clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Questioning the Office of Civil Rights decision about small high schools

I grew up in a Pennsylvania town with a country club that didn’t admit blacks and Jews. The exclusion was taken for granted, even in these minority communities; there were no public protests or even public acknowledgment of the situation, and I think that over time it came to feel natural or normal. There were other choices for those blacks and Jews who wanted a place to swim, play golf, or play tennis. The country club didn’t seem to be in the domain of possible choices. My guess is that the black and Jewish members of the other clubs in town would have expressed satisfaction with their choices. But the fact is that blacks and Jews were excluded from the country club, even if they reported being satisfied with the clubs they chose.

I was reminded of the country club when I read the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) disposition of David Bloomfield’s complaint about small high schools in New York City excluding students with disabilities and limited English proficient students. Based on data provided by the NYC DOE, the OCR determined that there was insufficient evidence that the DOE’s policy of an “optional waiting period” allowing new small high schools in New York City to defer admitting disabled students or students with limited English proficiency was excluding disabled and limited English proficient students from the new small high schools during the first three years of each small school’s existence.

If the data that the DOE submitted to OCR hold up under closer scrutiny, that’s good news for rising ninth-grade students with disabilities and with limited English proficiency – although perhaps thin gruel for those disabled and LEP students in the past who sought entry to a small high school that did not welcome them. “Phase-in” policies often disadvantage some in the short-run in the hopes of benefiting more in the long-run, and there are legitimate arguments for and against such policies.

But I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of the OCR determination. The OCR letter states, “Data provided by the NYCDOE revealed that for school year 2008-2009, 59% of disabled students requiring SC or CTT services were matched to the first high school of their choice, while only 50% of general education students were matched to their first choice. In addition, 84% of disabled students requiring SC or CTT services were matched to one of their first three choices, compared with 76% of general education students.” As followers of the NYC system know, rising ninth-graders rank their top 12 choices for high school programs, and a computer algorithm matches students to schools so that students are admitted to their highest-ranked school that also ranked the student as admissable. (Or something like that.)

The point here is that few students, and their parents, would be willing to “burn” a top high school choice on a school that they felt would be unlikely to admit them. If the message is clear that a particular high school doesn’t welcome disabled or LEP students – and the low numbers of such students in the school is a pretty clear message – why would a student list that school as a top choice in the admissions process? Data on whether disabled and LEP students applied to these small high schools at the same rate as students without special needs might be more informative than the residue of a selection process that looks at whether students were matched to their choices. The blacks and Jews in my hometown did, in fact, gain admission to the clubs to which they applied.

Public schools shouldn’t operate like private country clubs.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.