diversity of opinion

State law keeps charters from helping to reduce New York school segregation, report says

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

A new report points to charter schools as a potential avenue for fighting school segregation, but cautions that New York State law could make promoting diversity difficult in the Empire State.

In theory, charter schools are well positioned to achieve racial integration because they do not admit students based on their home address, writes researcher Halley Potter in “Charters Without Borders.” That makes them more like magnet schools, which can enroll students from all over a city, than like many elementary and middle schools in New York City, which admit students based on where they live.

But in New York, where state law requires charter schools to fill seats with students who live within the local district before offering seats to those who live outside it, that benefit is limited. New York is one of seven states with such a law.

New York City’s 32 school districts include some with racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. But many, including in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn where the charter sector is strongest, do not have many residents who are white or middle-class.

Potter argues that the state’s enrollment rules limit chances to mix students of different backgrounds, which she said results in students attending racially isolated charter schools.

“It’s such a missed opportunity to restrict charter schools to in-district enrollment,” said Potter, who is a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” “If this were allowed for charter schools it would be a huge tool.”

The report comes as segregation in New York City schools is attracting more attention. A UCLA report issued last year found that New York Schools are among the most segregated in the country. The same report found that in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, nearly all charter schools were intensely segregated in 2010, with less than 10 percent white enrollment. The mayor and schools chancellor responded to a recent Chalkbeat story about stalled school diversity plans. The state has offered millions in new grants to city school districts and individual schools with plans to boost their diversity.

In crucial ways, racial segregation in charter schools stems not only from the letter of New York’s law, but from its spirit, too.

Some states permit charter schools simply as alternatives to local schools, opening them to middle-class families that prefer a different instructional approach or a focus on the arts, for example. In New York, the schools were created specifically to offer options to families whose children would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools.

That ethos has led charter operators to focus on enrolling local students, rather than engineering diverse student bodies.

“Our belief is that every community deserves great schools,” said Eve Colavito, the head of school for DREAM Charter School in East Harlem. “We do everything in our power to make sure that our scholars are from the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Potter said Colavito’s approach should not be treated as the only way forward.

“The public narrative around charter schools focuses on one particular kind of school,” Potter said. “That doesn’t take into account that some charter schools use their flexibility precisely to integrate.”

Indeed, some city charter operators have sought to use charter school enrollment rules, which require that students be admitted by lottery, to achieve diverse student populations. They include Daniel Kikuji Rubinstein, who runs Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and helped start the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools, as well as Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who argued in an op-ed earlier this month that charter school admissions lotteries could be used as tools to create diverse schools.

But New York City charter schools that enroll diverse populations are in racially and socioeconomically diverse districts. Moskowitz pointed to her schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill as evidence that residential diversity can translate into school diversity, but she did not note that her network’s Bronx and eastern Brooklyn schools are far less diverse.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said charter operators chose early on to employ strategies other than integration to boost students’ skills.

The attitude was: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to persuade white folks to go to school with black folks … I’m going to do what I can control,” Merriman said.

Though Merriman and Potter both believe charter schools can help foster school diversity, neither said they are the sole solution to school segregation.

“I don’t think [charter schools are] uniquely qualified,” Merriman said. “I think they are one part of the answer.”

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.