haters gonna hate

Bronx borough president to high school grads: ‘Start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, or BASE, graduated its inaugural class on Wednesday.

The tech industry in New York City has a diversity problem. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering was launched to help solve it.

The high school, known as BASE, graduated its first class of seniors on Wednesday. With a curriculum that blends computer programming and social justice, the school will soon provide official Career and Technical Education certification, allowing students to graduate with an endorsement of their job-readiness.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson helped start BASE with the goal of creating a pipeline of talent for a burgeoning local technology sector, and ensuring the city’s diversity is reflected in hiring. In New York City, 53 percent of the population is black or Hispanic, but those groups make up only 20 percent of employees in the tech industry, according to a 2015 report by the Center for an Urban Future.

At BASE, about 30 percent of students are black and about 60 percent are Hispanic.

“The tech sector should look like you. All of you,” Wilson told the graduates. “I want to thank you for showing the world what’s possible … I want to ask you to go out into the world and take over the tech sector. I’m going to be rooting for you.”

About 81 percent of the inaugural class graduated, according to founding principal Ben Grossman. That’s well above the borough average of about 65 percent last year, and also beats the citywide average of about 73 percent. All of BASE’s graduates are college-bound, according to the school.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. — who has pushed for computer science education in Bronx schools, and to attract the technology sector to the borough — gave the commencement speech for BASE’s first class of seniors. Here’s why he almost didn’t graduate from high school — and his advice for defying stereotypes about what it means to be from the Bronx.

This speech has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

This is a celebration and a ceremony. It’s about a journey that you’ve already been through with your family, and one that you will continue to take as life goes on. I’ll try to not to belabor this, but let me give you a little bit of what you will perhaps encounter during that journey.

Number one: It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s all about where you finish. Why? Even though I’m the borough president, I, unlike you, did not walk and did not graduate during my high school graduation. The reason why I didn’t graduate is because I transferred my senior year, chasing love. I didn’t focus on my studies the way I should. So it took me a little longer. And we got pregnant afterwards — don’t try this at home.

We started a family. I did the best that I could to provide as a messenger for the New York City Council, my first government job. Then I went on and I ran for the New York State Assembly and, at the age of 23, I became the youngest legislator in the State of New York at the time.

So it doesn’t matter how or where you start. It’s how you finish.

But even when you believe that you made it, number two: There are going to be haters. Let them hate.

I say that because even when I was in the New York State Legislature, here I am being sworn-in, I’m 23-years-old. I have my wife and children. My mom and dad. A joyous occasion, just like today. And yet, a colleague of mine at the time, who was there for a long time, he says, “What school did you graduate from again? What college?” And I was still a college student at LaGuardia Community College. And he says, “Well, I’m Harvard. Yale Law.”

Nothing wrong with being Harvard, Yale Law. God bless him. But I just didn’t like the way he said it. He was being condescending. No me gustó. I didn’t like it.

It’s the way people sometimes look at you, about where you come from. And so I said, “Wait a minute. You’re Harvard, Yale Law. I’m LaGuardia Community College. And here we are, sitting next to each other. Either I’m a great success, or you’re just a terrible failure.”

He was trying to throw shade at me. You got to let the haters hate. You’ve got to understand that people are going to judge you because, perhaps you have an accent. Perhaps you did not go to MIT. Perhaps you didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. Maybe your parents aren’t affluent or wealthy. Or maybe just because you come from the Boogie Down Bronx.

You got to go out there, and you got to conquer. Do the best that you can and be representatives for yourself, your family, your community. And break the mold.

We’re at a place now where corporate America, the tech world, is looking at our borough, like they’re looking at other places, to try to find a home. This is where you come in. This is where you start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like.

There’s a sensitive time in this country, where even coming out of the White House, there’s this vilification of diversity. We come in all shapes and colors. We embrace them and we know that diversity is our strength. You go out there. You get your degrees. You conquer the world. And you represent BASE, you represent your family, and you represent the Boogie Down Bronx as well.

You represent evidence that, if you give a young man, a young woman from our community — with all of that swag — you give them resources, they’ll conquer the world.

Understand that you’ve already started in a better place than some of us. You’re already equipped with the backing and the love of a community — whether it’s your parents or your educators. You have the attention of giants in the fields that you want to go into.

Some might say you’re lucky. Luck is but an equation. Luck equals opportunity, plus preparation. I believe that BASE has prepared you to go out there and seize all the opportunities that will be presented in front of you.

Oh, by the way. That young lady I was chasing? Twenty-eight years later, she’s still my wife.

diverse charters

In launching new charter schools, former Success Academy lawyer aims for integration

Emily Kim at a 2015 academic forum in Washington, D.C.

Former Success Academy lawyer Emily Kim says integration will be a “key” aspect in the design of the charter chain she is aiming to launch.

Kim recently left New York City’s largest network of charter schools to start her own — and given her close ties to Success, Kim’s schools are likely to be closely watched. According to a new website and documents filed with the charter authorizer SUNY, she plans to launch Zeta Charter Schools in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

She also appears to be aiming for the schools to join the growing number of “intentionally diverse” charters. Realizing that goal will likely require substantial outreach to families, since the districts where Zeta has applied to open are overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic. The poverty rate stands at 87 percent in Manhattan’s District 6 and 93 percent in the Bronx’s District 12. The percentage of Hispanic students is 85 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Less than 3 percent of students in either district are Asian, and less than 5 percent are white.

“We believe a diverse student population enriches the school environment and raises the level and depth of learning,” the school’s website states.

New York City schools are largely segregated, and charters are no exception. In the city, 90 percent of charter schools are “intensely segregated,” with white students making up less than 10 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report. Across the state, charters often serve fewer students who are learning English or have a disability, according to a 2016 report by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

The lopsided enrollment is often attributed to the mission of many charter schools to target underserved students and neighborhoods. But since they admit students by lottery, rather than attendance boundaries, experts say charter schools in some areas have the potential to create diverse environments.

Kim has not yet filed full charter applications to SUNY for the schools, which would need to be approved by SUNY and the Board of Regents. The preliminary documents say the two elementary schools would launch in August 2018 and grow to enroll 675 students each.

oral history

‘It was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’: Reflecting on efforts — past and present — to integrate P.S. 191

Students listened to their music teacher play violin at a P.S. 191 community event at Lincoln Center this spring. Fernando Taylor, a seventh-grade student who is the son of PTA President Charles Taylor, is seated far right. (Photo: Patrick Wall)

This summer, P.S. 191 on the Upper West Side will move into a new space inside a gleaming condominium tower overlooking the Hudson River. It’s an extraordinary new chapter for a school that has come to symbolize the city’s stark racial and class divisions and its halting attempts at integration.

The move follows a bitter debate over the city’s plan to reduce overcrowding at highly sought-after P.S. 199 by shifting some families to the zone of P.S. 191, which has lower test scores and was previously designated “persistently dangerous” by the state. The plan spotlighted the chasm between schools located just nine blocks apart: P.S. 199 is disproportionately white and Asian with a PTA that rakes in $800,000 annually, while P.S. 191 is overwhelming black and Hispanic and serves many children from the public-housing development across the street, called the Amsterdam Houses. The plan was approved in November, though it remains to be seen how many rezoned families will enroll at 191 or seek alternatives.

The rezoning battle was remarkable not just for its rancor, but also for how closely it mirrored the fight that erupted a half-century earlier when the city tried to integrate the same two schools. In 1964, the city proposed “pairing” the racially segregated schools so that students from their combined zones would attend 191 for the early grades and then transfer to 199. After opponents failed to block the plan, many white families abandoned the public schools entirely.

To mark the end of P.S. 191’s current chapter, Chalkbeat interviewed current and former parents, students and staffers to compile an oral history of its integration struggles, past and present. The interviews were conducted from fall 2016 to early 2017.

Just like today, the 1964 zone change was preceded by a series of public hearings. Most P.S. 199 parents railed against the pairing plan, but a small group of white families — many of them residents of the Lincoln Guild co-op building, like the women quoted below — supported it and sent their children to both schools.

Anita Stark: There were dozens and dozens of meetings. The pairing caused a great split in this neighborhood. Tremendous split. There were those who supported the pairing, and there were those who were ardently against it, and they just stopped talking to each other.

Bernice Silverman: All these upper-income articulate professionals would shout. They couldn’t control their anger; they couldn’t wait their turn. It’s not tolerated in kindergarten, but when you’re grown up you can do it.

Yvonne Pisacane: Once it was clear who was going to support it and who was against it, people didn’t talk to each other. You just didn’t talk. People walked past each other as if they didn’t know each other. I tell you the truth, it was much uglier on the adults’ part than the kids’.

Stanley Becker, P.S. 191’s principal from 1960 to 1980: You got the same situation with the pairing as we have now [with the rezoning hearings]. Parents from 199 got up at school-board meetings and said, “I bought this home for $200-, $300-, $400,000 dollars so I could watch my kid go to school and come home. I don’t want him on a bus going down to another school.”

Later, he said, he saw some of those same parents send their children on buses to private schools in other parts of the city rather than to P.S. 191.

Oh, so the parents who didn’t want their kids to go 10 blocks by bus to a local school had no objection to them going half an hour to the Bronx? You understand that this was just a guise. They don’t want their kids sitting in a school with black and Hispanic kids. That’s the bottom line.

Stark: There were a lot of white parents who really had some racist feelings about the pairing, but they were not going to admit to that. They were going to say there were 13 other reasons they rejected it.

Silverman: There were two things that white parents said: One, they didn’t want — if you mix levels of intelligence or acquired knowledge, it raises the level of the lower group — they didn’t want their kids to be the teachers, to be used as guinea pigs. And the other thing, I guess just fear of poor black people. I don’t know if people said it, but they were afraid there’d be thefts, that the black kids would beat up white kids.

The few white families who supported the pairing enrolled their children at P.S. 191. Students who were unlikely to have crossed paths outside of school became classmates. To help them bond, Principal Becker organized relay races during lunch.

Kenneth Birnbaum, who grew up in Lincoln Guild, said the relay races “transformed” his experience: Being pretty alone, feeling like a minority, scared a lot of the time, to sort of finding my way in this school and making friends with all these people. … The people I was scared of got to be some of my best friends.

Some of the students extended their friendships beyond school, including in the Amsterdam Houses community center.

Robert Stark, Anita’s son: So many of my friends were in the projects. We used to hang out, build models together [ in the community center]. I took a woodshop class there. We took dancing. … It was pretty racially mixed.

Valerie Washington, who grew up in the Amsterdam Houses, made friends with a girl who lived on Central Park West: I remember going to her house. Wow. She had a party. I’ll never forget that, I was impressed … Those apartments were huge. You took an elevator and it’s just your apartment on the floor.

Chris Pisacane, Yvonne’s son: I will say this, I know from going to those schools with those kids that it made me a better person. That I am 100 percent sure of. … Overall, it was a very good experience. And I think it would be a good experience now if it was like that.

The pairing is believed to have officially ended in the 1980s, but by that time white families had almost entirely stopped enrolling at P.S. 191. The school had returned to serving nearly all black and Hispanic students, many of whom lived in poverty.

Gladys Curet, a former 191 student, taught at the school from 1982 to 2011: I saw the change in the kids, and the lack of support from the system. The need for more and getting less. I say that money-wise, supplies, support … I remember once having 34 kids. I took it on. I said I could do this. … But it wasn’t fair to them. I literally had kids sitting on the windowsill.

Even as P.S. 191 struggled, its neighbor, P.S. 199, thrived. Today, it’s one of the city’s top-performing elementary schools and its PTA is among the highest grossing. Their students rarely interact, but last year fifth-graders at the two schools teamed up for a service project. They made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for hungry New Yorkers.

Aaliyah Santana, a P.S. 191 eighth-grader who’s graduating this month, with her mother, Joselin (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Stacie Lorraine, a P.S. 191 teacher: So everyone was just mixed up together and given this task. And they were all working together and having so much fun and really enjoying each other. These were kids who live in the same neighborhood. Some of them knew each other because they’d been to camp together or had seen each other in other places. And it was such a beautiful moment of what could be. … Then we all go home.

The city first proposed the P.S. 191-199 rezoning in October 2015. The subsequent hearings were dominated by parents in P.S. 199’s zone who opposed the plan.

Susannah Blum, a P.S. 191 teacher: At the last zoning meeting at our school, someone got up and said, “This is very unfair to have on a Saturday meeting.” I’m thinking, “My God, this is probably the only time that some of our parents can come.” … They’re fighting more for their survival and their lives and their financial stability than some of the families from 199.

Joselin Santana, a P.S. 191 parent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses and works as a home-health aide: I work 12-hour days, 7 to 7 … I come home, I do cooking, I have to watch if [her daughter, Aaliyah] has homework, if she does it. If I don’t tell her, sometimes she forgets because she’s too busy, she’s at basketball. I say, “No, no, no.” … I have to be sure she takes her shower, she’s eating, she does her homework, and everything.

Lorraine: I don’t want to speak for our families, but they probably feel marginalized in this whole process. When they do come to the meetings, they’re listening to people say only slightly concealed racist things.

Yvette Powell, a P.S. 191 grandparent who lives in the Amsterdam Houses: I heard one parent say they didn’t want their children with these children. They don’t want what these children do to rub off on their children. And I’m like, these are all children.

Charles Taylor, P.S. 191 parent and PTA president (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Charles Taylor, president of P.S. 191’s parent-teacher association: It’s saying, “We don’t want our kids with your kids.” That’s the message. It doesn’t matter how the message is packaged. That’s the message. It may not even be the intent. I can’t say what people are actually feeling when people are advocating for their own children. I can certainly understand that. But that’s not the way it sounds to the people that you don’t want your children to be with.

Lauren Keville, P.S. 191’s principal: The thing that was hardest for me to hear was when people made judgements about our kids. Because our kids are amazing. And so, you know, that’s hard to take. But what I would say to our parents, “This is not the opinion of all. … We know how great our school is.”

Fernando Taylor, Charles’s son, who is in seventh grade: There’s no bullying in our school. There’s no gossiping in our school. It’s just a really nice school.

Sandra Perez, P.S. 191’s assistant principal, said she warned her older students that outsiders might make assumptions about the school based on their behavior: That’s hard. They don’t understand that. They’re like, “I’m just being a kid.” Yeah, I’m sorry, but everybody’s watching us. For years that I was here, nobody ever looked at us twice. No one ever visited. No one cared. And all of a sudden, now schools are overcrowded, and they need our building. All of a sudden, we matter.

Powell said the rezoning battle reminded her of other interactions in the neighborhood.

Lauren Keville, principal of P.S. 191 (Photo: Patrick Wall)

Powell: I go to Riverside Drive [playground] and the kids start playing together. It’s the parents. The parents go, “Get over here.” My granddaughter’s like, “Why can’t she play with me?” I said, “Maybe they’re going home.” … I don’t want my granddaughter to know what’s going on yet. She’s going to know, but not yet.

Aaliyah Santana, Joselin’s daughter, who is in eighth grade: People get scared of other races. That’s probably because they haven’t been near other races. They’ve probably just been near their race. So when they go to a new job or a new school and there’s different races, they’re like, “Oh my God.” I think that would [get better] if there was more diversity.

Elena Nasereddin, a former P.S. 191 principal who left in 2003, said she hopes parents who were rezoned for 191 will consider enrolling: I would be ecstatic if this opportunity were to be seized by a group of parents who are progressive and who believe in equal opportunity. Who believe that black lives matter, that brown lives matter. Working together, they can make that a wonderful school.