to lead a #StillNotEqual campaign next month to coincide with the anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education.  

“I think these students have a lot to say,” said Ryan Fajet, 25, program associate of Education Reform Now New York, a national nonprofit organization for reorienting education policy. “I think they have a lot of ideas, and I think they are being left out of the conversation that most affects them… it’s time students have a place at the table.” 

April Chatman, a member of The Panel for Education Policy at The Department of Education, said that she would also look into the proposal.  

“People say education is the key,” said Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at The Community Service Society, a nonprofit organization advocating for low-income New Yorkers. But actually “education is the lock right now.”