Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School

Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door

Doreen, hearing about the prohibition on athletes or entertainers, types "boring African-Americans" into Google to find a subject.

The rebellious kids are not the ones that most worry the teacher and the librarian. It's the 10-year-olds who seem to know absolutely nothing about a computer, and are more than halfway through their fifth-grade year. One student can't find the period on her keyboard; another child doesn't know how to use a Web browser.

"How many of you have a computer at home?" the librarian asks. About a third don't raise their hands.

Getting their hands on keyboards for only an hour a week makes it hard for the teacher to make the students master and retain their "prior knowledge," a phrase the teachers in Straus repeatedly use. Teachers seem confident about teaching their kids—getting them to retain and build upon it is another story.

Doreen's search for "boring African-Americans" hasn't yielded too many results. She has gotten it into her mind that she wants to research "that doctor who separated the conjoined twins." She thinks he's male, so she puts "African-American male" into Google, which generates banner ads that the 10-year-old girl probably shouldn't be looking at. (She finally discovers she's seeking Dr. Ben Carson.)

The part-time aide that sometimes helps out is with another class right now. Working in tandem, it's hard for the teacher and the librarian—by themselves—to attend to all of these kids, help each one individually, and prevent them from ending up on the wrong websites. They barely have time to help the children navigate the computers, let alone deal with the content of what they are actually supposed to be researching and writing.

Even the ones with computers at home, the staff knows, are more apt to play games on them than practice their word processing skills. And, come next week, they'll be starting from scratch again with some of the kids, as if this week's computer lesson never happened.

It's 6:30 p.m. in the school cafeteria, and the Lower Lab PTA is about to come to order. Except for one parent, everyone is white. Before the meeting begins, member Patrick Sullivan regales the people assembled with tales of his evening the night before.

Sullivan is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's appointee to the Panel for Education Policy. The PEP, made up of five members appointed by the Borough Presidents and eight by Mayor Bloomberg, is the governing body of the Department of Education. Sullivan casts one of just 13 votes that control the entire school system of 1.1 million children.

The night before, the PEP had voted to close 19 struggling high schools. Each will be replaced with multiple schools, creating shared campuses like the one Straus and Lower Lab occupy. The vote came after a marathon nine-hour hearing, marked by racial tension.

Sullivan came off as the folk hero of the night. He stood up for the NAACP when testimony was cut off, to great applause from the crowd. He was one of the five dissenting votes against shutting down the schools.

In an interview with the Voice, Sullivan says that he was sympathetic to many of the protests that the mostly black and Latino parents were waging at the PEP about unequal treatment. But when asked about the inequities between the two schools in the building where his own children are students—where he is on the PTA—he didn't seem to view inequality the same way.

Does he think, for example, that there is a negative effect from having two racially segregated schools under the same roof?

"No, I don't think it has an effect," he says.

"[Lower Lab] is a gifted and talented program, and [Straus] isn't," he adds, more at ease talking about the issue in terms of economics than race. "The gifted and talented criteria is a standardized test that, I believe—and I believe many other people believe—unfairly draws from higher-income children and families, because they are better able to prepare for that test."

Sullivan says that he opposes the standardization of test scores for children citywide: "It used to be that the [talented and gifted schools] had different entrance criteria in different parts of the city, which would reflect the economics of the various zones." When the PEP voted to standardize scores, "I opposed it, and I was the only one who voted against it."

In Lower Lab's case, the sifting done by tests has resulted in a black population of just 3.1 percent.

If Sullivan was uncomfortable talking specifically about the racial differences between the two schools sharing a building, many black parents were not—even though they preferred to do it anonymously.

"We know they get better stuff and more money in Lower Lab," said one Straus African-American mother who works as a teaching assistant in a nearby school, "but there's nothing we can do about it." Another black parent, whose child was zoned for Straus, sent her to another school "so she wouldn't be humiliated by having [Lower Lab] in her face."

"Isn't that something?" the parent said. "I can't believe they put up with walking in through the back door."

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