Parents countywide say ‘Yes’ to diverse cross-district magnet schools

In a blog I wrote in April, I explored whether there was a positive response to doubters who may like the concept of diverse public magnet schools, but who wonder who’s going to develop such schools and who if they would attract socioeconomically-diverse students across district lines.

The conclusion was Yes—a number of such opportunities are either already in place or are in various stages of active conceptualization or development.

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

Now we have powerful evidence that “if you create it, they will come.” A countywide survey of parents of school-age children demonstrates keen interest among parents—across geographic, income, racial and ethnic lines—in considering socioeconomically-integrated magnet schools that would draw students across school district lines to access specialized academic offerings that even the most affluent districts cannot afford to offer on their own.

The survey is posted elsewhere on this GS4A website. The survey was conducted by Metrix Matrix, a respected local survey research firm, with the costs underwritten with the generous support of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation. GS4A is grateful to both organizations for making this important survey possible.

Metrix Matrix completed telephone interviews with 602 parents of school-age children, 301 from the city and 301 from the suburbs. The survey results were weighted to reflect the distribution of households with children across the county. The survey findings reflect a representative sample of the county and city population in terms of economic and racial/ethnic makeup.

For detailed findings, see the report. But just a few headlines to capture the most salient findings:
• Almost 90 percent of the parents indicated that they would consider enrolling a child in one or more of 7 potential magnet school options identified in the survey. Most of those selected three or more magnet options of interest.
• About 70 percent would consider magnet options with a mix of 50 percent low-income and 50 percent middle-class students. Research over the past 50 years has consistently demonstrated that such a mixture of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds contributes to improved outcomes for both poor and middle-class students, both in terms of academic achievement, graduation rates and critical thinking skills, creativity and the ability to learn to collaborate together.
• Almost two-thirds of all parents would be willing to have their child transported to a magnet school if it were no more than 30 minutes from their home.
• Furthermore, three-quarters of all parents indicated that they would consider sending their child to a magnet school on a voluntary basis, even if it were outside their home district, if transportation needs were met and it provided opportunities not available in their home district.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? As we have discussed our ideas throughout the community we have heard considerable support for the concept of diverse magnet schools, but also skepticism about how much interest there would be from parents in having their children attend diverse magnet schools.

This survey shows clearly that, although generally satisfied with their current educational offerings, parents overwhelmingly say that they want a richly diverse educational environment for their children and that they do not want to limit their children to the programs available in their home districts if better alternatives exist elsewhere in the community.

Of course what people say on a survey does not necessarily predict what they would do in real life. But the evidence is so strong and compelling from the survey that it is hard to ignore: that there is a large critical mass of parents throughout urban and suburban segments of the county who value the opportunity to provide their children with academic options not currently available to them, and to expose their children to the types of cultural diversity that will characterize the increasingly-diverse society and workforce of the future.

The results challenge the skeptics who have long said parents would reject even voluntary integration across district lines. Indeed, the results suggest strongly that significant numbers of parents of today’s school-age children support the concept of more diverse schools, even if it means crossing school district lines, and even more specifically want their own children to at least have the opportunity to consider options created by such specialized, diverse schools.

For additional discussion of the implications of the survey findings, and to hear more about specific magnet options in various stages of consideration and development, please plan to join GS4A in a community event open to everyone, on Thursday, June 9 at 7pm at Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of East Avenue and Meigs Street. We hope to see you there.

Use It or Lose It: Slowing ‘Summer Slide’

(Guest Blogger)

It goes by many names—summer melt, summer slide, summer slump—but no matter what you call it, the tendency for students to lose academic skills over the summer vacation is an undeniable problem. What’s worse, it’s a problem that disproportionately affects children of low socioeconomic status.

Take reading, for example. In one local high school, a 2015 study found that 51 percent of incoming freshmen tested at lower reading levels than they had at the end of eighth grade just two months earlier. And, while the “summer slide” in this case seemed to affect students of all reading levels, 61 percent of the students experiencing the drop qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Emily Wemmer is an English teacher at Charles D'Amico High School in Albion, NY.

Emily Wemmer is an English teacher at Charles D’Amico High School in Albion, NY.

For many of our most vulnerable students, in other words, education is a “two steps forward, one step back” process. Over the two months of summer vacation, students from poverty are more at-risk than their wealthier counterparts for losing valuable academic traction, further widening the opportunity gap they face when back in school.
There is no single, clear-cut reason for the “summer slide” or its disproportionate impact on children in poverty, but there are several factors that contribute to it. For one, as educator Zaretta Hammond in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2015) would argue, low-income children are less likely than their more affluent peers to be taught a challenging curriculum based on the higher-order thinking skills that build and expand brain capacity. Children in poverty are often misguidedly “taught to the test” in an attempt to close the gap in standardized test scores between impoverished and affluent school districts. The unfortunate result, however, is that students in high-poverty districts receive a shallower education—the kind of education that is less likely to “stick,” and less likely to inspire a personal commitment to reading outside of the schoolhouse.

Additionally, as Paul Gorski points out in Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty (2013), children in poverty face a gamut of institutionalized disadvantages that have nothing to do with their individual academic abilities or, as is often argued, with their parents’ belief in the value of education. Children in poor neighborhoods are less likely to have access to well-resourced public libraries, and if there are libraries available, they are less likely to have access to safe, free transportation to reach them. Similarly, children living in poverty are less likely to have books in their homes to continue practicing their reading over the summer months. While children in wealthier situations may spend their summers in enrichment opportunities including academic camps, book clubs, and cultural experiences, students in poverty lack access to these forms of “shadow education,” due to expense or simply because they are needed at home to supervise younger siblings.

In reading as in exercise, the guiding principle could be “use it or lose it.” When students spend a significant amount of time away from academic practice, including reading, they inevitably lose skills they have gained throughout the school year. Children in poverty, lacking access to many of the enrichment opportunities of wealthier students, are more likely to be adversely affected by the summer slide. Let’s take a step toward closing the opportunity gap by increasing the availability of quality summer education programs for all students.

Focus on the ‘norms’ not the educational outliers

Today’s blog comes to us thanks to an email blast from retired School Without Walls principal Dan Drmacich, who sent us a May 4 blogpost by New York City education reformer Diane Ravitch, who referenced a response from a South Carolina professor to an April 29  New York Times story.

Blogging on blogs.

But this is good stuff and well worth sharing with you.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Times story, “Money, Race and Success: How your school district compares,” lays out a variety of charts showing how clearly race and income are tied to educational outcomes:

“What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

“Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.”

Well, yes, all that is well known. But the story also notes, “The data was not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.”

Hold on, says Professor Paul Thomas, of  Furman University in South Carolina (see his full post here): “Let’s stop trying to find the ‘miracle’ in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

“Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.”

He goes on, and I like this analogy enough to steal it, “Education reform…is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river. And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to ‘make’ all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream. But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.”

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. We should celebrate these outliers, marvel at them, even look for  aspects we can replicate and learn from. But anecdotal success is not success when it comes to school districts.

When we discuss the idea of Great Schools for All—the principle that every child deserves equal access to a great school, that a socioeconomically diverse school environment makes all kids smarter and dramatically improves the odds of graduating high school for the poorest students—we often hear about how Charter School X helped some kids improve reading scores, or how Super Teacher Y changes her students’ lives and gives them hope where there was none before.

Yes, that does happen. We should never underestimate the power of very gifted and dedicated adults to change lives. It is truly inspiring. GS4A doesn’t deny that; we cheer it.

But the job of public education is to develop structures, policies and strategies that result in nearly every child—90 percent or better—graduating on time and ready for work, work training or higher education.

Thanks to Professor Thomas for making that point so well.

The national trend toward integration is gathering momentum

Unlike every fresh Donal Trump insult, the push to re-integrate American schools has not gone viral. Yet.

Most Rochesterians, like most Americans, have no idea that in numerous think tanks, state houses, and at the U.S. Department of Education, integration—along socioeconomic lines—is a very hot topic.  Slowly, policy is catching up to the research.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

At GS4A, we hope to place Rochester at the forefront of this essential change to the way we improve public education. (Click the link to our proposal for Breakthrough Schools on this page.)

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, at a panel last month, U.S. Secretary of Education John King (previously the New York State commissioner of education), said that “the need for ‘urgency’ when it comes to making classrooms more socioeconomically and racially diverse is sometimes thwarted by communities who see the current lack of real integration as a fact over which they have no control. That, he argued, is simply not true.”

At the same forum, according to The Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a champion of school integration, “suggested…that one reason for the lack of momentum is a discrepancy between what science suggests and how politicians act. The consensus of social scientists, he noted, is that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the best things communities can do for young people to help them succeed in school and in the workforce. But politicians are ‘scared to death of the issue.’ However, Kahlenberg said, he thinks there are signs that change is beginning to happen.”

Kahlenberg, who has supported and helped guide the work of GS4A, noted that at least 91 school districts now use socioeconomic status in assigning students to schools.

Indeed, President Obama has called for a $120 million in grants for the purpose of increasing socioeconomic integration, and GS4A submitted a brief position paper during the USDE’s open comment period on the grant proposals.

In a new blogpost on the Shanker Institute website, Kara Finnigan, associate professor at the University of Rochester and Jennifer Jellison Holme, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin,  argue that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) “could be used to reduce segregation is by incorporating diversity into school turnaround strategies. ESSA requires states to intervene in three categories of schools: those graduating less than one-third of their students; the lowest 5 percent of schools receiving Title 1 funds; and schools where subgroups are struggling. States are allowed to set aside up to 7 percent of funds for ‘evidence based’ interventions.”

Finnigan and Holme also note that “another way to address between-district segregation is through inter-district magnet schools, like those implemented in Hartford, Minneapolis, and Omaha. These schools promote diversity by drawing students from multiple districts across a region, and they have been shown to yield improvements in academic achievement for students who participate.  ESSA reauthorized and increased funding for the $96 million Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), and for the first time allowed MSAP funding to be used for magnet schools created by a collaboration of multiple school districts (i.e. city and suburban districts joining together). ”

We have a long road yet to journey. But every grant, every initiative, creates opportunities for success—and those successes in ordinary schools, in ordinary communities will slowly build support for the using the power of integration to create new opportunities where few now exist.