the segregation situation

Is reversing school segregation possible in New York City? Expert panel weighs in

Two of Dougco parent Meredith Massar's daughters join friends in a "peaceful protest" outside the Douglas County Public Schools administration building Thursday.

A panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society Wednesday night tackled the thorny issue of school diversity, sparking a conversation about whether integration is a viable option and delving into the causes of school segregation in New York City.

“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said moderator Beth Fertig, who covers the city’s public schools for WNYC, after reminding the crowd that a report released last year found that New York’s schools are among the most segregated in the country.

But with school segregation — and the country’s largest school system — there are no simple answers. Panelists discussed the nuances of racial versus socioeconomic segregation and argued about whether magnet schools or changes to enrollment policies could be workable, long-term solutions.

The panel comes at a time when school segregation has garnered attention in New York, following a UCLA study that detailed how the the state’s schools are deeply divided along racial lines. The report found that in 19 of New York City’s 32 community school districts, 10 percent or less of public-school students were white in 2010.

The event, which drew a large audience, started with a foundational question: What causes school segregation?

Panelists disagreed about whether the issue is best understood as divisions along socioeconomic or racial lines. Socioeconomic segregation is the best way to frame the issue, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of Insideschools, a website that offers reviews of the city’s public schools. Hemphill said that concentrated poverty is the largest challenge to a school’s academic performance.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has spent years covering school segregation, argued that the issue at hand is race. Black, middle-income Americans are more likely than poor white children to live in poor neighborhoods, which means black children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools, she said.

“This is a racialized poverty,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think sometimes we are more comfortable with class-based [segregation] because we feel we can transcend our class and you can’t transcend your race, but these two are absolutely linked.”

Craig Gurian, a civil rights lawyer, pointed to a map of the city, color-coded to show where low percentages of black residents lived in blue and areas with high percentages of black residents live in red. The map revealed clusters of each color but little overlap.

“Even though you can’t go 10 minutes in New York City without hearing how diverse the city is, it’s actually residentially an extraordinarily segregated place,” Gurian said. “And where you have segregated housing you have segregated schools.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña also faced criticism over their slow response to integration plans proposed by a dozen individual schools last year, an issue Chalkbeat highlighted earlier this month. Both officials were asked about the delays, and whether they have plans to promote diversity, on the first day of school.

Fertig paraphrased their responses: “In other words, no solution,” she said.

Panelists themselves were split over whether there are feasible ways to combat school segregation. Some panelists offered magnet schools as a potential tool. But Hannah-Jones said that when she talks and writes about segregation, “I never end on a hopeful message.”

“If you are in a city with one of the most progressive mayors in the country, and we are under the Obama administration, and they will not talk about school integration and segregation,” Hannah-Jones asked, “what really hope does one have that we’re going to see any large-scale change for the masses?”

Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a member of the Panel for Educational Policy, noted that he plans to introduce a proposal at the next PEP meeting that he hopes will be “a beginning discussion” about how the city could boost school diversity.

The proposal is to strike a footnote in city rules that says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order. Fruchter also said he favors setting aside a certain percentage of seats in each high school for students with disabilities, English language learners, and over-the-counter students, who enroll outside of the traditional admissions process.

He acknowledged that enrollment changes aimed at distributing the city’s neediest students are more difficult to implement in middle and elementary schools, Fruchter said, since a family’s address plays a large role in determining younger children’s school assignments.

“I can’t figure out how you would do this below the high school level,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Fertig asked the crowd whether they believed integration should have been on the education agenda that Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined in a high-profile speech earlier on Wednesday. The mayor’s plan includes expanding access to Advanced Placement classes, adding reading specialists to elementary schools, and providing computer science instruction in all schools.

One parent raised her hand to raise a different point: The battle that matters most to black and Hispanic families is not whether their children’s schools are segregated, but whether they have access to the resources they need.

“Parents of color have thrown up their hands,” she said, then directed her comments at white members of the audience and panel.

“Segregation is not our conversation,” she said. “This is y’alls conversation.”

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”