Op-Ed: School Chancellor Fariña Is Missing In Action on Race

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Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D. Photo courtesy: BlackNews.com

Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D. Photo courtesy: BlackNews.com

Fariña Race Conversation

by Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D

New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the leader of the largest public school system in United States with 1.1 million students, is not prepared to talk about race relations, even though nearly 85 percent of New York City’s public student population is of color.

Public schools seem like an ideal place to discuss race relations, particularly with children of color who may be traumatized by the recent killings of Black men across this country.

Although teachers are likely candidates to facilitate these discussions, many have expressed that they are unprepared and in many cases reluctant to delve into race issues for fear of saying the wrong thing and possibly losing their jobs.

Their fear may be justified, given the backlash that Farina faced when she attempted to publicly address how parents and educators should talk about race with their children.

When Farina recently penned a letter to New York City educators and parents stating that they have a “moral obligation” to discuss race with their children, she was inundated with hate mail. She admitted to being surprised by the public’s response to her letter.

Her surprise is a clear indicator that she, like many others, is not prepared to talk about race. More importantly, Fariña and others should realize that, when it comes to race, it is more about what you do than what you say. The New York City public school system is no beacon for integration and inclusion.

New York City’s public schools are among the most segregated in the nation. The New York City Department of Education has not embraced curricula that would expose all children and staff to the African American experience in America and in the African diaspora. Black men are not represented significantly in New York City public schools or in senior leadership.

What has Fariña done in her tenure as chancellor to demonstrate that race matters beyond conversations? She does not have much to show. Talking about race is irrelevant if an administrator has not established policies and practices to address the inherent racism that is embedded in schools’ enrollment policies, curricula, and hiring practices.

So Fariña should not be surprised by the public’s response to her seemingly contradictory “moral obligation” charge. Her failure to demonstrate the significance of race relations through proactive policies and practices is likely the source of the hate mail. Farina lives in a glass schoolhouse and should not throw stones.

I would implore Fariña to act on race and not charge others to talk about it. She has a moral obligation to practice what she preaches. Here are four specific recommendations for Chancellor Fariña:

  1. Eliminate or significantly revise school zoning policies to erase the invisible color lines that serve to block school integration and sustain school segregation.
  2. Embrace inclusive and culturally relevant curricula; start by adopting recommendations from the Amistad Commission. Then train teachers and school leaders to infuse culturally relevant and historically accurate information into day-to-day instruction and school-related experiences.
  3. Demonstrate an acceptance of and appreciation for the value of Black men. Their invisibility in the New York City Department of Education is directly related to choices that Fariña and others have made.
  4. Adopt an evidence-based approach to recruiting educators of color. The NYCDOE’s latest effort to recruit men of color is fundamentally flawed. As with other initiatives, NYCDOE does not appear to have a strategic, plausible plan.

After nearly fifty years in urban education as a student, teacher, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent, I am convinced that Fariña, teachers, and principals are not prepared to talk about race relations. This is unfortunate given our current state of emergency as perceived by many in the Black community.

Action, not rhetoric, is what is required to address the race problem in the United States. Schools, families, and communities all have a stake in the reality of the race problem.

Fariña has the opportunity to practice what she preaches, model for other school systems. I hope Fariña and others receive my message and take action.

Bernard Gassaway is a former NYC teacher, principal, and superintendent. He writes Gassaway’s Ed Word blog.

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