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Op-Ed

Returning to Long Island’s segregated schools

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As the new school year begins, students, teachers and parents are understandably focused on the immediate issue of how schools are reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the pandemic doesn’t let us off the hook. Long Island’s schools are highly segregated and becoming more so, and it is time that we addressed that, too.

Long Island is one of the 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in the nation, and the problem is on the rise. As ERASE Racism revealed in 2017, dramatically more Black and Latinx students on Long Island attended segregated schools then than 12 years earlier.

Underlying that segregation is structural racism — the historical and ongoing racial discrimination, segregation and marginalization of African-Americans, in particular, that is typically instigated or sanctioned by government. In this case, it is perpetuated by the fact that Long Island’s two counties have 124 school districts. That fragmentation is not justified by educational priorities; it is terribly inefficient and wasteful. It simply mirrors Long Island’s segregated residential jurisdictions.

As we, as a nation, continue this year’s remarkable public discussion of race in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we need to come together and plan to end the segregation that has defined Long Island schools for so long. Fortunately, there are steps that we can take, and Long Islanders are already leading the way.

ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force, which consists of 47 high school students from 20 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, convenes monthly in an effort to deepen its understanding of structural racism and to develop ways to reduce it in Long Island schools. While it is an extracurricular activity, the students’ insights into how to make curricula more culturally responsive have attracted national attention.

The Student Task Force’s members were invited this summer to create and present six culturally responsive virtual lesson plans in the prestigious, four-day Reimagining Education Summer Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. Three of the students were featured in a sold-out plenary session, titled “Rewriting L.I. Curriculum: Structural Racism,” watched by 1,000 educators nationwide.

Before the pandemic, the task force met in person. Its members now convene on Zoom and, in doing so, highlight another opportunity: using distance learning as a vehicle for integration.

While distance learning is being implemented by individual school districts, it provides an extraordinary mechanism for bringing together students from across school districts. Students from multiple districts can study together without being constrained by the geographic jurisdictions imposed on them by previous generations and their prejudices.

Students might come together, for instance, to take Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate classes. They could broaden their understanding by sharing insights with students from other backgrounds. They would enhance their education by benefiting from a variety of perspectives.

In that context and more broadly, new curricula should be developed that are culturally responsive, reflecting the diversity of race, ethnicities and cultures in our nation and our region. Fortunately, the State Education Department has already developed a “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework,” into which ERASE Racism had input. It helps educators create student-centered learning environments that affirm diversity, while preparing students for rigorous, independent learning and elevating historically marginalized voices, among other goals.

To tackle structural racism in education on Long Island, there must also be engaged faculty, and this is another asset to build on. Over the past three years, 87 Long Island educators from 15 school districts and 37 schools have been named Rauch Foundation Fellows, and have been sponsored to attend the Reimagining Education Summer Institute at Teachers College. There they focused on teaching and learning in racially diverse schools and demonstrated a commitment on which Long Island can build.

Long Island has a long way to go to eradicate the structural racism in its educational system, but it has resources to draw from, including student and faculty leaders pointing the way.

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, the regional civil rights organization based on Long Island.