Profiles in Disruption: Fighting Segregation in Public Schools

October 29, 2014Catalyst’s new #DisruptTheDefault campaign is a call to action for individuals and companies to make bold moves that forge meaningful change for women and men in the workplace—and the world! It’s also about showcasing how others are doing this in their lives and their companies.

Each and every one of us has the power to #DisruptTheDefault and change the way we think and act, and to challenge others to do the same.

In our new Profiles in Disruption blog series, we’ll introduce you to role models who are taking concrete steps to create a better world for women, men, girls, and boys.  

Amelia CostiganMeet: Amelia Costigan, a Senior Associate in Catalyst’s own Information Center. After experiencing the stress of navigating New York City’s public schools firsthand, Amelia decided to organize a group of parents and educators to take on the system.

Tell us about the challenge you feel you’re facing as a parent.

In most public school districts in New York City, applying to middle school is an ordeal that takes over a year. It begins in September for the city’s 5th graders, involves school tours, interviews, auditions, and more, and doesn’t end until May, when kids receive “match” letters pairing them with schools. A child’s scores on state-administered English and math exams, the fairness of which have been challenged, can still be a factor (though no longer the sole factor) in determining whether that child has access to a fine education—or one that’s barely adequate.

In my kids’ school district in Brooklyn, 10-year-olds audition, interview, and test again for a spot at one of three high-performing middle schools or one of its citywide specialty schools. It is a deeply stressful year for children and their families. This process is called school “choice,” but in practice it contributes to creating two separate and unequal school systems: excellent schools for the offspring of mostly white people of means, who know how to navigate the system, and sub-par schools for everyone else’s kids. New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the United States.

My partner and I value true diversity, including differences in learning styles and socioeconomic backgrounds. We believe it’s crucial for our kids to have classmates who are not only ethnically and racially diverse, but have a wide range of life experiences as well. Our district’s current system doesn’t allow for that.
What do you hope to accomplish?

Our goal is simple: to help shape an enrollment policy that will yield higher-quality schools for a greater number of children throughout our district. Our larger goal is to turn our district’s system into a successful model of integration throughout New York City and around the country.

Challenging the system is easier said than done. Change is slow, especially for large bureaucracies where careers depend on maintaining the status quo. Change is risky for politicians who will have voters to answer to no matter what they decide. And speaking up for change can be uncomfortable, especially for women, many of whom are still taught to avoid rocking the boat. But you can’t create a new and better system without challenging core elements of the old one.  

What progress have you made so far?

In the five weeks since our group was formed, we’ve met with the superintendent of our school district and our district’s councilperson and have been invited to sit on the city’s Community and Educational Committee and to join Brooklyn’s diversity task force—all of which we intend to do. We will also attend an upcoming middle school fair and bring a graphic designed to explain the current inequities, as well as a survey in English and Spanish to collect relevant data from interested parents.

New York’s public schools won’t be fixed by yet another roundtable discussion. It is time to hold those who have the power to fix this broken system accountable. We are always happy to participate in civil debate, but actions speak louder than words—and our children deserve no less.

Join Amelia and other “disruptors” in saying “No” to the status quo by taking our pledge today!



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.