After her homework assignment, 17-year-old Leslie Sigaran would refer to it only as “that thing you made us hear.”
“It” was a podcast detailing a school integration effort near Ferguson, Missouri. Teacher Sarah Camiscoli played the audio again during class at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters earlier this year. As they listened, the students around Sigaran angrily shook their heads.
“They make race and ethnicity sound like animals instead of people,” one student said.
“You can tell she’s only heard stereotypes,” another chimed in, referring to a Missouri mother who called for metal detectors.
“They don’t see what they do to people,” said another.
The discussion happened in an elective class Camiscoli focused on school integration. The class is designed to take an issue relevant to South Bronx students and explain it using history and current events.
“Students are pretty clear on the fact that there are things that they want to transform,” Camiscoli said. The problem, she said, is that they often lack the terminology or historical context to articulate solutions.
The class’s loftier goal is to give these students a voice in the ongoing public discussionabout race and New York City schools. That debate has intensified this year, as New York’s schools were named among the most segregated in the nation. But those conversations rarely involve high schoolers from the South Bronx.
Camiscoli’s students are trying to change that. Among other activities, the class will present findings at relevant council meetings and make a documentary with alumni of the Columbia Journalism School.
These students believe they have something important to add. Armed with an intuitive understanding of inequity, students want policymakers to change school segregation while respecting their deep loyalties to their school and community.
“We’re revolutionizing and starting a movement and changing things,” Amina Fofana, a junior, said.
In many ways, Camiscoli’s classroom is an unlikely setting for this discussion.
Her high school, known as Bronx Letters, is located in District 7 in the South Bronx, an area that exemplifies many of the roadblocks to creating diverse schools. The district has few, if any, affluent residents. Bronx Letters is unscreened and gives admissions preference to students from the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough. The student body is almost exclusively black and Hispanic, and 94 percent of students live in poverty.