The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that uses design thinking, art practice, and engaged pedagogy to educate the public about policy and planning in our cities. CUP regularly collaborates with experts and professionals to develop programs that engage children of various ages to investigate public problems that are relevant to the students. Last summer, high school aged students from the Red Hook Community Justice Center worked with CUP and teaching artist Nurpur Mathur to learn about why school segregation persists in New York City. The students interviewed experts in education, including researchers, professors, policy makers, politicians, reporters and activists, to understand what factors contribute to continued school segregation and why it is so difficult to overcome, and offered possible solutions and ways to change the distribution of students and resources to different schools.
The outcome of the students’ research and interviews is a twenty-page book called The Public School Avengers. Designed to look like a composition book, the book’s lined pages are filled with sketches of the interview subjects and doodles of typical classroom scenes. The book begins with an introduction explaining the project and posing research questions about public school segregation in a font that resembles handwriting. The importance of quality education is emphasized with a quote from Columbia Professor Douglas Ready that presents education as a source of opportunities to help people escape poverty. In fact, throughout the book, the interview subjects are quoted extensively, with text bubbles appearing next to doodles of the subjects and providing the bulk of the data about the troubles of school segregation. In addition to these direct quotes, the students have organized the book into six sections, with brief explanatory text and resources for additional information: What is the process to get into a public school? What influences what school a student attend [sic]? What makes each school in NYC different? How did we get this way? How could it be different? How can you create change?
While the book makes extensive use of direct quotations from experts, demonstrating the extensive research conducted by students and care and consideration given to identifying knowledgeable subjects and designing the interviews, the direct insertion of quotes without further contextualization at times disrupts the flow of the narrative. These interviews are an incredible source of data, but without further explanation to tie the information back into the main argument about the problems of school segregation, the throughline can get lost. Though very knowledgeable, the respondents are also coming from largely similar political positions, advocating greater funding for public schools and more integration of communities in general. Though surveying proponents of the various forms of charter and private schools in the city might be impossible, it seems important to consider these alternatives as a solution to the problem of school segregation, if for no other reason than to reiterate the importance of free education to increase equality through educational opportunity. Finally, it would have been interesting to hear from some of the students themselves, about what they think is valuable about public schools and how they would like to change their schools, rather than focusing on solutions from adults who may have ulterior motives in the solutions they propose.
Nevertheless, I find the form of the composition book a very successful and compelling format to present the work. The work of the students in conducting interviews and background research is reflected in the informal, scholastic design. While it seems like the doodles of interviewees may be supplied by Mathur, there are smaller pictures of classroom scenes and school villains and superheros throughout (though unfortunately these characters aren’t explained or tied into the narrative, they do embody the subject matter under discussion on the page). The use of colorful quote boxes also clearly separates the data (interviews) from the background framing material and additional resources. The final product resembles the notebook of a creative student who is sometimes lacking in focus (as we all are) – they grasp the outline and take notes of interesting ideas or concepts that they hear in the classroom, but they also have other interests and skills that might not be cultivated in the context of a traditional lecture-based classroom. The result is a visually engaging, informative, and accessible book that can be shared in other schools or with members of the public to initiate conversations around public school segregation and spread information with the intention of enhancing political engagement.