Time for a community solution to the city’s education crisis

As part of its ongoing “Time to Educate” series, the Democrat and Chronicleand staff writer Erica Bryant, reported (October 28) on the time-tested benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools: a sharp improvement in academic achievement and graduation rates for low-income students who typically struggle in high-poverty segregated urban schools.

In November, Dr. Jaime Aquino, the “Distinguished Educator” appointed to review the state of the Rochester City School District, released a report describing a district that is so broken—administratively, fiscally, academically and operationally—that it is hard to see a path toward educational success for city students that does not involve the entire Rochester community. The city and school district do not have the wherewithal to right this ship on their own.   

If ever there were a time to think in new ways, it is now. Now is the time for the state Education Department and the Regents, along with all school districts in Monroe County to commit to collaborating on schools that will improve the lives of all children in our community.

For five years, Great Schools for All has championed a network of magnet schools that could appeal to families from city and suburban districts. Enrollment at these schools, primary and secondary, would be voluntary, but the schools would offer a theme-based curriculum no one district could afford—from performing arts to culinary arts, foreign language, leadership,

public safety, health careers, science and technology.

We have proposed that each of these schools be jointly administered by two or more school districts and would use existing building space when possible and share staff and other resources.

Each school would be intentionally diverse. The best evidence suggests that schools should have a healthy mix of low-income and middle class students—large enough populations that students do not become isolated or marginalized and large enough that students can benefit from the collective experiences and wisdom of students who are different from themselves. In Raleigh, N.C., and other cities with diverse schools, the goal has been to limit the number of low-income students in each school to between 40 and 50 percent of the student body. But the formula is not magic; larger or smaller percentages can work as well.

The Democratrightly pointed out that two out of three state-funded socioeconomic integration demonstration projects in Rochester failed three years ago to attract suburban students. But the state has launched a more comprehensive effort this year to help districts, including Rochester, to reap the benefits of diverse schools, citing the state Board of Regents’ recent support for racial and socioeconomic integration as critical to improved outcomes. The state Education Department has even suggested interdistrict partnerships as one path forward.

At Great Schools, we are encouraged by these signs. But the very mention  of the words “diversity” or “integration” always leads to skeptical questions that cry out for a response.

Why would parents send their children from academically successful suburban schools to low-performing city schools?

They wouldn’t. But no one is asking them to do so. The schools we’ve proposed would be new schools, located across the county, and carefully  designed.

A 2016 survey of city and suburban parents commissioned by Great Schools found that 83 percent of city and suburban parents want diverse schools for their children because they better reflect the real world. Eighty-three percent of city parents and 70 percent of suburban parents say they would consider sending their children out of district to a diverse school.

Aren’t you really saying that poor children, or African-American or Hispanic children, just can’t learn?

Not at all. We’re talking about improving odds of success for the children most likely to fail—those in high poverty schools. You don’t need to look to North Carolina for evidence. Two years ago, Great Schools pulled some state data on graduation rates for low-income students in Monroe County. In the city, 91 percent of students were low-income and 48 percent of those young people graduated after four years. In East Irondequoit, 56 percent of students were economically disadvantaged and yet 84 graduated on time; in Rush-Henrietta, the numbers were 39 percent and 86 percent.

When you lower the concentrationof poverty in a school, the outcomes improve. Dramatically.

It can’t be that simple.

It’s not. Making diverse schools successful is hard work. The program must be carefully planned and evidence-based. Schools must build real communities that give every student and every family a voice, and productive interaction must be a part of the daily routine. Minority teachers must be recruited and each school must value understanding and appreciation for the differences that make us so strong together. Great Schools can identify experts from integrated school systems who could help plan new schools for Monroe County.

This is pie in the sky. Can’t we just better fund the poorest schools?

As New York Times Magazinereporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, an expert on school integration, puts it: Yes, funding is important, but the history of public education in America is that the money flows disproportionately to the whitest and most affluent communities. The only way to be sure low-income children have access to well-funded schools is to make public schools truly public—that is accessible to children without regard to family income or Zip Code. 

Moreover, Hannah-Jones says, “there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.”

The biggest obstacle to diverse schools in New York is our system of school districts that isolate economically disadvantaged and minority children from those who are more affluent. 

Great Schools has never proposed a countywide school district, which would seem to require a change in the state constitution and a change in the political will of most New Yorkers. 

The most direct way to achieve school diversity in Monroe County is for city and suburban districts to collaborate, to open new schools together. As a community we have an unambiguous moral obligation to do so, but no superintendent or school board has a legal obligation to make it happen. 

The city school district, in one of the poorest cities in the country, cannot diversify itself. A great school for every child requires a communityeffort. That means the mayor, the county executive, and every school superintendent and school board in the county must step outside their roles, and insist that Albany give us the tools we need work across boundary lines to guarantee that every child has the education he or she deserves—and on which our future depends.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A Strategy Team

Why separate and equal isn’t actually a thing

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to MSNBC host Chris Hayes’  podcast interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, MacArthur Genius, New York Times reporter, author, expert on  school integration and a Great Schools speaker last October.

You can find the podcast and transcript here.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

It’s a long interview (roughly an hour), but NHJ makes some well known points very clear and accessible. I think in this conversation she explains the importances of integration in very  simple and powerful  terms.

Here are some key excerpts:

NHJ grew up in Iowa and her parents took advantage of a desegregation plan to send her to one of the whitest and richest schools in the community.

NHJ: If you want to make sure that your kid is going to have the best public school resources that can be offered, then you best go to school with a lot of white kids and a wealthy school. So that’s what parents did. All the black kids would get dropped off at the various open enrollment schools, and at the end of the day when all of the white kids who lived in the neighborhood would be playing outside and walking home, we’d be shuttled onto a bus and sent back to our side of town.

…when I talk to a lot of black folks who have gotten into whatever mainstream careers…it’s often people who went through desegregated schools. They learned to adapt to white norms, they learned to speak the “professional white language,” they learned to be comfortable in those situations, so I think for us, clearly, it was a means of being able to study what you were going to need to succeed in a white-dominated country. But it wouldn’t be easy. I think we shouldn’t expect that taking people who have been forcibly and legally separated and putting them in schools together is going to (be) magic, it’s gonna be difficult. But I think it’s worth the difficulty. We’re a multiracial democracy.

So why was this an important experience in your life?

NHJ: It allows you to relate to the experiences of others in a way that clearly you would never be able to relate. I’ve heard, since I’ve been focusing so much on school segregation, from so many white adults who …went through schools where they were not the majority and that it was transformative for them. That it just helped them to see things that they couldn’t have seen before. It made them better people they think. They also say it wasn’t easy…I think we should stop pretending that it would be, but again, we don’t say that for anything else in life. When you want to be successful, you know it’s gonna be hard. But for this, we want it to be easy because we really don’t want to do it.

Because we don’t want to actually integrate, she says, we look for other solutions to legitimize “separate but equal.”

NHJ:  And this is one of the arguments that I make…(to the) common and perennial answer to segregation… “Well, we just need to fund high-poverty schools.” Well, we do, but there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation  by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.

Hayes says how important social capital is and asks NHJ if she thinks white affluent schools are better than segregated schools.

NHJ: Yes but what we fail to acknowledge (is that) what makes that school good is not the kids but the resources those kids are ensured. This was the whole reason behind school desegregation beginning when the NAACP starts to challenge school segregation in the ’40s. It was not saying there’s something remarkable about white kids that makes black kids smart. It was saying that we have been promising since Plessy v. Ferguson to make separate equal and there’s never been a single moment in time where black kids, isolated from white kids,  got even close to the same resources. It literally is about needing to have proximity to get the same things. There’s just been no other way to do that. 

On the issue of whether the cause of segregation is structural or the result of individual parental choice.

NHJ:  I think either way. When we say, “Oh, it’s just the structure,” then we also justify individual choices, because you’re like, “I can’t solve all of school inequality in the city, so it’s okay if I put my kid in this all white, rich school, ’cause I can’t fix it all.” But at the same time, every time a white parent makes that choice collectively …you have reinforced that. 

…Don’t brag to me about how proud you are to be a public school parent when your public school is 10 percent poverty and 80 percent white… We now feel like we should be able to shop for schools. Schools should have to vie for us. Our kids are no longer people who (we) are teaching to be citizens, but people who (we) are teaching to make a lot of money one day. 

Hayes then says that many people agree that morally we should integrate, but since it’s not possible, we should focus on making black schools excellent.

NHJ:  Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t argue with that. Except that, they have no bit of history on their side either, right? We also have never done that ever, on scale anywhere. There’s a reason why every time you bring these issues up, people point to the same five schools, right? Or the same five charter school chains. There’s a reason for that, because it’s not scalable.

You can look at something like, Success Academy… But you look at the purge rates at that school, you look at the amount of additional fundraising they have to do, the philanthropy dollars that are coming in.

You can’t scale that across an entire city. You can’t scale that across an entire country. So, I don’t think that there is something inherently bad about an all black learning environment. You can go to all black countries right now and there are excellent schools, but we’re not in that context.

We are in a context built on white supremacy. We are in a context where having all black environments means those schools and environments will be starved of resources, as they have been in every community in our country…I still don’t think you can ever make the schools equal for the reasons that I already pointed out, but…show me the example of where we scaled it and I’ll shut up.

In case you’ve been wondering…

In case you missed this piece in this week’s City newspaper (July 24, 2018), have a look. Editor Mary Anna Towler again underscores the need to address the high concentration of poverty in Rochester city schools—and urges readers to join with us.

We’ve been a little quiet here for a few months, but GS4A has not gone dark. To the contrary, we’ve been working quietly behind the scenes to support the RCSD’s call for two interdistirct schools as proposed in the Path Forward report, which outlines an ambitious agenda for improvement. More soon.

Yet another attempt to improve city schools

Not surprisingly, the state’s education commissioner is sending someone else to try to help the Rochester school district turn things around.

But let me just repeat the Great Obvious Fact:

…Through all these studies, through all the new school superintendents and new school board members and new ideas, two things have been constant: Rochester’s poverty rate has increased. And the performance of the school district’s children has dropped.

Lock step.

For half a century.

That is a fact. You can look it up.

Integration only works when all voices are heard

From time to time we’ll use this blog space to answer questions that have come to us. This one was submitted at last October’s Nikole Hannah-Jones lecture, but was not answered that night. 

Often the people working on education justice issues are white, or at least they have the most clout and loudest voices, these are liberal white groups. What are your thoughts on uplifting the voices of black parents and black residents?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Great Schools for All is keenly (painfully, even embarrassingly) aware that we are older and whiter than we would like to be as an organization. We are nowhere nearly as diverse as the schools we propose.

This is a key question we’re focused on this year in a number of new ways. Please, let us know your suggestions for people we should talk to or organizations we should partner with. You can reach us at contact@gs4a.org.

Here are some of our plans for 2018:

  • Our new Community Engagement team is planning listening sessions in a variety of places with very different audiences.
  • We’ll be meeting soon with several “community stakeholders” who attended the Nikole Hannah-Jones event and expressed willingness to help us refine our message and strategy.
  • Similarly, we’ll meet with African-American leaders who will help us connect to parents and residents whose voices we need to hear.
  • We’re also hoping to encourage interested groups to begin offering magnet school design ideas that would make our goals a little more tangible.

There are many reasons (not excuses) why we are not as diverse as we’d like. In part, I think, we’ve experienced the effects of the segregation that is so real in our community, not just in our schools. We live in our own bubbles with too little interaction with people not like ourselves. We don’t fully understand each other because our paths rarely cross and because we struggle to make the connections and have the conversations we need.

Again, that’s not an excuse, just an observation.

As the questioner suggests, it is critical that we hear and empower the “voices of black parents and black residents.”

At GS4A we often hear from African-Americans (and others) that our proposal is naïve and elitist. America, and Rochester, these folks say, is not interested in ending segregation. We never even discuss it; instead, we’ve all made our peace with segregation. Shameful, but true.

Better, these critics say, that we advocate changes that can improve education for the poorest kids right now—not sometime in the distant future. That means more money for the poorest schools. It could mean longer school days, outreach to parents, a more culturally responsive curriculum, recruiting more minority teachers and bringing a whole range of community services into our schools—medical and dental care, for example, that can improve the health of the entire neighborhood.

Of course, we support all of those things. We support anything that improves the educational experience of poor kids. We know that education is far more relational that many people think.  A gifted teacher or principal—who also cares deeply and personally for students—can transform a child’s life.

We know, not just from common sense, but from the accumulated evidence amassed by scholars, that minority teachers can radically alter the educational path of poor black students. It just makes sense to provide incentives to draw more young men and women of color into teaching and to hire them ASAP.

We know, too, that calls for integration can be heard as a belief that poor and minority students can’t learn unless they sit next to white affluent children. That’s not at all what we believe, but the offensive and mistaken notion—that black children will only learn when they are in white classrooms—did not come from nowhere. It is baked into the language used to discuss integration, and is rooted in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” education.

The court went well beyond granting the plaintiffs’ demands. Oliver and Leola Brown joined the NAACP lawsuit against the Topeka, Kansas, board of education when they were denied (because of their race) the opportunity to transfer their daughter Linda from an all-black school that was several blocks from their home to a predominantly white school one block away. They felt the black school was too far for Linda to walk when it was cold, snowing or raining. They were not unhappy with her school.

In his podcast, Revisionist History (Season 2 episode, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”), author Malcolm Gladwell included clips from an archival interview with Leola Brown. “We were getting a quality education at Monroe (the black school)…We had fantastic teachers,” she says. “It was more like an extended family. They took an interest in you.”

But the court did more than agree with the Browns, Gladwell says. The decision said, “segregation with the sanction of law has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.” That sounds to Gladwell (and many others) like the court concluded that black children are inevitably scarred for life in black schools and that only by moving to white schools can they avoid psychological damage.

Segregation is wrong, but not because black children cannot learn without white children next to them. It would have been better and more accurate, Gladwell says, if the court had said instead: “Schools are the places where people make the connections that allow them to get ahead in the world. You cannot lock black people out of the place where social power and opportunity reside.”

We agree with Gladwell. That’s the point. And we’ve made integration (socioeconomic diversity) our prime directive, not because none of the other strategies we’ve mentioned is of value, but because the evidence shows that economic and racial diversity can dramatically change the equation—and represents the most effective and least costly way to improve the odds for the kids most at risk of not graduating.

We formed Great Schools to be sure that diverse schools—and all the advantages they portend for us—are on the table. We believe that, even though integrated schools sometimes feels like an impossible goal, that the goal is within reach. Our role is to keep it front and center.

 

 

 

We can choose to end segregated schools; will we?

I’m still reflecting on the powerful words Nikole Hannah-Jones left with us at her Oct. 26 lecture:

“Whose children should be sacrificed?”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Hannah-Jones, an investigative  journalist for The New York Time Magazine, writes often on civil rights issues, notably on the  changing shape of school segregation in America. She’s working on a book dealing with the history of school segregation.

Great Schools invited her to Rochester, not to tell us what a swell job we’re doing, but to challenge our community to do the right thing for all our children.

Hannah-Jones does not sugarcoat her message. She sees school integration as a longshot at best. “We as a country have never shown any interest in making things better when it comes to race,” she told Democrat and Chronicle reporter Justin Murphy. “It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try, but that’s just my pragmatic view of the matter.”

Several people I spoke with thought she was too pessimistic. I disagree. She was just reporting the ugly facts of our history. She never said nothing can change. When she took to the pulpit at Third Presbyterian that night, she took a photo of the 500-plus people who filled the sanctuary and tweeted out with the words, “This many people can change a city, if y’all choose.”

But will we as a community make that choice? Surely we can. I hope we will. But we never have.

In Rochester, as in many other cities, we have accepted segregation as necessary, or at least as inevitable.  We do this with a system of school districts that lets the more affluent choose their own “public” schools—schools that are not “public” for the poor, for African American or Hispanic children who live on the other side of the boundary lines. This is what segregation looks like in the North in the 21st Century. And our schools in New York are the most segregated in the country.

Every single year our community sacrifices thousands of city children—children who drift out of schools that have never been good places for them, or who “graduate” unprepared for either work or college.

As our own GS4A survey data shows, most parents in Monroe County strongly support diverse schools, and see them as the best way to prepare their children for life in a diverse world. But the system hasn’t moved one inch toward that goal.

We know there are suburban superintendents who likewise believe diverse schools best serve all children—rich and poor.  But without public pressure for change, it’s very easy to settle for what is, rather than insist on what could be.

What we need now in our community is pressure to do the right thing. To treat all children as our children, not somebody’s else’s. We do not have to sacrifice some children so that others may succeed.

There are always reasons to do nothing.  On Nov. 5, the Democrat and Chronicle ran a collection of stories about the New York State School Quality Index, developed by the USA Today Network, of which the Democrat is a member. Rather than rate schools strictly on test scores and graduation rates, the new index looked also at intangibles—”teachers and administrators who care about their students; children and parents who take pride in the  community; high-quality instruction and an array of extracurricular activities.”

Using  that measure, four city elementary schools (two of them charter schools) and one high school are among the top schools in Monroe County. Good news? Absolutely. Never underestimate the way gifted teachers and principals can transform student lives, or the ways committed parents can lift their children up, or the way some children rise above the obstacles they face.

Education is about more than numbers; it takes place in the quiet interactions among students and between students and the adults who guide them. But these successes are not widespread; broad change requires new policies and new approaches.

Here’s how the Democrat and Chronicle editorialized on this new index:

“And, it is heartening to see that some schools in the Rochester City School District lead the way on these measures… But, the quality index and (Superintendent Barbara) Deane Williams’ attention to the good work that is nearly always overshadowed by the bad allows us, for just a moment, to be a little more optimistic. We can feel hope, instead of hopelessness. And, we can applaud those city educators and students who are succeeding against the odds. By tweaking the usual narrative, just a touch, fixing our city schools seems ever so slightly more attainable.”

Nothing wrong with feeling hope. But never does the local daily newspaper in this city—despite decades of supportive evidence—editorialize on the power of integration to turn lives and schools around. Never do the editors write that the best and most effective way to improve the odds of success for the poorest kids among us is to work together as a community, sharing educational resources so that every child can attend a great school and have great opportunities. Never do the editors say that segregated schools are unacceptable and represent the failure of our community to  truly care for the  children we are so quick to define as “our future.”

Despite my rant, I am hopeful that we are close to choosing a new course, a path toward integration that will mean every child in our community gets to attend a great school. We have a new generation  of parents who support change. The New York State Regents are calling socioeconomic diversity the key to improved outcomes. The city school board has committed to working with others to develop interdistirct magnet schools.

That is all good news. But we need to remind ourselves every day that we have a long history of sacrificing some children to avoid the hard choices we need to make. And that still gives me pause.

School diversity and teacher diversity both necessary

 

For at least 25 years, I’ve been outraged at the way we have structured our public schools in Rochester, and across New York.

We have one system of schools (suburban) for middle class and more affluent kids, mostly white kids. In that system, nearly everybody graduates high school on time and goes on to college or work.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

In the other system, the city system, almost every child is black, Hispanic, or refugee; almost everyone is poor, and a whole bunch live in extreme poverty—in families whose incomes are well  below the poverty line. In the city system, only half the kids graduate on time, and the vast majority of those are neither ready for college nor for work (or work training).

In my 20 years as an editorial writer and columnist at the Democrat and Chronicle, and in the years since, I have written about the injustice I see again and again. This system, it seems to me, is morally indefensible and fundamentally un-American—a system that deprives the poorest kids of the right to a good school that will improve their chances for success.

But I believe that the crisis we face is complicated, not just a moral failure, easily corrected with a personal epiphany. Many good people in our community just do not see a viable solution.

At Great Schools, we have been focused on the importance of diverse schools—on a network of interdistrict magnet schools that will open the doors to success for the kids most likely to fail in our current system.

This is not an ideological crusade, but an evidence-driven proposal. Socioeconomically schools matter.

A 2016 report by The Century Foundation, found that:

  • Low-income fourth-graders in mixed-income schools were on average two years ahead in learning over poor students in high-poverty schools. Moreover, poor students in mixed-income high schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores over four years of high school than poor students in poor schools.
  • Poor students in integrated high schools were 68 percent more likely to enroll in college than poor students in high-poverty schools.
  • Dropout rates are significantly lower for poor students in  mixed-income high schools than for those in high-poverty schools.

It is very clear that diversity dramatically improves the odds of educational success for the poorest kids. That’s why we support it.

But while diversity has been our focus, we have never suggested that magnet schools are a quick or easy solution or that other ideas are not worth pursuing.

We’re not generally pro-charter schools, but when we see a charter program that improves the odds for the poorest kids, we applaud it.

Likewise, it’s clear that minority teachers can have a powerful beneficial effect on the poorest African American students, especially boys.

As an aside, I recommend you listen to “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It’s the backstory of the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in the 1964 Brown v. Board of Education case—in which the court concluded that separate schools for black and white students is inherently unconstitutional because the all-black schools were  always inferior.

Gladwell reports that Leola and Oliver Brown were not at all dissatisfied with the all-black school their daughter Linda attended in Topeka, Kansas. They felt the program was fine, the teachers were well-qualified and even more important, that teachers and administrators “took an interest” in the students. They just didn’t feel that the school board should be able to tell them they had no right to send their daughter to a school closer to home because the closer school was for white students.

The court ruled, correctly,  that segregated schools are always unequal. But it never looked at the question of the role of teachers in outcomes. Gladwell reports on the work of researchers at Vanderbilt University who found that when white teachers evaluate black and white students (of similar academic standing) for admission to gifted and talented programs, the black students are only half as likely to be selected as the white students. It’s not intentional racism, they conclude, just the effect of lower expectations shaped by racial stereotypes.

The truth is that black teachers matter. A study released this April by economists from Johns Hopkins, American University and the University of California Irvine found that, “Low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college.”

They found that having “at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.”  For the poorest African American boys, the dropout rate fell by an even more dramatic 39 percent.

Black students who have even one back teacher in the early grades have better test scores, fewer behavioral problems in school and much lower rates of suspension.

Are we at Great Schools for All in favor or hiring more minority teachers? Absolutely. We’re for improving the odds.

One of the visceral arguments we sometimes encounter in our advocacy is that it shouldn’t matter who a child sits next to in school. Similarly people strongly object to the proposition that the race of the teacher factors into the performance of black students. People want to believe that equality of educational  opportunity arrived with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that’s an ideological point of view, not an accurate point of view.

Any issue that intersects with race and poverty is sensitive and evokes strong emotions.

But the way forward is to embrace the evidence and act accordingly. That’s what we’re all about at Great Schools.

RCSD resolution, Regents’ policy statement are groundbreaking

As you know by now, at its June 27 meeting, the city school board passed a resolution that commits the district to an “exploration of possible regional schools, as envisioned by Great Schools for All coalition, and the impact that a regional school (or several regional schools) might have on existing facility and zone capacity.”

So what exactly does that mean?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Representatives from GS4A worked for several months to find a way to bring the district into conversations about socioeconomically diverse interdistrict magnet schools as part of a strategy to address the consequences of concentrated poverty in city schools. We appeared before the board’s Student Achievement Committee in March and later met individually with most board members to help find a path forward—one that would commence the interdistrict conversations needed to develop diverse schools while not disrupting Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams’ critical work to restructure the district’s administration and programs.

Since the district’s planning process includes assessing its future facilities needs,  the board’s resolution seeks to consider the possibility of interdistrict schools in light of their potential impact on the district’s future space needs.

That’s the legislative sausage-making process that led to the resolution. GS4A and BOCES leadership had earlier identified several suburban districts willing to be a part of a conversation on interdistrict diverse schools, and we expect that shortly these  conversations will begin.

GS4A will do whatever we can to facilitate and support these discussions,  including drafting agenda items and soliciting help and advices from educators in other communities with a long of history of maintaining diverse schools.

This resolution and the dialogue to come are especially timely. This summer the state Department of Education and the Board of Regents are considering strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in order to improve outcomes and help school districts meet the requirements of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The Regents’ “Draft Policy Statement on Promoting Diversity: Integration in New York State” is particularly powerful and on point. I want to share a bit of it with you.

An introductory referral attached to the draft statement notes that “the proportion of New York State schools considered intensely segregated doubl(ed) between 1989 and 2010.”

The draft statement then explains:

“In 2010, over half of Black and Latino students in the State attended schools with fewer than 10 percent White enrollment, and the typical Asian student in the State attended schools in which a little over 30 percent of their peers were White.  In that same year, the average White student attended schools in which close to 80 percent of his or her classmates were White.  Further, in 2010, the average White student attended a school in which 30 percent of his or her classmates were low-income, while the average Black and Latino student attended a school where 70 percent of his or her classmates were low-income.”

The Regents’ paper goes on to reference recent research showing  “that socioeconomic and racial integration leads to higher academic outcomes for all students, closes the achievement gap for students of different racial and economic backgrounds, fosters critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate and work with people of all backgrounds, reduces racial and ethnic prejudice while increasing cross-cultural trust and relationships, decreases the likelihood of teenage pregnancy and interaction with the juvenile justice system, and increases the likelihood of college going and success.”

This is a powerful endorsement of the arguments we and other diversity advocates have been making for years. In response to the findings, the board “commits to promoting increased integration within New York State’s public schools.”

The statement then says that “promoting socioeconomic and racial integration is a powerful mechanism for achieving” the Regents’ longstanding goal of educating all children in the state.

The draft policy paper further commits the Regents  “to the development and support of educational programs that promote the values of socioeconomic, racial, cultural, and other kinds of diversity. The Board of Regents encourages districts and schools, to the greatest extent possible, to adopt integration plans that result in schools that reflect a diverse mix of students—of different races and ethnicities, abilities, home languages, and socioeconomic status—to ensure that schools, programs, and services reflect—and thus obtain the full educational, instructional, and developmental benefit of—the diversity of the district and/or surrounding districts.”

To achieve these ends, the Regents suggest several strategies, including:

  • Creating partnerships or regional districts or consolidating with nearby districts to address socioeconomic or racial isolation across districts;
  • Re-drawing school zones, strategically selecting new school sites, and creating unzoned schools with weighted enrollment (e.g., enrollment preferences or weighted lottery) to increase integration; and/or
  • Providing transportation and other logistical support to ensure that segregated housing patterns do not prevent students from attending integrated schools.

The Regents conclude with “A Call To Action” that says they will work with “districts across the State to support their integration efforts…and encourages districts to consider integration as a cost-effective strategy for raising student achievement.”

As an old journalist, I know it’s important to never get ahead of the facts. But this statement, still to be revised and finalized, represents a huge step forward, even committing the Regents to the concept of interdistrict collaboration to achieve socioeconomic diversity. This is new ground, and essential to building an educational system that serves the needs of all children, including the poorest among us.

Stay tuned.

Dallas schools seek diversity; time for Rochester to do the same

For all its charms and its rich history, Rochester is not known for being bold when it comes to social change—not since the abolitionists and suffragists called our city home in the 19th century.

A lot of people here recognize the need for change if we are to reverse the effects of decades of concentrated poverty on our neighborhoods and our city schools. But when it comes to giving up bad old ideas for better new ideas, we freeze.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

At Great Schools for All, we see and hear this all the time. Most people now agree that socioeconomically diverse schools are the best tool for improving the odds for academic success for the poorest  kids —and the best tool for teaching all kids, including those who are pretty affluent, how to collaborate in an increasingly diverse world.

But when it comes to taking that first step…

Here’s a little encouragement. On June 19, The New York Times ran a story under the headline: “Dallas schools, long segregated, charge forward on diversity.”

Yes, Dallas. My colleague Don Pryor wrote a blog on the Dallas initiative last September, noting its early successes and noting that our Great Schools parent survey from last spring found strong support among city and suburban parents for diverse schools. There is every reason to believe that Monroe County parents would welcome the discussion of interdistrict schools—if our leaders would take that first step.

The Dallas superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, is a native who lived through a failed integration campaign in Dallas in the early ’70s. But the experience did not sour him one bit.

Hinojosa has inherited a plan developed two years ago by his predecessor. The goal is to open 35 new schools by 2020, drawing a 50-50 mix of poor and more affluent students and enticing some wealthier families back into the city.

It’s a heavy lift and progress is slow. But the commitment is real.

“Every major city in America has to find some way to deal with this issue,”  Hinojosa told the Times.  “When you have a mix of kids, the affluent kids don’t suffer and the children of intergenerational poverty do better.”

Dallas has launched “innovation schools,” which try to improve neighborhood schools with new curriculum such as International Baccalaureate. Test scores are up somewhat in these schools, but the districts hasn’t had much luck attracting middle class families to poor neighborhoods.

More successful are “transformation schools,” magnet schools, using popular themes—arts, sciences, etc.—to attract interest.  Admission is by lottery and a socioeconomic balance is the goal.

This spring, the Times reports, 1,705 students applied for 613 spots in five existing transformation schools—and one in four applicants is coming from a charter or private school, olives outside the district.

The district has posted on its website a five-page concept paper on socioeconomic diversity as part of its aggressive effort to market these new schools.  It reads in part:

“But no matter the lever which creates the diversity in schools, the positive student results remain the same. The takeaway is that economic diversity matters a great deal and more districts are taking note.”

If Dallas can take this step, surely Rochester can, and should.

 

Putting the ‘public’ back in ‘public schools’

When we at Great Schools for All sing the virtues of school diversity to groups who have asked to hear what we have to say, we find a lot of heads nodding in agreement. You can almost hear the thoughts:

“Yes, children should be in diverse schools where they can learn to work with and appreciate children who are not like themselves. Yes, every child should have access to a great school. No, the quality of a child’s education should not be defined by the neighborhood his or her parents can afford to live in.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But another line of thought also runs through some more affluent parents’ minds—one they are not always comfortable voicing in public. They wonder if attending a socioeconomically diverse school, despite the advantages they readily acknowledge, could deprive their kids of the undeniable benefits that accrue to them at academically elite schools where students have the highest test scores, graduation rates near 100 percent and which send their graduates on to elite colleges that pretty much guarantee high-paying careers.

I don’t mean to trivialize that concern for a minute. All parents want the best for their kids, and it’s easy to feel that if we fail to provide our kids with every advantage we can, to give them a leg up on the competition, then we’ve failed them. Yes, we know schools should help kids become “culturally competent” and good citizens of the world who understand and value other cultures. But what if diverse magnet schools don’t have the same reputation as elite suburban schools? What if,our choices for them somehow cost our kids a little future earning power?

I don’t think I can or would try to answer that question for another parent. But I encourage you to follow the writing of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine who writes frequently about the disastrous effects of school segregation, especially on the poor. She and her husband live in Brooklyn and decided to send their daughter to a neighborhood public school—a diverse, but still poor school—even though they could have enrolled her in a more affluent city school.

In a February 21 piece, Hannah-Jones says it’s important to put the public back in public schools, to stop working to get the most for our own kids out of a public school—even at the expense of other kids.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Hannah-Jones says,” called traditional public schools a ‘dead end’” and “bankrolled efforts to pass reforms in Michigan, her home state, that would funnel public funds in the form of vouchers into religious and privately operated schools and encouraged the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. “

In truth, Hannah-Jones writes, “We began moving away from the ‘public’ in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places. Parents have pushed for school-choice policies that encourage shopping for public schools that they hope will give their children an advantage and for the expansion of charter schools that are run by private organizations with public funds. Large numbers of public schools have selective admissions policies that keep most kids out. And parents pay top dollar to buy into neighborhoods zoned to ‘good’ public schools that can be as exclusive as private ones. The glaring reality is, whether we are talking about schools or other institutions, it seems as if we have forgotten what ‘public’ really means.”

There’s more to public schools than public money, she says. “Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy.”

This is tough stuff, but worth contemplating. It is a fairly recent idea that test scores and high-paying job opportunities are the only real purposes to public schools. Of course, academic achievement matters, but kids should (will) continue to learn throughout their lives.

What students learn from and about each other as young children will determine not what they learn later, but how well they will put their knowledge to the service of country and community and democratic values.

That’s why diversity matters.

 

Great schools for all, not for some

With the election of Donald Trump, the public school reform debate is about start over again, pushing the narrative back to where it was eight years ago—with a Republican administration  insisting that “choice” is the path to dramatically improving outcomes.

Never mind that that most of  America’s public schools are doing just fine, and never mind that the parents and students in the worst schools—high poverty urban schools—are not likely to get any real choices from the choice crowd.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Obama administration hasn’t always been great on public education, but in the last year or so, Education Secretary John King has started to push incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity—finally putting a little federal muscle behind what the research has been saying for decades. Poor kids in middle class schools have a much better chance at success, and middle class kids in those schools are better off for the experience of diversity.

But with Trump’s nomination of Detroit billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the education department, you can forget about a push for diversity. DeVos is a longtime champion of “parental choice” in the form of vouchers and charter schools.

She has her supporters, for sure, and a large array of detractors. In a Nov. 25 story in her hometown Detroit Free Press, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said her “appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels.” In the same story, David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said, “I can’t imagine a worse pick…she wants to dismantle public education.”

We’ve heard this all before.

The question isn’t whether some students will succeed in charter schools, or would be better off using a voucher to attend a private school.

The question is whether our country believes in public school systems that deliver the opportunity for an excellent education to every student—no matter, as we say at GS4A, what their Zip Code.

Neither charters nor vouchers can deliver the promise of a great school for all kids.

Trump promised in the campaign to shift $20 billion from other education programs to vouchers. DeVos is a huge supporter of vouchers. But this approach presents problems.

How big would the voucher checks be? $5,000 or $6,000 would be larger than almost anything ever proposed before—but that’s not enough money to help a truly poor family buy tuition in a top private school. It might be enough to help the few remaining city middle class families to flee—leaving the city even poorer than it is.

Second, there isn’t enough private school capacity in most places, including Rochester, to take large numbers of poor city kids.

A November piece in Slate reported that a Louisiana voucher program has failed to deliver many promising results. The best—and most expensive—private schools have been unwilling to except larger numbers of poor kids (for a $5,500 voucher). The private schools that have accepted poor students have done so in the face of declining enrollment, suggesting lack of “customer satisfaction.” Students have seen their math scores decline in these privates.

Despite that, it’s surely possible that some children have used vouchers to secure a better education. The same can be said of students enrolled in charter schools—some are surely doing better than they were doing in the worst-performing public schools.

But Trump’s nomination of Besty DeVos signals a return to the mistaken—and tragic—view that private alternatives can replace public education.

Even with generous vouchers, private schools will refuse to accept the students most in need of a better school—because those students require the resources that even the best private schools cannot afford. Likewise, charter schools will continue to find ways to persuade parents of the most challenging students to return to their public schools before their test scores can be recorded.

While choice schools may be beneficial for individual students, they continue to drain away the  most promising students, leaving behind a pool of students even less likely to succeed—undermining the mission of public education.

To enshrine “choice” as the future of public education is to disregard the structural changes (diverse schools) that can improve lives and outcomes and settle instead for a system that delivers great schools for some.

That approach deprives millions of poor kids of the education they deserve, and deprives our country of the educated adults needed to “make America great again.”

The right answer is “Great Schools for All.”