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.

 

 

We have to be in it for the long haul

At a rally after the Newtown shootings, I listened to Marian Wright Edelman exhort concerned citizens to be like fleas on the back of the NRA. She emphasized that, while each of us individually yields little power, our combined steady barrage of letters, emails, phone calls, and Facebook posts over the long haul would be effective. Like a dog perpetually trying to get at its flea-bitten back, the NRA having to deal with a million annoyances would disrupt its operations and weaken the force of its lobbying efforts.
I suggest we need a metaphor even more unsightly than fleas for effective community action to improve educational outcomes for the children of Monroe County—bedbugs. We need to model the bedbug’s unrelenting single-minded pursuit of its goal. When combined with its similarly tenacious fellow bedbugs, the infestation is difficult to eradicate and easily disrupts its victim’s game plan.
Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

The recent denial of the proposal to extend the Keystone XL pipeline is evidence of the bedbug strategy used by 350.org. For many years, its members organized to bring light to the disadvantages of an enhanced cross-continental pipeline. 350.org members strategized about when, where, and how to protest for maximum annoyance to the government officials reviewing the Keystone XL application. Perhaps it was the 1200 arrested at the White House in 2011, or the 100,000 citizens who pledged to risk arrest in 2014 should the State Department approve the pipeline extension, or the many petitions, phone calls and emails sent by its members. The daily barrage of actions aimed at making the issue visible to decision makers was the key.

 We can point to the local “Let’s Make Lead History” and “Opting Out” efforts as successful bedbug strategies. In each effort, large numbers of citizens in Monroe County synchronized efforts to move forward toward a single goal. At Great Schools for All, we are in the midst of a very long effort to make schools on Monroe County much  more socioeconomically integrated.  After five years of researching, collaborating, and having many sometimes difficult conversations, both here and in Raleigh, NC, we have a plan to move forward. Moving forward requires the sustained organized effort that Marian Wright Edelman advocates.
 If you are reading this, you have an interest in improving the educational outcomes for our children. Whether you are a parent of a suburban student whose classroom would benefit from diversity, the parent of an urban student whose classroom would benefit from peers aiming for Ivy League schools, or a citizen of Monroe County who would benefit from the taxes contributed by better educated and employed neighbors, socioeconomic integration is an idea whose time has come.
 GS4A’s first goal? Pushing forward legislation that would allow for much more inter-district cooperation. Classrooms in Monroe County are constrained by the fences of 18 school district borders. The GS4A legislation will enable such collaborations as the opening of a second School of The Arts, perhaps at the Eastman School, and allowing suburban students to enroll.
 If you believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance, you need to join us.  Attend the town hall meeting at Saturday, Nov. 14, 10-11:30 a.m. at Trinity Emmanuel Presbyterian Church9 Shelter St, Rochester, NY 14611. Saturday morning you will be able to give your input on proposed legislation and suggest specific models for cross-district pollination.

“Town Hall” Update Meetings Scheduled

Great Schools for All scheduled three meetings for further community discussion of GS4A’s current work and proposals. The topics will focus on:

  • Proposals for legislative changes
  • Expanded summer-learning opportunities starting in 2016
  • Broadened GS4A leadership and support

These meetings differ from some recent GS4A updates in that:

  • They are held at different times of day and at different locations. GS4A hopes this will permit more overall discussion
  • They are shorter; each meeting will last about 90 minutes
  •  The material presented at each meeting is the same. Of course the discussion will vary with the audience

The meetings are Thursday, November 5 (day and evening) plus Saturday morning, November 14, 2015 as described on our web site. Please come. No registration is necessary.

Replicating success

Soon the Great Schools for All coalition will propose legislation to enable school districts in Monroe County to collaborate across district lines. What forms might these collaborations take? Of course, we will be seeking projects that promote learning in socio-economically integrated classrooms. But which classroom? Which buildings? Which students? From which districts?

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Here is something to consider: Join the call for a change in the state’s charter school legislation to permit (if not require) charters to have socio-economically diverse student bodies, with students drawn from several school districts. Presently, charters must give preference to students from the district in which they are chartered, which generally means that city-based charter schools are high-poverty schools with all the usual problems.

Such an amendment might also require that failing charters be replaced with schools far more likely to help students succeed.

We already have an example. The Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) is a stand out on the local charter landscape with its students consistently performing as well as students in many suburban districts. Contrast this with the performance of students at the Urban Choice Charter School where less than ten percent of third graders met or exceeded state learning outcomes on Math and ELA tests. While I am not a fan of standardized tests and especially not a fan of using test scores to justify closing schools, a compelling case can be made here. Because the charter system was established as an alternative to failing schools, I believe we should have a very low tolerance for failing charters.

GCCS’s history of solid performance and unique curriculum will attract suburban families. Twenty six percent of GCCS’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) which accords with the established claim that in schools with a cap on FRPL students, all students thrive and students living in poverty have a markedly higher performance. The school’s curriculum is based on the model of expeditionary learning which focuses on active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that teaches compassion and good citizenship. At GCCS, Students learn hands on about local and global history with all grades studying the same period at the same time. A change in the charter law would make it much easier to replicate success stories like GCCS.

Where would you suggest we begin to build inter-district relationships? We welcome your innovative ideas about cross-district pollination. And we encourage you to ask your legislator to support legislation to would bring down barriers to collaboration.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

Capacity: The maximum amount that something can sustain.

Raleigh N.C., real estate developer Bill Fletcher shared with us that the decision to integrate schools socioeconomically in Raleigh was a decision about capacity. Not building capacity or funding capacity or cafeteria capacity, but a teacher’s capacity to teach (and a student’s capacity to learn). Fletcher saw clearly that teachers in urban Raleigh classrooms did not have the capacity to meet all the needs of students in front of them.

It is a tale of two classrooms. One of my daughters was educated k-12 in the Webster Central Schools; the other began kindergarten in the city and is now a senior at the School of The Arts. Their respective third grade classrooms tell the tale. The Webster student began third grade fully meeting state standards, having arrived in kindergarten already able to read. Her classmates, by and large, were similarly prepared and encouraged to learn as teams working on class projects.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

My special needs student arrived at her third grade “inclusion” city classroom to a chaotic mess. District policy required 6 special ed children in her class of 22. My child is deaf and her special need was for a quiet learning environment in order to learn how to access sound via a Cochlear implant. The other 5 special ed students in her class had a range of behavioral needs that resulted in a classroom of continual emotional explosions. No student, not even the best general education student, could learn in this traumatic environment. As one student bit another, a third would scream obscenities or tear up learning materials. The teacher would spend hours and hours after school filling out the necessary forms to get the biters and screamers to a more appropriate learning setting. These were hours taken away from time she would have spent grading, planning lessons, communicating with parents, and attending staff meetings and professional development events. As a teacher, the toll of not being able to reach (let alone teach) your students is defeating. In this classroom, a student’s capacity to learn is subverted by the brain’s need to convert to protection mode. Learning doesn’t happen here.

Yes, there are buildings within the City School District in which classrooms are not chaotic and learning does happen consistently (Let’s replicate these!). And there are exceptionally gifted teachers in the district who take as part of their call the hours and hours of time outside the work day meeting their students’ extraordinary needs. Bless them. The reality, though, is that most students do not graduate on time, if ever.

In Raleigh, folks realized that urban teachers were being over utilized and suburban teachers were underutilized, given the needs of each population of students. Here in Rochester, our children’s capacity to learn is limited by the chaotic environment in which we’ve placed them. Our teachers’ capacity to teach is overwhelmed by the needs in the classroom. The Great Schools for All coalition’s research shows that classrooms in which fewer than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (FRPL) are classrooms in which all students learn to their full capacity because their teachers are able to spend precious energy on helping students learn.

Here are comparative graduation rates for the 2013-2014 year:[i] [ii]

School District Grad Rate for General population Grad Rate for African-American Students % Free or Reduced Priced Lunch Students
Webster Central Schools           93            96              12
Wake County Public Schools           83            74              33
Rochester City Schools           43            42

85

A case can be made that teachers in suburban classrooms with a few FRPL students are underutilized and that urban teachers with classrooms filled with FRPL students are drowning. Why are we at the Great Schools for All coalition so passionate about socioeconomic integration of classrooms?

Because we strongly believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance.

 

[i]2013 | NY STATE – Report Card | New York State Education Department Data Site. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

[ii] ACCOUNTABILITY AND TESTING RESULTS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

 

 

We know what to do, but will we do it?

I am running out of patience. Like most educators I am by nature an optimist. I have thought and written about the issues of poverty and education for a long time and I find myself restating the same points I have made in the past.

Ten years ago I reported in City newspaper (The Schools Problem? Concentrated Poverty,” March 30, 2005) on data from the 2003 International Reading and Literacy study on how our students were doing compared to students in other countries. This study found that U.S. schools with a student poverty rate below 25 per cent finished first in the world in literacy. The same study found the U S schools with student poverty rates between 25 and 50 percent ranked fourth in the world in achievement.

Most of those parents of students in those schools graded those schools highly. However students enrolled in high poverty schools scored well below international standards. I went to point out that 50 years of studies have showed us that despite pockets of success in urban schools due to a cadre of committed people, poor students invariably achieve better if they attend schools in which the poverty rate is under 40 percent. I doubt these data have changed much.

Then in a City article a few years later (“The Testification of Schools in America,” October 11, 2011) I wrote about what the top scoring countries had done to improve their education systems and found that our international competition provided poorer schools more staff development opportunities and support, smaller class sizes, subsidized day care and myriad of social services that helped diminish the effects of poverty. They also provided support for weaker schools from stronger schools by pairing those schools and sharing faculty and resources: think Brighton High School or Pittsford Sutherland sharing faculty, resources and students with Monroe or Edison.

But instead of following the lead of the countries that are out-performing us, when Rochester’s schools are in trouble we compare the apples of suburban schools with the oranges of city schools, set up “Choice” incentives that encourage competition not cooperation, and apply punitive accountability standards that label schools as failures and deny that market forces, politics and discriminatory housing practices have anything to do with low student achievement.

I concluded that article by asking that the education and business communities work together to follow the lead of our international competitors by creating partnerships between the haves and have-nots. This is at the heart of what GS4A is trying to do.

In an article two years later in the Democrat and Chronicle, I asked why advocates of school choice did not include more equitable regional solutions in their school choice plans (which turn out to be about choosing among city schools, not offering interdistrict choices).

After that article a group of like-minded advocates that became GS4A held two community discussions on the issues of regional solutions to poverty and education. And people from business and the suburbs did respond. Many advocates from outside Rochester have allied themselves with us and other groups in the community and are engaged in discussions on changing Monroe County schools. We are thankful and grateful to them.

Still, as I review my notes, articles and files from the last two decades I find myself saying the same thing. And as I talk to my friends in the suburbs I hear the same arguments from them that the problem with the city is that parents do not take personal responsibility for their kids and that their great grandfathers pulled themselves out of poverty and up by their bootstraps and these city folks can too. And when I answer arguments of these people who say it’s the parents’ fault I find myself feeling sorry for the children who are mired and low performing schools…. Even if it is somebody’s fault.

I’m tired of making the argument that we are once again at a tipping point. We have been making this argument for the last 25 years. And through it all, the clock continues to tick on yet another generation of city kids. No I take it back. It’s not a clock: It’s a time bomb.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

 

 

 

 

Let’s work at finding our ‘Yes Zone’

I write this from Jamison Square in the heart of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. This urban beach is Portland’s biggest kid magnet. An ingenious design fills the shallow basin every 15 minutes with water spilling from layers of mini waterfalls emerging from the sandstone benches. The continuous drainage eliminates stagnant water and greatly reduces the risk of accidental drowning. Even the youngest Portlanders frolic here safely.

This park started out as a vacant lot on which a memorial was to be built. Community members disagreed about the memorial’s design. Opposing sides, over time and in consultation with experts, came together around the current design, with the water feature added after further thought. Jamison Square is a micro model for bringing about systemic change to a divided community.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

The Great Schools for All Coalition seeks to create that productive safe space where the community, over time and in consultation with experts, comes together around proven strategies for helping all students succeed. The experts we’ve consulted believe that children in school buildings steeped in poverty have significantly more hurdles to jump over to be successful. Not that poor kids can’t learn, but that any child who comes to school hungry, wearing the same clothes as yesterday and the day before, without having slept well or completed homework, is not prepared to soak up knowledge.

We understand that buildings with 40 percent or fewer students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch are buildings where teachers are not overwhelmed by the needs of students and every child is able to fulfill her promise.  We’ve read about successful strategies in Hartford and Omaha and Minneapolis and we’ve visited schools in Raleigh, NC, using socioeconomic integration and have seen the evidence of success first hand. What we seek now is to create the productive safe space for conversation and community engagement to experiment with these ideas locally. Having 18 schools districts with many different constituents in Monroe County make this a potentially difficult and very robust conversation, but not an impossible conversation.

The kind of productive safe space GS4A wants to cultivate is referred to as the “Yes Zone” by Neal Ewald, Senior Vice President of Green Diamond Resource Company. Ewald’s logging company tussled with activists for decades over cutting old growth forests. Ewald and the activists eventually engaged in conversations that identified a common thread of interests. Following this thread, the activists and loggers found their Yes Zone, the place to experiment with different designs around a core idea.

The Legislative Work Group of GS4A aims to introduce legislation that would turn Monroe County into a type of  “Yes Zone,” where school districts could work together to socioeconomically integrate learning. Such a place is not currently available due to legal obstacles. Successful ideas coming out of the GS4A Yes Zone may include magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county, shared learning partnerships between two or three districts, or shared sports and arts facilities along the lines of the BOCES model. And, of course, the Yes Zone will allow us to consider your proposals.

What is our Yes Zone’s coalescing idea — our common thread?

That all children can learn and each child deserves a chance.

Join the conversation at gs4a.org