The first day of school always brings the thrill of the new, and the anxiety of the unfamiliar. It requires some courage, but it’s got such bright promise.

On this first day of school, thousands of 6th graders in our community are embarking on a new and courageous endeavor as the first class to enter middle school under the District 15 Diversity Plan. The 11 middle schools in District 15 are far more integrated today than they were a year ago.

Middle school can be an especially anxious time. After six or seven years, surrounded by familiar faces in one cozy place, our sixth graders (right on the cusp of adolescence), head to a new school, with new classmates to meet, new schedules to manage, and new subjects to tackle. 

So I am especially appreciative of the thousands of students, parents, and educators in District 15 middle schools, who are leaning into this big new challenge, a real opportunity to help our public schools live up to their promise.

After years of organizing by local parents and integration advocates (part of a broader effort across the city), during the 2017-2018 school year hundreds of families and educators took part in a community planning process about segregation in District 15’s middle schools. We confronted the reality of how segregated our schools had become (you can see that data and learn about the planning process here), and thought hard together about the high-quality middle schools we want for all our kids.

As I noted in an op-ed in BuzzFeed yesterday, I believe that the changes we are making through the D15 Diversity Plan are among the most promising steps we could be taking to ensure strong, academically-rigorous, socially and emotionally nourishing, inclusive, equal public education for all our kids. With these steps, District 15 parents, students, teachers and administrators are leading the way towards a more genuinely inclusive, multi-racial, democratic future.

I don’t mean to be self-righteous about this. Both of my kids went to largely segregated elementary and middle-schools. I’m endlessly proud of both of them (Rosa is off to her first day of 11th grade today, and Marek started his junior year of college a couple weeks ago), but I’m not proud of that.

But we’re going to have to reckon honestly with our past and our present, and make real changes together, if we intend for the idea of “equal opportunity” to mean anything at all. Integration in our public schools is owed to students of color after centuries of inequality.

It’s no secret that the politics of school integration can be extremely polarizing. But I really believe (both from having seen the work that some of our schools have been doing for years, and from having reviewed the evidence) that the actual practice of it can be not just the right thing to do, but educationally successful for all our kids. 

And even, as I wrote in BuzzFeed, delightful, in the powerful, deeply embedded life-lessons that genuinely integrated classrooms offer students about the possibility of a more genuinely inclusive, more equal world. 

I’ve been talking to many of the principals and teachers in our middle-schools over the past few weeks, and I know they have been hard at work this summer getting ready to make that democratic magic happen. Real integration, as the young people of IntegrateNYC have taught us, is not just about moving bodies around. It requires lots of hard and intentional work inside the schools. I look forward to being a partner in those efforts.

Since the middle-schools of District 15 include only about 1% of New York City’s public school students, we should not do too much patting ourselves on the back. Our city’s schools remain among the most segregated in the country. So the steps we are taking today should not make us self-satisfied. Instead, I hope they will help propel us forward.  

Last week, the School Diversity Advisory Group (appointed by the Mayor in 2017) put forward a bold agenda including ending the testing of four-year-olds into separate gifted and talented programs, eliminating screens for middle schools (as we have done in District 15), and coming up with models of enrichment that do better to see and nourish a much wider range of gifts and talents. These recommendations are ambitious, as they must be to make our schools the laboratories of true, inclusive democracy that we know that they can be. 

I get a little weepy sending my kids off to school every year. It’s beautiful, and just a little bit heartbreaking, and so deeply hopeful. We can’t protect them from every fear, and we sure don’t know what their future will hold (on this warming and oft-chaotic planet). But today, I’m really grateful for what our public schools can do for us, and for being part of a community trying harder to live our values together, with and for our kids.