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Are "culturally focused" schools worth watching?

Today, the Daily News reported that backers of a proposed charter school that would focus on Hebrew language and culture have already ruled out the possibility of trying to secure space in a public school building. Most charter schools in the city are housed in existing DOE buildings, but as the DOE has opened more and more schools, both charter and non-charter, existing public schools have put up battles over having to share space. Any charter school operators with the financial wherewithal to contract their own space would eliminate some headache by doing so.

In addition, backers of the Hebrew-language school are surely thinking already about how to avoid the problems that have plagued the Khalil Gibran International Academy since before that school opened in 2007. The two schools with which the DOE assigned Khalil Gibran, an Arabic-themed non-charter middle school in Brooklyn, to share space put up a serious fight, with some opponents veiling their racism only thinly or not at all. This fall, Khalil Gibran is being moved to a different school — PS 287, an elementary school with declining enrollment near the Brooklyn Navy Yard — and the antagonism resurfaced briefly. All of this commotion was no doubt distracting from the already difficult tasks of teaching and learning.

On the other hand, intentionally isolating the proposed school from existing schools heightens the impression that the school presents no church-state conflicts. In fact, the expansion of themed schools in New York and elsewhere has created situations where the line between church and state can appear blurred. In Minnesota, the state department of education recently investigated the Tarek ibn Ziyad Charter Academy, which has many Muslim students, and found that it “generally complied” with federal rules about the separation of church and state. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune recently ran the transcript of an illuminating discussion among several charter school operators from the Twin Cities area, where a vibrant charter school culture includes several schools that serve students of predominantly one religious or ethnic group. In the discussion, charter school operators describe how they negotiate the line between teaching religion and teaching about religion. They also expound on their thoughts about the benefits of educational environments centered around a particular culture.

Said the operator of Friends of Ascension charter schools, which launched in a Catholic church with a “classical curriculum”:

With regard to segregation, if a school were established with a Western European focus, that would create an outcry. But there is no denying the achievement gap involving students of color. Research indicates that single-gender schools improve academic results. Similarly, results of culturally focused schools are worth watching. If they eliminate or reduce the achievement gap, who would say that’s not a great thing? …

Saying that “culturally focused schools” — here, clearly a euphemism for “culturally segregated,” given the contrast with single-gender schools mentioned immediately before — are “worth watching” is appealing, but it isn’t supported by evidence. In fact, all of the evidence we have shows that schools that are segregated by race and class are associated with a number of negative outcomes for students, both educational and non-academic. Themed and charter schools are often successful in generating high test scores (although the chaos at Khalil Gibran in its first year suggests high test scores may be unlikely there). But it’s hard to extrapolate from that that the schools’ cultural themes actually contributed to their success. Without careful evaluation of what leads to success in “culturally focused schools,” it’s possible for them to be used as a screen for those who prefer to see schools remain racially, culturally, and economically segregated.

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