Choosing segregation for a black child

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ black working-class parents sent her to the best — and whitest — school in town, thanks to an integration plan. Her husband, an Army brat, got an integrated education in military schools.

As educated and middle-class parents in a black but gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, they struggled with choosing a school in a segregated city, writes Hannah-Jones in New York Times Magazine.

Najya??? Hannah-Jones

Najya Hannah-Jones Photo: Henry Leutwyler/New York Times

An education writer, she wanted to send her daughter to public school. All the local schools serve low-income black and Latino kids and have low test scores.

“I didn’t know any of our middle-class neighbors, black or white, who sent their children to one of these schools,” she writes. “They had managed to secure seats in the more diverse and economically advantaged magnet schools or gifted-and-talented programs outside our area, or opted to pay hefty tuition to progressive but largely white private institutions.”

Not wanting her daughter to be one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white school, she rolled the dice on a segregated school, P.S. 307, with a great principal and strong funding. Most students come from the housing project across the street.

But she worries the school will gentrify. Neighboring P.S. 8, serving well-to-do whites, is overcrowded while P.S. 307 has plenty of room. If the boundaries are shifted — over vociferous objections from P.S. 8 parents — will their daughter’s school become dominated by affluent white families?

Alexander Russo wonders how many other people in “educationland” have chosen a heavily minority public school for their own kids. So far, he’s got Ben Speicher and Eva Moskowitz, both charter school leaders.

Family Sport Night at Community Roots School in Brooklyn. Photo: Beth Fertig

A Brooklyn charter school works at integrating students and parents, reports Beth Fertig on WNYC’s SchoolBook.

Community Roots Charter School is 39 percent white, 33 percent black, 20 percent combined Hispanic and Asian, and 8 percent “other,” much like its district.

To encourage socializing, the school “stays open late for regular get-togethers like family sports or arts nights, cooking classes for parents, teacher-arranged ‘play dates’ for kids who don’t know each other well,” writes Fertig.

More than 700 students applied for 50 kindergarten seats this year, but “only 25 percent of its students qualify for free lunch, far less than in the surrounding public schools.” To create a socioeconomic mix, the school now requires that 40 percent of students must come from nearby housing projects.

Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

‘You can get smarter’

Evanston is a Chicago suburb with one very large high school. It enrolls the children of doctors, lawyers and Northwestern professors. It enrolls students from low-income and working-class families. Half are white or Asian-American and half are black or Latino. 

When Eric Witherspoon took over as superintendent of the district, he saw a very integrated school with segregated classrooms, reports Sophie Quinton in National Journal. “Our Advanced Placement classes were disproportionately white, and our classes for struggling students were disproportionately nonwhite,” says Witherspoon.

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) tout AP classes at Evanston High

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) members encourage Evanston students to choose AP classes.

Evanston High has expanded academic supports, such as AVID, study centers, early morning and Saturday study sessions. In 2010, honors humanities was opened to all ninth graders. Those who do well earn honors credit and prepare for Advanced Placement work. Other students earn credit for a regular class.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English class (aka “Critical Thinking”) was an honors class for students who chose to do extra work and a regular class for others. It worked well — because the spread wasn’t all that great between the two groups.

Honor students’ parents protested, fearing the courses would be watered down, but “earned honors’ has expanded to ninth-grade science.

The school, which is very well funded, has invested in training teachers how to teach mixed-level classes and how to have “constructive conversations” about race. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has talked to staff about cultivating a “growth mindset,” the belief that you can improve, if you work hard enough.

The belief that “intelligence is malleable” has taken root, says Witherspoon.

“You can get smarter,” he says, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.

. . . Nine years ago, about 38 percent of juniors and seniors had taken at least one AP exam, and 77 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher. Last year, 64 percent of juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam, and 71 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher.

In the class of 2014, 88 percent of white graduates, 82 percent of Asians, 60 percent of Latinos and 44 percent of African-Americans took at least one AP exam.

A Smarter Charter

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Empowered teachers and integrated enrollments make for A Smarter Charter, argue Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of The Century Foundation. That’s the original vision of teacher union leader Al Shanker, they write.

“The charter model still offers an exciting opportunity to “build new schools from scratch,” the authors write in a New York Times commentary. “A small but growing number are using their flexibility in governance and enrollment to increase the influence of teachers and to integrate their student bodies.”

Some charter teachers have unionized with “thin” collective bargaining agreements that provide flexibility.

Others asks teachers to share administrative responsibilities.

Kahlenberg and Potter praise charter schools that serve a racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix of students. For example, San Diego’s High Tech High “employs a lottery weighted by ZIP code that capitalizes on the unfortunate reality of residential segregation” to achieve diversity.

“Different families want different things for their children,” writes Neerav Kingsland in response to the op-ed. “While socioeconomic diversity is a noble goal, it may not be the number one priority for all families.”

In addition, Kahlenberg and Potter dismiss “strong evidence of the benefits of charter schools for African-American students,” writes Kingsland. CREDO’s 27-state charter study found that African-American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months of extra learning per year. As yet, there’s “little rigorous research” backing the educational benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools.

The Prep School Negro

A scholarship took 14-year-old André Robert Lee from the Philadelphia ghetto to an elite private school. The Prep School Negro tells the cost of that opportunity.

D.C. renovates schools, but kids don’t come

Washington, D.C. neighborhoods are gentrifying.  “Controlled choice” could integrate D.C. schools, write Sam Chaltain, Mike Petrilli and Rick Kahlenberg in a Washington Post op-ed. Should integration be a policy goal?

The school district is spending $127 million to renovate Theodore Roosevelt High’s 1932 Colonial Revival building, reports Washington City Paper. It will be a “palace.” But who will enroll? Most neighborhood students choose charter schools or a higher-performing district school not too far away. Unless the new building attracts more students, it will be more than half empty. 

Last year, more test-takers at Roosevelt scored “below basic” in math on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System exam than at any other D.C. Public Schools neighborhood high school—45 percent, to fewer than 20 percent who scored “proficient.” In math and reading growth, which compare students’ progress to that of peers who started at the same achievement level, Roosevelt likewise comes in dead last. Fewer than half of entering Roosevelt 9th-graders graduate in four years.

Once poor and crime-ridden, the area around Roosevelt, Petworth, “is at the epicenter of D.C.’s gentrification wave,” reports Washington City Paper Educated middle-class professionals, often with young children, are moving in. Some poor families have been priced out.

The local elementary school improved dramatically and now has a wait list. But when children reach middle school age, savvy parents apply to charter schools or “follow convoluted feeder patterns to DCPS schools west of Rock Creek Park.”

When the two-year renovation is complete, Roosevelt High’s front entrance will be restored, flanked by  two more columned entrances to the arts and athletics wings. “The claustrophobic central courtyard will become a spacious, glass-topped atrium, and two new courtyards will be added to bring light into the building’s dark, 1970s-era additions.” A 1934 fresco is being restored. But who will go there?

There aren’t enough whites to go around

School segregation remains a reality: “74 percent of African Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s,” writes The Nation‘s Greg Kauffman.

But there’s a demographic reality to consider, responds Matthew Yglesias in Slate. U.S. schools are running low on white kids.

Non-Hispanic whites were 54 percent of the under-18 population in 2010, compared to 74 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Furthermore, among kids under the age of 5, non-Hispanic whites are a minority.

Meanwhile, the white people are not distributed evenly across the country. You’re not going urban minority kids to Maine and Idaho or the Texas panhandle so that they can attend more integrated schools. Nor are we about to ban the practice of rich people (who are disproportionately white) from sending their kids to private schools.

So you’re going to face a situation where most schools are majority-minority and the vast majority of minority kids are in majority-minority schools and there’s not going to be anything you can do about it other than try to make those schools be really good schools.

We can’t integrate our way to better school performance, agrees Sara Mead. That includes socio-economic integration, the dream of “smart liberal school reformers in recent years.” Like whites, middle-class students from two-parent families are in short supply and not evenly distributed.

The challenge is to design schools to meet the needs of low-income, minority students. The no-excuses model adopted by some urban charter (and Catholic) schools can make a difference. Are there other models with evidence of success?

The elephant in the integrated classroom

Clashing parenting styles, cultures and expectations undermine school integration, writes Jennifer Burns Stillman in The Elephant in the Classroom in Education Next. She interviewed white, upper-middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods about their school choices.

. . . white, upper-middle-class families prefer a progressive and discursive style of interaction with their children, both at home and in school, and lower-income, nonwhite families prefer a traditional or authoritarian style of interaction with their children in these same venues.

White parents who try an urban school and then leave cite overly strict discipline and  “near-constant yelling—from principals, teachers, school aides, and nonwhite parents who come to drop off and pick up their kids,” Stillman writes.

White parents who wanted to volunteer said principals and non-white parents saw them as pushy interlopers.

One principal was angry when white parents gave each teacher a $100 book card donated by Barnes & Noble, seeing it as “bribing” teachers. Parents called various principals “not the brightest bulb in the box,” “insane,” “crazy,” “incompetent.”

White parents didn’t do enough “ego stroking,” one mother said.  When parents offered to help out, “it came across as, ‘You’re broken and you need fixing,’ rather than, ‘We’ve got extra hands, we’ve got extra energy, let’s build up what you already have.’ ”

“Creating a successful, truly diverse charter school is enormously difficult to pull off, ” writes Alexander Russo, also in Ed Next. Students come with a wide range of abilities and background knowledge. Parents have different cultures and expectations.

. . . the list of strategies applied is a long one: frequent online assessments to diagnose and direct students to the appropriate activity; open-ended assignments allowing kids of varying skill levels to engage at their own levels; coteaching in which two teachers share responsibility for a group of kids; and looping, in which teachers follow kids from one grade to the next.

In one Brooklyn Prospect classroom, the English teacher makes as many of her lessons open-ended as she can and coteaches half of her classes with a special education teacher. She also offers additional uncredited projects called “Seekers” so that kids who want to can go faster without disadvantaging kids still working on basic skills.

“You can’t just put a heterogeneous population together and think it’s going to work,” Summit cofounder Donna Tavares tells Russo.

Mike Petrilli’s book, The Diverse School Dilemma, offers three ways to create integrated schools in newly gentrified neighborhoods.

Urban middle class tries public schools

In some cities, white middle-class parents are integrating public schools instead of moving to the suburbs, reports USA Today. They’re pushing for programs that serve their children’s needs, such as a ballet class at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School.

“Many of them express a deep attachment to the city,” said University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. “They see the suburbs as sterile, as boring. They also see the suburbs as not a realistic preparation for their children for life.”

Public schools integrated by race, income and class are popping up in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco, according to USA Today.

“True educational equity can only occur in socioeconomically diverse classrooms,” said Josh Densen, a former KIPP teacher in Harlem who’s now working to open an integrated charter school in post-Katrina New Orleans.  The city has several KIPP schools, but a model designed for disadvantaged students who lack basic skills isn’t a good fit for his daughter, Densen believes.

Brooklyn Prospect started four years ago with a sixth grade class and is adding a grade each year to become a middle-high school. It now occupies a former Catholic school building — with a convent on the fourth floor for eight nuns. The rigorous International Baccalaureate program attracts educationally ambitious parents. Students are admitted by lottery — with a preference for low-income students to keep the school diverse. Forty percent of students qualify for a free lunch, according to USA Today. Nearly half the students are white and Asian; the rest are Hispanic and black.

According to Inside Schools:

Advanced students may do “seeker” projects, taking on more in-depth assignments. Students who need extra help go to small group tutorials to “reinforce skills and close the skills gap,”  while others are in study hall . . . Teachers stay after school or come in early for study sessions or test review.

Ninth graders are separated into two English classes: literature (for stronger students) and composition (for struggling readers and writers).

Diversity won’t work without challenging work for high achievers and extra help for stragglers.

To take the-glass-is-nearly-empty view, suburban schools are resegregating, write Erica Frankenberg, a Penn State education professor, and Gary Orfield, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Black and white and poorly led all over

Jeffrey Brooks’ Black School White School: Racism and Educational (Mis) Leadership describes an integrated high school that’s hideously dysfunctional, writes Stuart Buck in a TCR Record review.

Black and white school leaders don’t meet to discuss problems across racial lines, both sides tell Brooks. It would be consorting with “the enemy.”

Students don’t want to do schoolwork. The overstaffed administration does little work either.

The (health education magnet leader) resigned after a mere three months for lack of support. She “was never replaced, and, in fact, her students roamed the halls during her assigned instructional hours.”

. . . Administrators declined to hand out National Merit Awards to two students at an assembly, because they had neglected to learn how to pronounce the students’ names (one was Kenyan, the other Japanese)

Academic excellence isn’t valued: The black principal, whose only teaching experience is in P.E.,  tells a black teacher to quit the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, which has equal numbers of white and black students, because she’s not “keeping it real.”

Worse, the principal tries to meet accountability targets by forcing the worst students to drop out before the head count for the state exam.

“This reveals the paradox of school-level accountability,” writes Buck. “Just where the threat of accountability is most needed” — when school leaders are incompetent or dishonest — ” it is the most hopeless.”