On Roosevelt Island

Is Pre-K Racially Integrated on Roosevelt Island?

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Diversity Is...
Diversity Is...
Photo Credit: NY - http://nyphotographic.com/ Creative Commons License

This week, a report released by the Century Foundation exposed startling levels of racial segregation in New York's Universal Pre-K programs. We asked City Council Member Ben Kallos about one of his signature initiatives and how he sees it, related to Roosevelt Island.

We recently ran an article spotlighting Ben Kallos's success in expanding Pre-K in his district, specifically in our Roosevelt Island community.

Progress over only two and a half years has been eye-popping. Today, there are five times as many Pre-K seats as there were when Kallos took office, 49 of them set up at the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery.

But the Century Foundation report threatened to throw a shadow over those accomplishments, finding that segregation by race in New York is even worse than in the city's public kindergartens. And those are embedded in a system in which, as Kallos pointed out in our conversation, segregation is "worse than before Brown versus Board of Education."

In Brown v. Board of Education, way back in 1954, the Supreme Court sparked the civil rights movement, declaring that "separate but equal," a rationale used to justify school segregation, was unconstitutional. A tidal wave of school reform followed, but as we see today in a Northern, liberal city like New York, integration hasn't gone anywhere near far enough.

It may be moving backwards.

Ben Kallos: A Broader View

Kallos responded to my initial question about how the Century Foundation report might reflect Pre-K classrooms on Roosevelt Island with a much broader answer.

"I was aware of it before I took office," he said, referring to the city's seemingly intractable problem with segregation. "I've visited every single school in my district."

Some research online quickly brought perspective in terms of, not only segregation, but its effect on the quality of school life. PS 183 on East 66th Street, according to schooldigger.com has an enrollment that is 82% White or Asian and gains a 5-star rating. Less than a quarter-mile away on East 67th, Ella Baker School, which is less than 22% white gets only a 2-star rating, even with a student/teacher ratio strikingly similar to PS183's.

Statistics like these make advocates for school equality determined to force change.

Close to our home, as Kallos sees it, Roosevelt Island is a haven of educational diversity that tells a story about how effective successful community planning can be. Here, we're diverse by design, and Kallos says, "We want to keep it that way." 

He took that a step beyond what the study looked at, including people with disabilities, a population for which Roosevelt Island pioneered accessibility, in his assessment.

Walk down Main Street around 3:00 on a school day when PS/IS 217 students flood the sidewalks or watch RIDN's staff supervise play outside their facility, and you see diversity thriving in action.

But in the rest of Kallos's district, the situation is more challenging. He is confident, though, that as "a progressive in a progressive district," he sees opportunity for moving the needle significantly in the direction of integration.

First, Kallos was quick to point out, before plunging into fixes for problems not yet fully clear, "I want to make sure we get as many (Pre-K seats) as we can, everywhere in the district."

Roosevelt Island, at least for now, is unlikely to add to the predictable challenges.

Roosevelt Island and New York City

As much as he sees Roosevelt Island as a one of a kind community afloat in the universe, by virtue of his work, Kallos must spend most of his time thinking about the whole of his district, going to meetings to press his case, checking in with constituents and developing ideas that move New York in the right direction.

He supports Mayor Bill de Blasio's Community Schools initiative, an effort that involves flooding troubled schools with services that break the boundaries of education but attempt to bridge gaps in the social fabric that make learning difficult for children.

Targeted schools, along with extra funds, may get the benefit of longer school days and social services for students and their families onsite. A partnership with Warby Parker digs deep into the basics by providing free eyeglasses to as many as 20,000 students in need.

Kallos hopes to see deeper changes in Department of Education policies that break the hardened pattern of segregation in New York public schools. One de Blasio initiative he believes is already working is restarting trouble schools, that is, wiping the slate clean with new administration that improves standards, getting the schools out of long-established ruts.

The DOE's Talented and Gifted Program may make a great tool for breaking patterns and promoting integration by overcoming historic hurdles, Kallos believes.

Although the progressive administration de Blasio brought in is still relatively young at only two and one-half years, Kallos says positive results are already showing, year to year. The volume of change needed to offset a long history of school segregation will take much longer. But we as a city are on our way.

Roosevelt Island stands as an example of what can be done when a community grows with fewer racial and physical boundaries. New York City is a vastly greater challenge, but only in scale. Barriers decades in the making, hopefully, will require less time in the dismantling.

In the meantime, our community, PS/IS 217 and the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery stand ready as successful exercises in equality.


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