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Clinton Hill Principal Believes Kids Thrive When They're Not Segregated

 Emily Paige works to provide a high-quality middle school education for students of all backgrounds and income levels at Urban Assembly Unison School in Clinton Hill
Emily Paige works to provide a high-quality middle school education for students of all backgrounds and income levels at Urban Assembly Unison School in Clinton Hill
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DNAinfo/Alexandra Leon

CLINTON HILL — When Emily Paige started teaching at the Lower East Side’s P.S./I.S. 126 in 2000, the school was highly segregated.

Paige’s students were primarily from low-income families who lived in the nearby Smith Housing Projects. The majority were first-generation Latino or Latino immigrants, Chinese immigrants or African-American. 

But during her tenure, the middle school partnered with Manhattan Academy of Technology, bringing with it a majority of white students from TriBeCa.

“Suddenly in our middle school there was this real integration that was happening. There was economic integration and a more cultural [and] racial integration, and that was magical to watch,” Paige said.

“The conversation that can happen at a table where there are really people who come from different perspectives and different life experiences is so rich.”

New York City schools are among the most segregated in the nation.

At more than half of the city's 1,600 public schools, black and Latino students made up 90 percent or more of the student population, a 2014 DNAinfo New York analysis showed. Yet half of the city's white students were concentrated in just seven percent of city schools.

Research shows racial and socioeconomic diversity in the classroom gives all students a range of academic, social and economic benefits, like higher test scores, lower dropout rates, less racial bias and better access to resources, according to the Century Foundation

Some school leaders, like Paige, are fighting segregation by making diversity a priority. 

Paige is now in her third year as principal at the 4-year-old Urban Assembly Unison School in Clinton Hill, where 74 percent of students are black and 15 percent are Latino. Eight percent of students are Asian or Pacific Islander and 3 percent are white.

In addition, 24 percent of her student body is special-needs while 10 percent speaks English as a Second Language.

She said she hopes to attract students of all income levels and backgrounds — by offering apprenticeships like robotics labs with Google engineers and hydroponic farming classes with Teens for Food Justice — without leaving anyone out. 

Paige was part of the founding team that launched UA Unison, and was a proponent for its decision not to screen students academically prior to admission. 

She said the advantage of a non-screened admissions process is that the intake is much more likely to include students of all backgrounds.

“It actually doesn’t matter what class you come from, often kids think that the experience they have is the experience, is the norm,” Paige said. “So if you have a school experience where kids actually question the norm, that’s where real learning happens. I hope for it here.”

Paige recently sat down with DNAinfo to talk about school integration and watching her school’s first graduating class walk across the stage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your school’s motto is, “Where everyone has a seat at the table.” How is that put into practice and what does that mean to you? 

We’re an unscreened school, so that means that we don’t look at our kids’ test scores, grades or records at all when we’re bringing them into the school and when we’re recruiting them. We accept every child that wants to come here. My personal mission is that whatever it is we’re trying to do, we have to do it for every kid that walks in here and, if we can’t, then we’re doing something wrong. 

We’re really in our infancy as a school, but I would love for this school to become the type of place that’s known to be as high-quality as a private school, but serving kids that are not really offered that opportunity at all.

This idea of the table comes from the Langston Hughes metaphor, that every child should have an opportunity to have a voice and have a say in how their lives run and how society runs and discourse is the main way that I think that happens.

What is the school doing and what are you doing as an administrator to end school segregation?

We’re in a really special district. We have in this district some of the richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn and some of the poorest. I’m building a school that has a culture and climate that is one that would be attractive to lots of different types of people from District 13, and I’m hoping I’m going to start to get a lot of different people trying to apply here. 

Frankly what we’re offering here is, a lot of times, what’s sought after by upper middle class families for their kids and we’re providing it right now to a majority of Title I kids [who receive free or reduced lunch]. And that’s great and we should be doing this, but we should also be clear to our community what we’re offering here so the people in our community use us. 

How does integrating students from all demographics benefit their education?

I think having kids who have different experiences talk to one another and question one another and question reality together is powerful. I don’t think there’s any way to replicate that experience, but I also think that, no matter what, when you’re a principal it’s your duty and really an honor to figure out how to provide those experiences when it’s segregated. You still need to provide the same opportunities and you need to figure out a different way to do it. So just because we’re not integrated doesn’t mean that I’m not holding myself to the highest standard in terms of what I want my kids to be able to experience here. 

How does integration benefit special needs students?

If you’re segregating those kids and keeping these kids who have these needs just together all day long they really don’t have the opportunity to mix and be part of conversations and discourse with other students. That makes them grow and makes the other students grow, because when you’re talking to people that understand things differently from you, it helps you understand your own thinking better so it really strengthens all kids when there’s integration.

What has your proudest moment been as a principal at this school?

I think the [first] graduating class last year, watching the 8th graders walk across the stage and hearing from them this year that being here prepared them to be independent, responsible and strong. I think made me feel like, “Ok, we’re on the right mission here.” 

Our kids leave here really feeling strongly about themselves and having a solid sense of who they are. And that’s a pretty incredible thing.