Growing up in Inglewood, California, Matt Gonzales and his friends cracked jokes about their segregated high school — an island of black and Hispanic students in the middle of an affluent, white neighborhood.
Gonzales saw that same racial and economic isolation again when he returned to the classroom years later, this time as a special education teacher in California.
But it wasn’t until he worked his way into graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College that Gonzales started to delve deeper into the issue of segregation.
Now, it’s his full-time job. Gonzales was recently named School Diversity Project director for New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues.
Appleseed has already played an active role in the ongoing conversation about how to integrate New York City schools. Executive Director David Tipson helped shape the state’s Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, which offered grants to help boost struggling schools by making them more diverse. And in school Districts 13, which received a SIPP grant, Appleseed is helping lay the groundwork for integration plans.
With Gonzales on board, and a new school year starting soon, Appleseed is hoping to grow its impact. Gonzales has plans to forge new partnerships and bring together the various groups already working on school diversity issues. Most of all, Gonzales said he wants to give students a voice in the process, and is already working with a Bronx-based student group called IntegrateNYC4Me to do that.
Gonzales sat down with Chalkbeat on Thursday. Here is the interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Integration and segregation can take different forms: racial, economic, by disability status. When you talk about segregation, what do you mean?
When I talk about segregation, I think of apartheid schools … we think of separate but unequal school facilities for students, particularly those students of color, but also students from low-income backgrounds. So my priorities when I’m thinking about segregation and integration, are really racial and socioeconomic integration.
In general, I think what we know from academic research is schools that have high concentrations of poverty lack the resources that are needed to support and encourage those students to actualize their full potential.
The Department of Education has taken the stance that integration should happen “organically” rather than by a top-down mandate. Will that work?
I totally agree with that. As we saw in the last iteration of desegregation, top-down mandates don’t work. So, New York Appleseed fully supports school-by-school decisions and district-by-district solutions, and having that work come organically.
When we’re suggesting that the DOE set a vision and take a role of leadership, [it] does not mean that they have to do it top-down. I think the most effective mechanism I’ve seen for pushing new policies is for larger institutions to be a support mechanism. So we would like to see the Department of Education provide the guidance and support that all these school-by-school leaders want and need.
Part of the framing around the idea — that it’s either one or the other — I think is short-sighted, for sure. I think those things have to happen simultaneously in order for this to be successful, and that’s why we continue to pressure the Department of Ed to take a [formal] stance on this. And I think they’ll find there’s a lot more community support for this work than they think there is. And again, that will signal to the local actors who are really doing this work on the ground. It’ll reaffirm the work what they’re doing and support them.
What, then, can or should be done in places where parents or other people on the ground are resisting these efforts?
That’s certainly been a longstanding debate and discussion. We don’t want to force this on anyone. But I think what I want to try to do in those spaces is really try to help educate parents on both sides of the actual benefits of integration and diverse schools.
There is really excellent research on this that perhaps hasn’t been translated into accessible information for everyone. But going to a diverse school is associated with higher graduation rates, increased critical thinking skills. Employers — there’s a good study that the Century Foundation put out about the benefits of diverse schools — but employers want diverse workers. … So I think for parents that are resistant, it’s about really framing this as: “This is going to benefit your kids in really incredible ways that you’ll be able to see immediately, but also in the long-term.”
I think if you ask students, they’d be fully happy and totally for being in diverse schools. And that’s what I see working with students and getting to know the students from IntegrateNYC4Me. They want diverse schools. So I think we need to hear out parents, but we also need to highlight the voices of students and actually ask the students what they want, and try to help those students tell their parents what they think is the best way for them to learn. And I have a feeling that students will be able to articulate the benefits better than us, too. So part of it is going to be having students really raise their voices up.
Different integration ideas have been floated, such as “controlled choice,” which allows a district to consider factors like household income in admissions. Based on what’s happened elsewhere, or what we know from research, is there one practice that we know produces better results than others?
No. So I think there are a variety of ways to go about this and I think what we’re seeing with the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, the SIPP grants, is that … there are a variety of ways this could be done, and [the state] wanted them to be constructed by the local population.
Certainly we support controlled choice. We’ve seen there’s a lot of really excellent examples of where that’s been done — in Cambridge [Massachusetts] and upstate New York in White Plains. Ultimately, we’re certainly supportive of controlled choice but as long as the integration efforts are done authentically and are done with values that we think need to be part of an integration plan, we’re going to support it.
We’re not a one-size-fits-all type of group. And we just know that doesn’t work. So we want organic solutions — but we want the [New York City] DOE to actually set out a framework of what they think would be helpful, too.
So hopefully as these pilots in Districts 1 and 13 move forward — and I guarantee, I’m very confident that they’re going to produce some really positive results — perhaps the [New York State] DOE can look to those New York City examples, as well as national examples of what policies and what practices can and should be used. But we’ve never wanted to push one way of thinking about this.
As these policies move forward, how do you ensure that families with the means to pull out of the public school system, don’t — that they stay?
So that’s, I think, what the challenge that the previous iteration of desegregation had. What we’re seeing — and this is different across the country — the context of New York is such that we’re having affluent, white families move back into the city. So we’re actually trying to deal with how to ensure that communities that have been in schools for generations maintain some semblance of control and are still a part of the community and are not being pushed out of their community.
So I’m actually not worried about the idea of white flight at this point. That may happen, and if that happens, again, there’s benefits that those families are going to miss out on: the benefits of diversity and of diverse schools for their kids. And that’s unfortunate.
There seem to be really robust conversations going on right now in New York City about these issues. Why do you think this is?
Well, I think that’s for a handful of reasons, really. One, I think New York City is a national leader in education policy — and I say that as a Los Angelino. And so, I think the country does often look to New York and we have an opportunity to set the pace for what’s going to happen.
I think also because there’s mayoral control, education policy itself is just more political. So I think that just lends itself to more of a robust discussion.
But I think the discussion around integration has really blown up over the last couple of years. [New York Times reporter] Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “This American Life” episode was really powerful. It had me to tears, coming to tears, a couple of times. I think that has led to a lot of media coverage. Then there’s been a rezoning in Brooklyn that has caused a lot of stir. The rezoning issues on the Upper West Side have also created, I think a more robust discussion.
It’s brought microphones into a lot more communities that weren’t there before, because this work has been happening for a long time. I think now, people are just starting to pay attention to it.