Standing in gym class last year at Manhattan’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Irfane Soumanou’s ears perked up. Soumanou, who is black, had just heard a white student use the n-word.
The culprit, a junior, was chatting with other white students, recalled Soumanou and her friend, Zara Dershowitz.
“Excuse me?” Soumanou, a freshman at the time, said to the junior. He replied, “Oh, my bad.”
Dershowitz noted that he was “OK saying it in front of white people” but seemed embarrassed when Soumanou confronted him. “Which is sad — he feels like he can get away with it with white students,” said Dershowitz, who is white.
The story is a window into the fraught culture of Eleanor Roosevelt, a prestigious, screened Upper East Side high school where diversity is preached but not always embraced, the sophomore young women said. Although the school is generally welcoming, they say, it’s also a school where two students recently gave a black student a tampon with a racist message scribbled on it, prompting a student-organized sit-in and community meetings.
Now, Soumanou and Dershowitz want to build support for addressing what they believe is the root cause of such incidents: a lack of racial diversity created by an admissions process that gives preference to middle school applicants who live or attend schools in District 2, which includes the surrounding affluent neighborhood. Of the 541 students enrolled there this year, just 3 percent are black, 12 percent are Hispanic and 17 percent are Asian, while 64 percent are white. About 47 percent of all District 2 students are black and Hispanic.
“I feel, like, welcome at the school, but then again I don’t see people who look like me,” said Soumanou, whose burgeoning activism has captured the attention of at least one deputy chancellor.
The students’ interest in addressing school diversity is part of a larger conversation about integration happening in New York City, which has one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. The renewed debate has largely centered on overhauling admissions at the city’s eight specialized high schools, which recently gave just 10 percent of its admissions offers to black and Hispanic students. In one of the most striking data points, just seven of 895 offers at Stuyvesant High School, considered one of the most prestigious, went to black students.
But the lack of diversity reaches beyond those elite schools, which enroll only a tiny fraction of the city’s 1.1 million students. Schools like Eleanor Roosevelt have largely flown under the radar. The school screens applicants from across the city on multiple measures before making an acceptance offer but gives first preference to those who live or go to school within the district, including those who attend private schools. Last year, out of the more than 5,400 applications submitted to Eleanor Roosevelt, admissions offers went solely to students who live or went to schools in District 2, which encompasses SoHo and TriBeCa in addition to the Upper East Side.
“If it’s happening at the specialized high schools, it’s happening at other schools too,” Soumanou said. “People need to realize that.”
Soumanou and Dershowitz’s efforts are part of a rising movement that’s increasingly being led by students themselves, such as a student lock-in at the elite private Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Outrage over racist incidents has also cropped up at other private schools and Brooklyn Tech, one of the city’s specialized public high schools. And student activism more generally has been on the rise since the 2016 presidential election, observers say.
“I wouldn’t say all the kids are focused on school segregation,” said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school integration with the nonprofit Appleseed. “But I just think in general, young people are very much oriented in terms of activism and, kind of, disruption, because I think it has a lot to do with the president.”
Getting rid of the priority — which would require a collaborative decision between a school, its superintendent, and the Office of Student Enrollment — would likely be only a starting point in making the school more diverse. Since the school also sets competitive admissions standards — a 93 percent grade point average and a four or higher on standardized assessments — further integration would likely require reconsidering those admissions screens, too. Chancellor Richard Carranza has called screens “antithetical” to public education and supported removing middle school screens in Brooklyn’s District 15, but he hasn’t proposed a specific plan for high schools.
Soumanou and Dershowitz, who are close friends, first started talking about the District 2 admissions priority this year. They realized that if nearly all offers go to District 2 students, and a majority of the school is white, then the racial makeup must be related in part to the priority admissions policy.
Then, about two weeks ago, news spread that two students had written the message “n—— don’t have rights” on a tampon and handed it to a freshman young woman who is black, according to the New York Daily News. The freshman told some friends, who then reported the incident to school staff.
The school arranged a meeting with parents and students last week. The next day, students organized a large sit-in at the school — in one video provided to Chalkbeat, at least 120 students can be seen sitting on the hallway floors. The school’s principal, Dimitri Saliani, addressed students, and several raised questions about the school’s lack of diversity, prompting one student to bring up the District 2 priority, according to Dershowitz. Saliani asked the crowd who supported scrapping this admissions preference; a majority of hands went up, Dershowitz said.
Saliani did not answer specific questions from Chalkbeat, except to say in an email that the school is planning training related to “safety and inclusiveness” for staff and similar workshops for students.
“Racism and bullying have no place at our school, and I want to create opportunities for students, staff and families to share their thoughts and discuss this troubling incident,” Saliani wrote.
Dershowitz started approaching adults, including a school advisor and the principal. They said that getting rid of the district’s priority policy would be difficult, given sharp backlash to other plans including the mayor’s proposed specialized high school admissions overhaul.
Dershowitz was frustrated. “Nobody would give me like, ‘This is what you have to do,'” she said.
And she’s not alone. Citywide students seem increasingly dissatisfied at being cut out of the conversation — and policies — that ultimately affect them most. In December, advocacy group Teens Take Charge, which has student members, held a highly publicized event where teenagers talked about their frustrations with the school system. And in February, they held a press conference criticizing the city’s School Diversity Advisory Group for offering no firm solutions for increasing integration.
Soumanou and Dershowitz are among those seeing the connection between disturbing incidents they have witnessed or experienced in school and broader education policies. They both recalled sitting in their advisory period — where older students lead a discussion about any topic young peers want to discuss — and hearing a student ask why it was wrong to use the n-word. The same student, Soumanou said, once said students of color are better off than white students because they’re able to secure more opportunities.
“All these microagressions happen all the time,” Dershowitz said, “and I don’t feel like anybody really wants to talk about white privilege because our school is so white and so privileged.”
At a recent event hosted by Manhattan community education councils, which Dershowitz’s principal encouraged her and Soumanou to attend, Dershowitz walked up to the microphone and asked fellow student activists how they could change the system? That’s when Deputy Chancellor Hydra Mendoza, who focuses on community outreach and was sitting in the front row of the auditorium, got up and gave Dershowitz her card. Audience members applauded.
The simple exchange of contact information was encouraging to all sides.
“The idea that they didn’t know where to go, or that they didn’t have a contact at the DOE, or that they’ve talked about this in the past and nobody’s been responsive, prompted me to say, ‘Well, this is a new day,’” Mendoza said in an interview.
Mendoza and the students have since exchanged emails and are figuring out a time to meet.
Meanwhile, Dershowitz and Soumanou are trying to build support among their Eleanor Roosevelt classmates, plan to attend the April meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, a city board that votes on major education decisions, and are part of a schoolwide equity club. On a recent afternoon, the young women ran into some supportive friends. Dershowitz showed off Mendoza’s business card as they discussed future plans.
“I know that there’s going to be a lot of backlash, so I’m not saying it’s going to be easy,” Dershowitz said. “But what I’m saying is, there’s a tangible way” to get started.