What can Dallas teach Rochester about voluntary socioeconomically diverse schools?

The Rochester/Monroe County community has something to learn from conservative Dallas? The same Dallas which has recently experienced tragic race-related killings? The same Dallas that is overwhelmingly segregated by race and income? The same Dallas in which public schools have largely been deserted by middle class families, leaving behind public schools about 85 percent of which have student enrollments of at least 80 percent low-income children?

The answer appears to be: Yes we do. And this is especially important because of the disturbing similarities between Rochester and Dallas: Like it or not, we recognize our own high degree of racial and economic segregation between our city and suburban areas, and the high concentration of poverty that impacts all of our city schools.

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

So what does this have to do with what we can learn from Dallas about school diversity and voluntary integration of schools? Seemingly quite a bit. But first, some brief local context.

Readers will recall that a recent survey of 600 parents of school-age children, evenly-divided between Rochester and suburbs, found compelling evidence that large majorities of both city and suburban parents would consider socioeconomically-diverse magnet school options for their children, even if it means crossing school district lines, as long as those schools provide academic and cultural opportunities not available in their home districts.

But even though the findings suggest strongly that attitudes and behaviors are changing among today’s generation of parents across our community, and that there is a substantial degree of support for diverse schools, survey responses are not necessarily predictive of actual decisions.

Enter Dallas. Now we have new evidence that connects the dots between what parents here say, and what parents in Dallas are actually doing. Recent experience there suggests that significant numbers of parents are not only saying they would consider diversity in their decisions about schools, but are specifically making that an integral factor in their actual decision. To read more, click here.

Mike Koprowski, the Dallas school district’s chief of transformation and innovation, says “we cannot deny that high-poverty environments create significant learning challenges, and diverse schools consistently prove to be dramatically better learning environments for all students, both middle-class and low-income alike.” Accordingly, in this new school year, Dallas has launched what we would consider a voluntary magnet school, Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a K-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) school that, “for the first time in district history,” uses socioeconomic diversity as the primary criterion in admissions decisions. Fifty percent of the seats in the school are reserved for low-income students (based on free- and reduced-price lunch designation) and the other half for students who do not qualify and are considered middle-class students.

As in this community, there were skeptics who said, “Wealthier families wouldn’t risk enrolling their child in a school that’s half poor,” and that Dallas was not ready, given its troubled history and recent past. But in fact, the reality is that the school is oversubscribed, as “applications poured in from all corners” of both the poor and wealthy sectors of the community. The district received 360 applications for 198 seats, far surpassing district expectations, with waiting lists from both low-income and middle-class families.

Of course the ultimate test is yet to come, as student success, skills and cross-cultural understanding are measured in the coming months and years, but Dallas officials are encouraged that, “Many families are seeking diverse learning environments for their children and won’t succumb to false fears about people from different backgrounds,” and that “Dallas is poised to contribute to an overdue but critical national dialogue” about the intersection of race and class and diverse schools offering new opportunities not previously available to their students.

We now know that a critical mass of parents in Rochester and its surrounding suburbs have expressed readiness for such diverse options for their children. A number of specific ideas for cross-district, socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools are in various stages of discussion and development—including schools focusing on themes and curricula as diverse as a military academy, a river/waterways school, photonics, and health-sciences, among others. Various school district superintendents, colleges and universities, and other potential providers are beginning to come together to flesh out ways the GS4A principles for diverse specialty schools can be made reality.

We now need YOU. We are urging parents, teachers, school administrators and others who are interested in supplementing these ideas and helping develop additional new school options to sign on. We are in the process of establishing groups to help flesh out the principles and framework underlying magnet Breakthrough Schools, to begin to shape ideas for specific Breakthrough Schools of the future, and to make sure the perspectives of all affected parties are included in our deliberations. And we are also interested in finding ways to incorporate student perspectives.

This is the time for broad GS4A principles to be converted into action steps. YOU and your input are needed and encouraged. Click on the Contact link at the top of this page to indicate your interest.

Lancaster starts talking about school integration

When it comes to moving toward school integration, do the facts really matter?

Yes and no. (I know, not the answer anyone wants to hear.) As my GS4A colleague Jeff Linn wrote last week, people acquire attitudes over time. Our thinking does evolve based on our own experiences  and on how the people closest to us think about various ideas. It’s complicated.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But rarely do we see a major attitude change, let alone public policy changes, based simply on what the evidence—however abundant—tells us.

But Rochester is not the only place struggling to find a fact-based solution to high poverty schools when people show little inclination to change.

Jeff Hawkes, a reporter for LNP, a daily newspaper in Lancaster, Pa.,  and Lancaster online, posted an August 28 story that sounds like what we’ve seen in Rochester. (An aside: Hawkes interviewed GS4A co-convenor Lynette Sparks, W. Irondequoit superintendent Jeff Crane and me for a sidebar story on our work here.)

The Lancaster school district is smaller than Rochester’s, but it has the same poverty and racial isolation issues we have.

Hawkes lays out the case for socioeconomic diversity:

“Integrating schools to restore economic balance boosts achievement levels among poor children without negatively impacting other students, researchers say.”

And, he wrote, there is local experience to support those findings going back four decades.

“Poor children at Manheim Township, Hempfield and other schools got an academic boost where they’re outnumbered by more affluent children…Specifically, at the 10 most affluent elementary schools in the suburbs, 60 percent of the disadvantaged children pass the language arts test. But at the 10 highest-poverty schools, all in the city, only 40 percent pass.

“The 20-point gap raises questions for the Lancaster region: what would happen if every school was economically integrated, assuring that poor kids from the city learned with middle-class kids from the suburbs?”

Seven years ago, in 2009, David Rusk, a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy consultant (and author of Cities Without Suburbs and several follow-up books), “recommended Lancaster County rethink its tradition of neighborhood schools. He wrote a 51-page report called ‘Classmates Count’ showing how the segregated nature of Lancaster County’s neighborhoods reinforced educational disadvantage,” Hawkes reported.

” ‘Where a child lives (in Lancaster County) largely shapes his educational opportunities, not because of what the school board does but because of who his classmates are,’ Rusk wrote in a report that the that the county planning commission authorized but never followed up on. In the seven years since Rusk issued his report, the concentration of poverty at most of the city’s schools has only deepened, and poor students continue to fall behind their peers.”

Whatever the merits of integration, it’s a very challenging goal. Hawkes cites Jonathan Betel, who runs a Pennsylvania statewide education advocacy group, as saying that you can’t separate socioeconomic diversity from race.

Because the obstacles to integration in Pennsylvania appear so daunting, Cetel said he prefers to focus on strategies that lift up inner-city children in their neighborhood schools. Makes more sense, he says to build “high performance schools” in the poor neighborhoods the students come from.

Except that it won’t work for the vast majority of kids.

 

Likewise, Lancaster superintendent Damaris Rau said she and her staff are hoping to overcome the consequences of poverty by using learning strategies intended to “help kids reach their full potential.”

“It might work, but I don’t know,” Rau said, referring to integration. “We have to focus on the here and now. We can’t sit around and hope something like that is going to happen when we have children sitting in front us today.”

Sound familiar?

It takes years, maybe decades, for legislators and school officials to catch up to the reality that high-poverty schools can never yield the opportunities that more affluent students experience in middle-class schools. It takes even longer for them to believe (as the GS4A parent survey clearly indicates) that today’s parents are more than willing to consider integrated schools that are open to kids from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

So no, I don’ think studies will lead directly integration—no matter how compelling the evidence. What we need first and foremost are pioneers—a few school superintendents, boards, principals and innovators who are willing to lead by example. We need folks who will launch an integrated school and let the outcomes and word-of-mouth build support for broader change.