Is There a Market for Interdistrict Magnet Schools?

In meeting after meeting with a wide range of community residents and leaders, Great Schools for All proponents hear variations on these same legitimate questions:

• Will anyone be interested in interdistrict socioeconomically-mixed magnet schools?
• Would any students want to attend?
• Would any parents send their kids outside their home districts to attend a theme-focused magnet school?
• Is it possible to generate the critical mass of urban and suburban students needed to justify investments in these schools, strategically situated in the city and suburbs?

And in response, skeptics say: No. Not likely. Probably not. Interesting idea, but unlikely to happen.

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

Others, however, say: Hold on. Not so fast. Let’s not jump to such negative conclusions when we don’t even know the details of what such schools might look like. Let’s reserve judgment until we have specific proposals to consider.

In that context, I’ve been struck recently by several developments and observations suggesting that there may well be a potential market just waiting for interdistrict magnet schools that would appeal to interests and values now beginning to surface throughout our community.

For example, earlier this month, several hundred high school students from the city and 12 suburban school districts spent a day discussing racism and ways to come together across historic but ultimately artificial geographic boundaries to address issues of diversity, breaking down stereotypes, expansion of interdistrict opportunities, ways to address change. As one suburban student noted, “Change and diversity are coming—it’s not going to always be the way it’s been. So the community will have to get used to it.”

A suburban student recently wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor of the Democrat and Chronicle expressing concern about the “harsh disparities that continue to exist between Rochester schools and suburban schools….A student’s opportunities in public education shouldn’t be this different between schools that are only twenty minutes apart.” The letter went on to say, “It doesn’t feel right, that some people just get lucky—this needs to change.”

A small group of students representing city and suburban schools have been meeting occasionally under the guidance of teachers to discuss breaking down barriers between city and suburban schools. A group of city students regularly discusses ways to change the educational system, including crossing existing district boundaries. A class of students at a local private school has been discussing ways to advocate for changes that would have the potential to bring more students together across racial, socioeconomic and geographic lines.

Talk is cheap, and none of this proves a willingness to actually cross district lines to attend magnet schools, but it does suggest that many young people share the values and value the outcomes that this GS4A initiative is designed to address, and may be amenable to having the conversation, when more concrete options are proposed.

And what about the adults? Over the past couple of months, GS4A has conducted several focus groups of parents and guardians of students about evenly split between city and suburbs. Asked about pulling their kids out of existing schools to cross district lines to attend more economically diverse schools, initial reactions were to stay put. But when specific examples of potential diverse magnet schools were raised for consideration—types of schools their children would not now have available to them—the conversations typically changed, and levels of interest perked up.

Asked if they would be willing to consider having their children cross district lines to access such schools, many said yes, they would be open to the possibility. Asked how much of a barrier transportation might be to such decisions, most said that their kids were already spending considerable time on buses in both city and suburbs, so that by itself would not constitute a knockout factor in their decisions.

And, of course, some city parents have already opted to send their kids outside district lines to access schools in the Urban-Suburban program. So again, at this point this is all just talk, but it certainly does not suggest the automatic “No way” response we have received from some stakeholders.

Even district superintendents with whom we’ve met have acknowledged that they have students who may well be interested in attending such schools if they provide academic opportunities unavailable in their own districts.

And beyond local speculation about what might happen here, there are examples in communities across the country where significant numbers of students have made conscious choices to cross urban and suburban lines to attend socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools that offer academic options not otherwise available to them in their neighborhoods or home districts: including more than 20,000 in Raleigh/Wake County, NC, and many others in places like Omaha, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Hartford, Montgomery County, MD and other communities where students and their families have made such choices.

So let’s not be so quick to assume that there would be insufficient interest in supporting a network of diverse magnet schools as a way of reducing the effects of poverty, and better preparing both urban and suburban students for their future and the future well-being of our community.

To further test this proposition, we’ll be conducting a professional survey of several hundred urban and suburban parents later this winter to more formally gauge the level of support for particular types of interdistrict magnet schools.

Not one, but many strategies for lifting kids out of poverty

 

I attended all three of the recent GS4A town hall meetings in city and suburban locations, and was struck by the strong support for increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity in our schools, and the practical and societal impacts that can result from such initiatives.  I was also struck by the need to clarify our message and broaden our constituency.

Some seem to believe that Great Schools for All’s central message is simply to strengthen the Urban-Suburban program.  Some suggest that we are primarily about deconcentrating poverty and dispersing it, rather than focusing on reducing it.  Others imply that we are not supportive of efforts to strengthen city neighborhood schools.  And others think there is little in our proposals that applies directly to suburban students.  To all of the above, we say, Not True.  Or only partially true.

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

From the beginning, the volunteer-driven GS4A initiative has attempted to make it clear that no one solution or approach will solve the issue of underperforming urban schools.  We believe multiple approaches will be needed, and that all segments of the community will need to be engaged, offering a variety of solutions.

GS4A has focused our efforts on promoting systemic changes that would involve creation of targeted-focus magnet schools that would draw students on a voluntary basis from across urban and suburban school district lines, as well as a variety of other shared learning partnerships between combinations of schools.  Such cross-district collaborative partnership schools, as has been demonstrated in communities throughout the country, offer urban and suburban students alike specialized opportunities to learn in unique schools that are responsive to diverse student needs and interests that even the most affluent districts could not afford to offer on their own.

But we recognize that not all students will be interested in crossing district lines.  Most suburban students will choose to remain in their home districts.  And many urban students will choose to remain in city public schools.  But we believe that there will be a critical mass of interested students from both city and suburbs who will choose to seek out magnet opportunities, once these options are fleshed out and they realize how beneficial such programs can be, both for the individuals involved and for the long-term economic benefit of a better-educated, diverse future workforce.

And in the meantime, what happens to those students who will choose to remain in neighborhood-based city schools?  We embrace and strongly support efforts to strengthen those schools, including efforts to promote the Beacon schools concept of strengthening both school resources and academic offerings, and the development of strong family support services linked to the schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.

We also support the efforts to create new and strengthened academic models in the City School District’s state-designated poor-performing “receivership schools.”  Efforts to reimagine and strengthen these schools can, we believe, improve academic performance, rejuvenate surrounding neighborhoods, and potentially create magnet models that not only strengthen the core neighborhood schools, but also draw a socioeconomically-diverse array of students to help mitigate the impacts of the concentration of poverty in some of those schools, as has happened in cities like Raleigh, Hartford, Omaha and other communities.

Strengthening neighborhood schools in the city is viewed, appropriately, by many city leaders and parents as a critical strategy in reducing poverty and its impact in the city.  We agree.  This must happen.  But we are also mindful of the overwhelming evidence from research over the past 50 years that makes it clear that—no matter how much we do to strengthen neighborhood schools—if they remain schools where the majority of students live in poverty, not all, but most students in those schools will continue to fail to meet academic standards and the demands of the work force of the future.  So yes, we must tackle poverty by creating stronger neighborhood schools and the support services around them.  But we should simultaneously craft long-term systemic solutions, such as evidence-based magnet schools and cross-district collaborative programs that help lift students out of poverty by improving their educational outcomes.

The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative provides an opportunity to address the critical role education can play in reducing poverty in our community. The Initiative’s initial report has lifted up the importance of increased socioeconomic diversity in strengthening the academic performance of high-poverty students, without any negative impacts on the performance of more affluent students.  The development of specific anti-poverty strategies in the coming months provides an opportunity to come together as a community of concerned city and suburban leaders and parents to develop both place-based/neighborhood-focused and systemic community-wide solutions to strengthen education outcomes that will benefit the entire Rochester and Monroe County community.

GS4A believes that we basically all want, and care deeply about creating, better opportunities and futures for our kids.  We may have different thoughts about how we get to this goal, but if we’re starting with the same hoped-for destination, we should be able to find the common ground that enables us to move forward together, using multiple approaches to help us get there:  various strategies and approaches that complement and build on each other.

GS4A would love to help facilitate bringing together city and suburban adults and students interested in having an honest discussion about where we differ, but where we can also find the commonalities in efforts to strengthen our schools, so that we can be allies and mutually supportive where possible, modify or clarify approaches as needed, and find ways to mobilize resources toward common purposes. Let us know if you’re interested.

Solutions to high-poverty schools must be Both…And

Research and success stories from across the country make it clear that de-concentrating poverty and increasing socioeconomic diversity in schools significantly improve academic outcomes for poor students, without adversely impacting the performance of those who are more affluent. And while poverty is most concentrated in Rochester schools, many suburban districts also face growing rates of poverty in their classrooms.

So we must engage both city and suburbs in finding a variety of ways for the good of our entire community to get to what Beth Laidlaw referred to last week as the Yes Zone.

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

Various potential systemic changes that would help reduce concentration of poverty have surfaced through the broad GS4A process, incorporating research and ongoing community conversations. These include, for example:

  • voluntary magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county,
  • shared learning partnerships between combinations of districts or schools, and
  • broadening the Urban-Suburban program to expand movement of students from suburban to city schools in addition to the current city-to-suburban transfers.

But as we think about systemic change to foster diversity for as many students as possible, we must also be aware of those not included in magnets, or charter school options, or the Urban-Suburban program. We must be very careful not to inadvertently drain more students and resources from the city, leaving those students whose families did not voluntarily choose an alternative program concentrated in schools that are even poorer and more racially isolated than city schools are today.

Frankly, this has been a problem in the past with the one-way Urban-Suburban program, and it’s a problem with many of our charter schools, which are often just as segregated as other city public schools. While these programs have offered attractive options for many city families, they have often attracted many of the brightest and most motivated kids and families, leaving greater concentrations of behavioral problems and economic and racial isolation behind. So in our work to create expanded options and more socio-economically integrated schools, we have to be mindful not to inadvertently make things even worse for those not included.

So, what might all this mean and look like in the future? First, it means not just transferring city students to suburban schools. As leaders of the Urban-Suburban program recognize, it needs to be a suburban-to-urban program as well, to create greater economic and racial balance. And for that to happen, there must be strong magnet schools in the city that offer options that suburban kids will want to be part of.

Such programs exist, and with replication or expansion of available slots, we have received strong indications that numbers of suburban students would be interested in attending city schools such as P-Tech at Edison, School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School. Expanding opportunities for new suburban students while maintaining existing slots currently filled by city students would increase diversity in the schools and reduce the concentration of poverty. GS4A wants to work with the City School District to help strengthen and promote these programs so they are better options for both city and suburban students.

City magnet schools could be supplemented by others developed on campuses or in other school districts. These magnets would draw students from any district because they would provide special-focus opportunities that could not cost-effectively be offered by individual districts. Raleigh, Omaha, Minneapolis and other regions have proven the value of such schools in attracting diverse student bodies and strengthening academic opportunities and outcomes across city and suburban boundaries.

An array of magnet schools offers great potential but also the likelihood that many neighborhood schools will remain segregated, at least initially. We must make better use in the meantime of resources to strengthen promising but struggling neighborhood schools. Highlighting the urgency, some 15 of those schools are currently on the state list of “receivership schools” targeted for special attention over the next couple years. GS4A has consistently said multiple solutions will be needed to counter the effects of concentrated poverty. So while we continue to focus on systemic changes, we also support those working to strengthen neighborhood schools, through the receivership process and in other ways, so that better schools will be available for those who choose to remain in schools where they are.

We hope these schools will evolve as strong neighborhood schools, perhaps developing strengths that could over time make some of them magnets for city and suburban middle class students, to help further strengthen both diversity and neighborhood-based schools.

There is no one single approach to addressing poverty concentrations in our schools, as we must look for both broad community-wide systems change and stronger in-place neighborhood schools, rather than seeing one or the other as THE solution. Together, we must find varied pathways that can contribute to reducing the effects of concentration of poverty as part of this community’s array of anti-poverty solutions.

 

 

More Diverse Schools can Create WIN-WIN for All

If Great Schools for All had a mantra, it would be WIN-WIN. We don’t have to accept as inevitable huge gaps between winners and losers, where students’ success or failure is pegged to their zip codes and family income.

In a WIN-WIN environment, our community would rally around educational reforms and systemic changes that would reduce these disparities. That’s what GS4A is all about.

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

All children are capable of learning and succeeding academically, regardless of where they live, and we’re all aware of examples of bright, motivated kids who have risen up from impoverished backgrounds to succeed, despite the odds. But we also know, from decades of research, that the deck is stacked against students in high-poverty schools. When the poverty population of a school tips past 50 percent, the odds of success are statistically much lower.

And every school in Rochester far exceeds the tipping point, with predictable academic consequences in most. So why is our community willing to accept this situation?

The city has many successful students, and a number of successful, popular schools. But what if we could find ways to strengthen those schools, retaining current students, but expanding the socio-economic diversity in each? What if we could open more slots in these schools and offer them to more affluent students, to create a more diverse student body? Or replicate the most successful schools based on the initial models? We could create a WIN-WIN situation by offering, on a voluntary basis, well-regarded city programs such as School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School to students who have few or no such options even in well-off suburban districts .

And what if we were to create additional voluntary magnet schools across the county, based on models that have proven successful in other urban communities, offering opportunities that would not be available within most individual school districts, and that would be so exciting and unique that both urban and suburban students would want to attend?

The research makes clear that poor children perform much better in schools that are economically mixed than they do in high-poverty schools. And their success does not come at the expense of the middle class students in those schools. As one example, in Raleigh/Wake County, N.C., where 35 economically-diverse magnet schools have been created, subject to policies capping proportions of low-income students at roughly 45 percent per school, graduation rates for low-income and racial-minority students have steadily increased in recent years to more than 70 percent — some 30 percentage points higher than for comparable students in the more economically segregated Rochester schools. Meanwhile, the more affluent Raleigh suburban student graduation rates have increased slightly during those same years to more than 90 percent—rates comparable to Monroe County suburban rates. Disparities in rates have not been eliminated, but have been significantly reduced in Raleigh.

What is not to like about such a situation, and how would that not represent a WIN-WIN for all in Monroe County if we could move in such a direction?

In addition to enhancing academic performance, creation of more voluntary diverse learning environments would also expand cross-cultural understanding among all groups of students, and better prepare them—urban and suburban, black, Hispanic and white, well-off and poor—for the far more demographically diverse workforce that awaits them in the future. Students would have more academic choices than could now be provided by most individual school districts, and the economic vitality of our community would be enhanced by a larger pool of better-educated workers to populate our future work force.

Under more diverse voluntary-choice school scenarios, there is an immense upside potential for our community, with no obvious losers. Clearly the details of how this happens will be critical, but why would we not embark on this journey to explore a variety of possible solutions to reduce our odds of failure and significantly increase the odds of WIN-WIN outcomes for our community?

All of this is a work in progress. GS4A intends to talk with school district officials and survey parents and community leaders across the county concerning these issues over the coming weeks before any proposals are finalized. Anyone interested in joining the process, please email at contact@gs4a.org.

High-poverty schools not just a city problem

That was then, more than a generation ago, with significant concerns being raised about the effects of “bright flight” among both white and non-white students and the declining middle class enrollment in Rochester city schools. This is now, and now is so much worse, with time running out to turn things around in our community.

“Then” was 1979. I recently reconnected with a Center for Governmental Research report published that year, Race and Education in Rochester, written in conjunction with a broad-based Citizens’ Advisory Committee concerned about the emptying out of 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

The focus of that report was on racial diversity and integration, with no reference to socio-economic diversity and the effects of the concentration of poverty, which frames so much of today’s discussions about urban education. Nonetheless, the parallels and connections between the issues raised in that report and the realities of now are unmistakable.

Meanwhile, child poverty rates in the city have doubled during these years, and State Education Department reports indicate that 90 percent of all RCSD students now are classified as economically disadvantaged/low-income.

In the 1979 report, concerns were raised about increasing racial segregation and isolation in our city schools: At one end of the spectrum, the student population in 13 of 58 schools at that time was at least 80 percent minority, including 10 schools that were 90 percent or more minority; while at the other end, 14 schools had at least 75 percent white enrollment, including two exceeding 90 percent. The minority populations in the other 31 schools ranged between 26 percent and 76 percent. In retrospect, compared to 2015, the district in 1979 was relatively integrated. Today, all but five city schools have minority populations of at least 80 percent. Socioeconomically, only three city schools today student populations that are less than  80 percent poor, and even in those three “best” schools, around 2/3 of the students live in poverty.

rcsd_racial_diversity

Why does this matter? Because national research demonstrates clearly that once concentrations of poverty in schools get much higher than 40 percent of enrollment, overall achievement levels decline.

And every single one of our city schools now significantly exceeds that 40 percent mark! This doesn’t mean that individual students can’t succeed in such settings (we all know of dramatic success stories in spite of such concentrations), but the percentage of successful students will be much lower in high-poverty schools than in lower-poverty schools. And this is important, not just for the poorest students, but also for the more affluent, because socioeconomic integration leads to cross-cultural learning and diversity better prepares students for the work force of the future.

The 1979 report held out hope for decreased segregation of city schools, and offered some viable approaches that could have worked then within the city. But it is no longer possible to cap the number of low-income students in city schools at 40 percent without partnerships with other districts. The 1979 report referenced the desirability of considering strong special-focus magnet schools that could draw students from both city and suburbs, and noted that “the problems are not just the [City] School District’s to solve,” and that the segregation and growing concentrations of poverty demand that the larger community beyond the city borders must be “also responsible for part of the solutions.”

If that was true more than a generation ago, with far less concentrated poverty than today, how much more true is it today? The future of another generation of students, and the future well-being of our community, are at stake.

(The 1979 CGR report referenced here is not available online. If you would like to see a copy, email Don Pryor at dpryor@cgr.org)