'fault lines'

A stark income divide along the border of two Colorado school districts

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

The Sheridan School District is small but proud, serving a community that grew up around the Fort Logan military installation southwest of Denver. Nine in 10 students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Though there have been glimmers of hope academically, the district sits on the state’s watch list for low academic performance and faces sanctions.

The bordering Littleton school district is bigger and better-off. Far fewer students live in poverty, with just 18 percent qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches. The district is the only in metro Denver to have won the state’s “accredited with distinction” recognition for five years running, and its three high schools regularly make “best of” lists.

The stark socioeconomic contrast between the two Arapahoe County districts earned a dubious distinction this week.

In a report that got a lot of people in the education world talking, the border the school districts share was spotlighted for having some of the largest differences in child poverty rates from one side to the other.

Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” produced by the nonprofit group EdBuild, found that the gulf separating the haves and have-nots along the Sheridan-Littleton border qualified as the ninth largest in the U.S.

To put that in context, the report examined 33,500 school district borders.

The study’s architects used U.S. Census Bureau income and poverty estimates to build their comparisons, not subsidized lunch rates. By the report’s measure, 49 percent of school-age children in Sheridan’s boundaries live in poverty, compared to 9 percent in Littleton’s.

“In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” the report says. “… We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal.”

To get their read on the disparities called out in the report, Chalkbeat spoke with the superintendents of the two Colorado school districts spotlighted: Sheridan’s Michael Clough and Littleton’s Brian Ewert.

Neither were surprised the border their districts share would be framed in such a way. Nor do they think the report provides enough context about their districts or how school choice and school finance work in Colorado.

Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).
Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert in his first day in the role in August 2015 (Denver Post file).

Ewert’s resume includes time at low-income school districts. He took the top job in the roughly 16,000-student Littleton district after a stint in higher-poverty Englewood Public Schools, and after working in San Bernadino, Calif., one of the nation’s most impoverished areas.

“The bottom line is, there is an absolute disparity between school districts with regards to boundaries, poverty, things like that,” Ewert said. “Those are the kinds of things we can’t control.”

One important wrinkle Ewert says the report missed — Colorado’s system of open enrollment, which allows students to attend schools in other districts if there’s room (and families are able to transport their children across district borders).

Ewert said that while open enrollment does a lot of good, it can also have unintended consequences. That includes “affluent flight,” or families bolting from schools in their home districts as neighborhoods change and poorer students move in.

Having pockets of poverty, like the Littleton district, makes it easier to devote more money to schools with the greatest needs, Ewert points out. His district has poured resources into high-poverty Field Elementary School, which has posted big gains in state test scores. That is a luxury not enjoyed by districts with high proportions of poor students, he said.

As the EdBuild report notes, chiseling away at income disparities along school district borders is extremely difficult.

A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case challenging segregation in Detroit Public Schools, Milliken vs. Bradley, found that desegregation efforts cannot be enforced across district borders, cutting off one avenue. Then there’s the fact that district boundaries — unlike, say, congressional districts — are not redrawn as a result of changing demographics.

Consolidation of school districts is one possible answer. The report suggests that the larger the district, the lower the chances of socioeconomic segregation. Van Schoales of the advocacy group A-Plus Colorado floated it as justifiable in this case:

Merging with a high-performing district is one option available to state officials considering consequences for districts such as Sheridan that are chronic low performers and about to run out of time to improve.

The prospect is pretty much a non-starter, however, given the sensitive politics involved and Colorado’s long history of cherishing local control, among other factors.

“I get this question (about consolidation) a lot,” said Clough, the Sheridan superintendent. “Sometimes people are bold enough to say, ‘Why are you still here? Why haven’t you been swallowed up?’ My answer is the same — We were here first.

“This is a community with a longstanding historical tradition of being here to support Fort Logan, the military base that was here a long time. (It closed after World War II). It’s a community with its own identity, its own government. When I took the job, I was told it feels much more like a rural district than our urban counterparts.”

Michael-Clough-239x300
Clough

Championing consolidation is based on the false premise that “bigger is better,” Clough said. Some families choice-in to the 1,500-student Sheridan district because of the family feel, he said. (By the way, 117 students living in Sheridan’s boundaries attend Littleton Public Schools).

Not surprisingly, both Clough and Ewert say fixing school funding in Colorado would help with inequities. The state regularly ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil funding, and superintendents have fought long and hard to change that.

Although property values are much higher in the Littleton district, Sheridan receives more in state per-pupil funding ($8,220, compared to Littleton’s $6,765) after a number of factors including poverty is taken into account. Higher-income districts like Littleton do have a leg up in passing bond measures and tax increases to support schools.

Ewert argues that the state first needs to adequately fund each student first, then have a conversation about how to provide equitable funding.

“I don’t think tearing down arbitrary community boundaries around school districts solves the problem without a funding solution,” he said. “People say, ‘Well, you can’t solve a problem by just throwing money at it.’ Well, if you throw adequate money at a problem, we can make significant headway.”

Achieving Diversity

Does gifted education help pave the way to specialized high schools? Here’s what we know

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of the city's specialized high schools.

The way Sam Adewumi sees it, the lack of diversity in New York City’s elite specialized high schools is largely a pipeline problem. And it starts with gifted education.

It worked for Adewumi, a black alum of Brooklyn Technical High School (class of ’84) and now a teacher there. Growing up in the Bronx, he attended gifted programs through middle school, which paved the way for his admission to one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, and later, to Cornell University.

“This is the legacy, to me, of the gifted and talented program,” said Adewumi, who also runs a test prep program to help students prepare for the specialized high schools test. “There’s not another generation of us coming forward. So right now, we lost a generation.”

While 70 percent of New York City students are black or Hispanic, they comprise less than 30 percent of the city’s gifted students. And black and Hispanic students received only 10 percent of offers to specialized high schools in the latest admissions round.

A new task force is attempting to address both deficits, but that raises a question not fully answered by Adewumi’s anecdote: Is gifted education really a pipeline for specialized high schools?

Based on a small analysis, the answer seems to be yes — and no.

Of the 357 fifth-graders in citywide gifted schools in 2011-12, about 33 percent ended up attending a specialized high school last year. That’s according to numbers crunched for Chalkbeat by Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

But the numbers don’t break down evenly: Of the white and Asian students, 40 percent went on to specialized high schools. Of the black and Hispanic students, only 14 percent did.

Another 14 percent of the black students ended up at other highly-selective high schools, as did 8 percent of the Hispanic students.

Mader only analyzed students in citywide programs for this project, a fact that could skew the numbers since admission to citywide gifted programs is more competitive, requiring a near-perfect test score. Seats in citywide gifted schools, which only enroll students who are gifted, represent about 13 percent of the total fifth-grade seats in all gifted programs, according to data from the city.

Although limited, the data is in line with previous findings that black and Hispanic students — even those who are high achieving — are less likely to attend competitive high schools.

To Adewumi, the results of Mader’s analysis are not surprising. Rather, they point to a bottleneck that begins with a lack of options for high-achieving students once they reach middle school.

“The pipeline breaks in the whole middle school process,” he said, rattling off middle schools in Brooklyn that once had gifted programs, but no longer do. “How do you create access?”

His hunch is confirmed by research. A cadre of elite middle schools send an outsized number of students to specialized high schools, according to a separate report co-authored by Mader.  That report found that about 60 percent of seventh-grade students who went on to specialized high schools came from only 45 middle schools — out of more than 530 total in the city.

That echoed the findings of a study by researchers at New York University, which found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just 5 percent of the city’s public middle schools.”

Of the students in those top “feeder” schools, 58 percent were in programs, including gifted programs, that required tests for admission.

However, Sean Corcoran, who co-authored the NYU report, says the role of gifted education in preparing kids for specialized high school is unclear. Corcoran and co-author Christine Baker-Smith did not study whether there’s any consistent difference in gifted programs that gives students a leg up. Those feeder schools may just sort out students who are already high-achieving, he said.

“The kinds of kids who do well on the admissions tests, in general, are kids who would do well at other schools,” Corcoran said. “So it’s not like starting another gifted program will all of a sudden make a lot more kids more competitive.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to low representation of black and Hispanic students in specialized high schools, said Clara Hemphill, editor at the school review website InsideSchools. Although she has qualms about New York City’s gifted programs starting in kindergarten and basing admission on a standardized test score, she doesn’t necessarily oppose the creation more gifted programs.

“Anything that would increase the academic rigor for talented black and Latino kids is a good thing,” she said

“What you need is exposure to a demanding curriculum and a peer group of academically successful kids,” Hemphill added. “In the middle class neighborhoods, most of the ordinary zoned elementary schools have that. In poor and working class neighborhoods, not many do.”

losing ground

‘Harlem diaspora’ sends local children to 176 different public schools, report finds

PHOTO: Center for New York City Affairs at The New School

Harlem elementary schools are “hemorrhaging” students, according to a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Just 37 percent of students who live in the Harlem portion of District 3, which also includes the Upper West Side, attended their zoned elementary schools last year. Meanwhile, 36 percent attended charter schools and 27 percent attended other public schools.

Even more striking, perhaps, is the breadth of public schools the area’s 2,447 elementary school-age children attended — roughly 176 in all, according to the Center’s analysis.

With so many children in Harlem attending charter schools or Upper West Side district schools, enrollment in the area’s zoned elementary schools has withered, the report found. Five of the seven zoned schools in the Harlem part of the district now have fewer than 300 children, and three have fewer than 200. Declining rosters mean smaller budgets, the authors note, and the higher-need children are the ones more likely to stay in the neighborhood.

A tense rezoning debate shook the Upper West Side last fall, as parents fought a decision to move some students from the coveted but crowded P.S. 199 to P.S. 191, a lower-performing school. Some residents of District 3 felt that a close look at Harlem’s schools got lost in the shuffle.

The District’s Community Education Council recently held a summit to focus specifically on Harlem.

“This is a door-opening,” said Kim Watkins, a CEC member who organized the event. “This is a cultivation of parent activism and community bridge-building so that we can figure out how to level the playing field.”