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Segregated: A special project examining New Jersey schools

How Asian American students experience our highly segregated K-12 schools

To better understand Romeo and Juliet, the students in one class at John Adams Middle School in Edison watched a Bollywood film last year. That may sound surprising, until you learn that the student population at John Adams is 87% Asian, and predominantly Indian.

New Jersey may be a very diverse state, but you wouldn’t know it attending many of its public schools. The Garden State has some of the most segregated schools in the country. It ranks sixth in the nation for segregation of Black students, and seventh for segregation of Latinx students, according to the Civil Rights Project (link to PDF).

The problem impacts Asian American students in the state too. In fact, there are 68 schools in the state that are majority Asian American, and 16 that are more than 75% Asian, according to public data compiled by NJ Spotlight News and shared with Central Desi as part of this collaborative reporting project, Segregated. These schools are concentrated primarily in Mercer and Middlesex Counties, in the central belt of the state where many Asian Americans reside, but also in parts of North Jersey.

In the Civil Rights Project report, the authors noted that not only has segregation led to Black and Latinx students being isolated into schools with widespread poverty and educational inequality, but, “There have been no significant efforts to change these patterns.”

The New Jersey Superior Court is expected to rule soon on a lawsuit that could lead to fundamental changes in how the New Jersey school systems operate, potentially launching a wide-scale desegregation effort of the kind that we haven’t seen in decades.

As a member of Segregated, Central Desi is working in partnership with news organizations across the state to draw attention to this problem, and this month’s newsletter features a video episode with a teacher, parent and former student who speak to the ways that the segregation of New Jersey Schools has impacted Asian American students.

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Click to watch this episode, “Segregation in New Jersey: The AAPI Experience.”

Featured panelists (clockwise from top left):

  • Dr. Kani Ilangovan, a parent of students in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, which is 72% Asian American. She is also an activist who helped drive the passage of a statewide mandate to teach AAPI history, and a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist.

  • Ambreen Ali, founding editor of Central Desi.

  • Christina Huang, a Ridgewood High School graduate and activist who has written about segregation in NJ schools. She is now a student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

  • Michael Trumbauer, a ninth grade English teacher at Plainfield High School, a school with predominantly Black and Latinx students. He previously taught at John Adams Middle School, which has one of the highest concentration of Asian American students in the state.

Given the very sensitive nature of conversations around race and segregation, I felt it was more important than ever to let the people experiencing this issue speak for themselves. Some highlights from this conversation follow.

Mocked for creating a safe space

Christina shared what it was like to experience two very different school districts in New Jersey. The first was more diverse, but less resourced. The second was predominantly white, and there were “White Lives Matter” stickers around the school as well as swastikas drawn in the bathroom stalls. Christina said school administrators dismissed such incidents as “teenagers being teenagers.”

She became accustomed to code switching at school, or adjusting the way she spoke and what she shared to hide her cultural differences.

“I was always very fearful of being judged, so it resulted in me not speaking up that much,” she said. Christina launched a student group for students of color that she said was dismissed as being “another safe space,” a concept that even her teachers mocked.

“I was very uncomfortable, but having that space was so important to me,” Christina said. “Our first meeting, we talked about first days in schools, and someone had talked about how on the first day of school, a lot of students thought it was really funny to call them a ch*nk. And that triggered a whole conversation.”

From Bollywood to swastikas

Michael Trumbauer was the teacher who used Bollywood to teach Shakespeare to his students at John Adams Middle School. Now, he teaches a 30-minute drive from there at Plainfield High School, but the demographic is completely different. His students are mostly Black and Hispanic. As a member of the LGBT community, Trumbauer says his students sometimes ask innocently targeted questions that are not as respectful as they intend.

“I have unfortunately had similar things with swastikas drawn on my board or finding them around school,” he said. “It’s interesting because the way the students even talk about white people, they have this very interesting perception that if you’re white, you’re automatically rich, because their only exposure is through media.”

As an English teacher, Michael uses literature as a way to help students expand their worldview. “When something happens, I will call it out and say, ‘Hey, that’s not okay,’” he said, “and a lot of times that will strike up a conversation.”

Diversity hindered by white flight

Kani Ilangovan said she thought she was giving her children a diverse educational experience when she moved to West Windsor in 2000, but there has been white flight in her town as the Asian population has increased.

“I tried to give them a diverse environment, but it got more and more segregated as we lived here,” she said. “There’s something wrong in the design of our schools that this is happening.”

Listen to the episode to hear their thoughts on various options to desegregate New Jersey schools and how activists are trying to address this challenge. I’ll let Christina have the last word:

“If we were to integrate schools, I think it would have amazing outcomes on students, and it’s not just students of color that would benefit,” she said.

Christina then compared her high school experience to being at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she is now a student. She notes how freeing it has been to be surrounded by greater diversity: “It’s such an amazing feeling to feel like I belong here.”

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