LREI segregated students of color in middle school

LREI’s middle school, at Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave., had been putting students of color in separate homeroom classes, where they spend 30 percent of their school day. Photo by Gabe Herman

BY GABE HERMAN | There have been mixed reactions in the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School community over the recent revelation that LREI’s middle school was placing students in homeroom classes according to race.

The policy began last year and without parents’ knowledge, the New York Post reported in June. All students of color were placed together in the same homeroom classes, which are together for about 30 percent of the day, according to a message sent to the LREI community by school Director Phil Kassen.

Kassen wrote in the message that the student body is “roughly 30% students of color.”

After word of the policy spread in June, prompting meetings with some upset parents, according to the Post, Kassen announced that the approach would not be continued for the upcoming school year. He informed the school community, “We will consider race as we always have but will not use it as the primary factor in determining class placement as was the case in three middle school grades in 2017-2018.”

When asked for comment, Kassen referred The Villager to his statement to the LREI community, which touted “LREI’s historic and current commitment to equity and justice.”

“For many years,” the statement read, in part, “LREI has considered race when placing students into classroom groups in the lower and middle divisions as we know that seeing oneself in one’s classmates can have a significant, positive impact on achievement. This is common practice in independent schools. Race is one factor, though not the primary factor, that we consider along with friendships, learning styles, family structure, etc. when placing students in groups.”

Kassen’s statement continued, “Anecdotally, many of the students of color grouped this way found the experience to be positive and supportive.

“We also heard from families of students of color who felt that while this support might well exist, they saw downsides to students of color feeling that the first thing the school sees is the color of their skin. We must remember that our students of color have a variety of experiences.”

Some upset parents told the Post, “I was thinking how antiquated is this? This is backwards. It’s almost like segregation now,” and “It’s almost like, sometimes, in trying to do the right thing, they go too far.”

Another parent of recent LREI graduates saw it differently. Nichole Thompson-Adams told NBC News that she liked the policy and generally supported the way LREI has been addressing race and diversity issues.

“That’s why I picked that school,” said Thompson-Adams, who is black. “It wasn’t color-blind.”

Thompson-Adams’s daughter Sage also supported the famously progressive Village school. In a July 2 Instagram post, she wrote, in part, “As a black kid who literally went here (This is the school I attended growing up) and every year I prayed to be in class with the kids who looked like me (all 5 of them lol). When you drop a bunch of brown kids in an all white environment, they NEED each other.”

LREI’s lower and middle schools are located at Sixth Ave. and Bleecker St., while its high school is at 40 Charlton St. It has a total of around 650 students, with annual tuition at $44,000.

LREI has a history of trying to address race and diversity, including use of affinity groups, where students are broken up by race during the annual Diversity Day for separate discussions about race issues.

In a 2016 interview on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC radio, which focused specifically on the issue of addressing whiteness, Kassen described the benefits of affinity groups in allowing white people to address their race in America, including its advantages.

In 2014, LREI students held a walk-out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A former LREI student, who wished to remain anonymous because of the subject’s sensitive nature, told The Villager that he was thankful for the education he received at LREI.

“LREI is, without a doubt, a progressive institution,” he said. “It prides itself on a curriculum and learning environment that explores all sides of history and all opinions. It champions its social-justice ideals. It strives to be inclusive to people of all identities… . But, many well-intentioned attempts to increase inclusivity and to make people of all identities feel more welcome have soured.”

He went on to note that some classes only allow for liberal opinions, for the sake of “inclusion.”

“The quest for ultimate progressive inclusivity ends up excluding a whole group of people,” he said. “This way of thinking is what I term the ‘LREI bubble.’”

He said many of his former classmates felt the same way about the school’s “bubble.”

The LREI alumnus found the school’s affinity groups to be mostly successful, though he noted complications when there were smaller subgroups that felt they had separate experiences — for example, Jewish students within the white affinity group.

“Furthermore,” he told The Villager, “many students protested the affinity groups as a racist decision by the faculty and student government. It was, to them, segregation by race.”

In that context, the former student said he wasn’t surprised when he learned of the recent flap over LREI’s student-placement policy.

“I’d say that the school felt they were making a well-intentioned choice…to make minority students feel more comfortable,” he offered.

The LREI grad added he did not know whether it was a good policy because there would need to be an assessment of what “good” means and who the policy ultimately benefits.

“Here, one thing LREI has taught me comes to mind,” he noted. “We must always acknowledge our identities and learn to live with them in mind, so as not to speak for others.”

The former student added, “As a white man, I have never felt like the minority. Even as a Jew, growing up in New York, I have seldom felt like an ‘other.’ In my opinion, scanning over my various identities, I don’t think that it is my place to speak about the merits of this policy. All I can say is that it fits squarely amongst a pattern at LREI where well-intentioned aims to increase inclusivity hypocritically fall short of their goals.”

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