Teens Take Charge at Beacon

Students walk out to advocate for more integration in NYC's public high schools

02 Dec 2019 | 01:41

At 10 a.m. during Monday’s cold drizzle, about 400 Beacon High School students walked out of the building before the start of the day’s third period. Beacon students who are members of Teens Take Charge, a teen-led group advocating for integration measures in New York City’s public high schools, unwound a large banner reading “STRIKE FOR INTEGRATION” and set up wooden blocks for speakers to stand on.

Activists from Beacon, as well as representatives of Teens Take Charge from other schools, took turns addressing the group, saying that the opportunities available to Beacon students are unavailable to the majority of New York City students. Chants of “End Jim Crow!” and “Integrate! Now!” broke out.

While New York is one of the nation’s most diverse cities, the NYC public-school system is the country’s most segregated. Teens Take Charge cites the top high schools’ practice of screening applicants as a major reason for this segregation — of the 30 most academically screened high schools in the city, the group’s website says, 27 are majority-white and Asian, in a system that is less than one-third white and Asian.

Beacon is one of the most selective public high schools in the city. To even be considered a spot at Beacon, students are required to clear a threshold for grades and state test scores. Applicants must submit graded work from middle school and two 500-word essays written just for Beacon. Beacon is forty-seven percent white, while the entire New York City school system is just over fifteen percent white.

No-Screening Plan

Teens Take Charge has come out against this type of screening for the highest-scoring students. The group proposes an equitable admissions system targeting academic diversity, which because of the school system's inequities, strongly correlates with racial and socioeconomic diversity. They propose that high schools use admissions policies which balance incoming classes with high-, middle-, and low-scoring students.

Toby Paperno, a white junior at Beacon and a leader of Teens Take Charge, shared his experience in New York City’s school system. After going to one of the city’s most diverse middle schools, Paperno assumed that his admission to Beacon reflected his hard work and inherent intellect. However, he told the strikers, he now attributes his successful navigation of the system to his race and class — and the privilege that came along with it. In particular, his supportive parents who possess college degrees and had free time to help him played a significant role in his ability to create a strong application to Beacon and get in.

After several students shared their stories, the crowd filed back into school and students returned to class just forty minutes after the strike’s beginning. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza have both expressed interest in plans to integrate New York’s de facto segregated schools, but both have yet to back up their words with substantial commitment to policy changes. Teens Take Charge plans to continue campaigning for their no-screening plan, aiming to put it into effect by the 2020 high school admissions process.

Teens Take Charge proposes that high schools use admissions policies which balance incoming classes with high-, middle-, and low-scoring students.