First Person

Charter schools no silver bullet for integration, but a start

Last month, Jennifer Stillman shared her research on school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods as part of our Useable Knowledge feature. In her initial post, Stillman said that gentrifying neighborhoods offer a unique opportunity for racially diverse schools. She proposed two policies to facilitate that goal, including the establishment of charter schools who prioritize a diverse student body. Today, Stillman responds to questions and comments by readers.

The comments posted in response to my recent GothamSchools Q&A on gentrification and schools were very helpful in pushing my thinking, and I greatly appreciate those readers who took the time to engage with my work. For those who read my interview but did not follow the back and forth in the comments section, let me quickly summarize what I heard from readers.

Two major themes were repeatedly expressed in some form: 1) that charter schools are not the answer to school integration, especially those being proposed by the Tapestry Project, an organization many of the commenters said they find highly suspect because of its affiliation with Eva Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, and 2) that the voice of the non-gentry is not being given its due, and that poor children of color and their families risk losing out during the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.

I will start by addressing concern number two, as the point of my research, which was probably not adequately communicated in my short interview, was to understand the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods for the benefit of both gentry and non-gentry.

My research focus on the school choice process of gentry parents is because I believe, due to their greater access to resources, they are the ones who must choose to integrate for it to happen. But, as I expressed in response to one reader’s comments, it isn’t just the white, middle-class parents who would benefit from diverse schools. It is the non-white, poor children in our city who are hurt the most by the persistence of mostly segregated public school options. Diverse schools will not be white schools. They will be diverse. And racial and socio-economic diversity has been shown in other research to benefit low-income children who typically do not thrive in segregated settings. My background includes a stint as an urban high school teacher; I am not just a gentry mom. My research was inspired by my deep concern about school segregation from both perspectives.

That said, another reader’s point that poor children of color may not be served well by the gentry’s preferences, and that they actually might be better served by a school that “feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone” for the gentry, is a point that I continue to struggle with. As I expressed to the reader, my teacher training program left me convinced that progressive, student-centered methods are most effective. And I know I want that for my own children. And I can’t help but think that what I want for my own children is what I should want for all children. But others have argued for the value of a more authoritarian style of pedagogy in certain circumstances, most notably Lisa Delpit in “Other People’s Children.” All kids learn differently, of course, but I’m not convinced that breaks down along race and class lines. Further research may or may not provide greater clarity on this point. Issues of race and class are emotional and intensely personal, and logical arguments about what should be, based on the research (including my own), are lacking in their ability to account for all of the nuanced realities of the day to day that people experience.

In response to the many concerns readers expressed about the Tapestry Project and my support for charter schools focused on integration, let me first reiterate that my goal of creating diverse schools is because I think diversity benefits all children (not only the gentry children, but also the poor children of color currently attending segregated schools). What charter schools have as a policy tool is the ability to start as new schools, which are much easier to craft into diverse schools with the right outreach efforts. Changing existing schools, though possible, is very challenging.

A recent New York Times article, “Integrating a School, One Child at a Time,” focused on magnet schools as a tool for integration. Magnet grants are given to existing public schools, which means that although they have the same freedom as charter schools to recruit from outside restrictive zone lines, they still must face the challenge of changing an existing school culture and attracting white, middle-class families to a school that has a reputation as segregated. The most successful (in terms of integration) magnet school in the Times story was the one that managed to start new by phasing out an old school. I favor charters as a possible policy tool primarily because of the newness factor. But I certainly don’t see them as some sort of silver bullet, and I realize that all approaches have drawbacks that need to be considered.

In closing, I would like to thank all GothamSchools readers for engaging in this public arena with me about a difficult, sensitive topic, and I hope those who are interested in trying to integrate schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, or those who disagree that this is an idea even worth pursuing, will continue to engage with me on my website or in person. I live in New York City and am always available for a lively debate over coffee or beer (contact information on my website).

If improving urban schools were easy, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. I am always looking for better ways, and always trying to evolve my thinking as to what we, as a society, should be trying to do.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.