annals of choice

In Brooklyn's District 13, a task force aims to engineer socioeconomic integration

Seven years ago, when John O’Reilly arrived at Brooklyn’s Academy of Arts & Letters, nearly three quarters of the middle school’s students came from low-income families — mirroring the demographics of District 13, where the school is located.

Now, O’Reilly estimates those students make up less than 40 percent of the school’s population, and their numbers are declining annually as Arts & Letters’ growing popularity and new elementary school have made it a desirable destination for middle-class families in the gentrifying district.

O’Reilly, promoted to principal at the popular Fort Greene school in 2012, wants to make sure that the school doesn’t completely “flip,” or stop serving poor children.

“I need to find a way to hold on to that,” he said. “We are better all together than when we are apart, and we need more schools to look like that.”

The challenge of gentrification, and a potential solution

O’Reilly’s sentiment is something on the mind of many educators working in pockets of the city school system that are rapidly gentrifying.

While some neighborhood schools have attracted more affluent families, other nearby schools continue to serve mostly poor students. Advocates of integrated schools say that mixing these students more evenly is a crucial strategy to combat inequity. They cite research that shows low-income students learn more when they attend class with more affluent students — and, contrary to some parents’ fears, affluent students do not see their performance decline.

“This goes to the heart of what de Blasio is talking about,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the issue for nearly two decades. “The ‘two cities’ he talks about is directly correlated to segregation in the school system.”

O’Reilly believes he’s found his own way to address the issue at Arts & Letters, which admits students through an admissions lottery. He wants to reserve a portion of seats — up to 40 percent — for low-income students.

The idea has support from his parents and a district-wide task force on diversity, plus “verbal confirmation” from the Department of Education to begin in the 2015-2016 school year, O’Reilly wrote in a weekly dispatch posted online in December, though a spokesman for the department said no decision had yet been made.

Setting lottery “set-asides”  that favor certain types of students is common in the charter school world, but it’s unusual for schools run by the city. In fact, a similar practice was eliminated in a lower Manhattan district under the Bloomberg administration, which standardized enrollment policies to favor a pure choice model for families.

Engineering socioeconomic diversity is a delicate and often controversial pursuit. Most elementary schools admit students based on where they live, making diverse student bodies unlikely. In many parts of the city that have few middle-class residents, achieving a class balance within schools is unrealistic.

And setting aside seats for low-income applicants inevitably means keeping out more affluent families who are pining for a seat in O’Reilly’s school, which last year received more than six applications for every available slot. It’s a tension that O’Reilly knows he will face as the plan gets closer to becoming a reality.

In early, theoretical conversations with parents about diversity, “I only got positive feedback,” O’Reilly said.  “It’s only been since I said I believe this is going to happen that people have expressed concern.”

A unique opportunity, and recent history, in District 13

Still, advocates see the not-fully-gentrified District 13 as being particularly ripe for establishing socioeconomically integrated schools.

A few blocks away from Arts & Letters are two sprawling low-income housing projects and the shelter that until recently housed Dasani, the girl whose life the New York Times chronicled late last year. Her zoned elementary school, P.S. 67, 96 percent of student receive a lunch subsidy and more than 10 percent are homeless, according to InsideSchools.

At the same time, the median family income in Fort Greene jumped by $10,000 from 2009 to 2012, according to recent census estimates. In nearby Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, it increased at roughly the same rate.

The gentrification has had an impact on District 13 schools, with mixed results.

A decade ago, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights was under-enrolled, and most students were poor and came from outside its attendance zone. David Goldsmith, whose daughter attended the school at the time, recalled that he used to beg other middle-class parents to take a chance on the school.

“They were fearful of class and race issues,” said Goldsmith, whose daughter attended middle school at Arts & Letters during its early years.

Parents were eventually won over by new administrators who joined the school in 2003. The school flipped shortly afterward. Now, the school is bursting at the seams, and only 18 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

But at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill, parents have struggled to make the same case to their new neighbors, especially after Community Roots Charter School opened in 2006 and again in 2011, when Arts & Letters started an elementary school. The expansion caused friction at P.S. 11 and P.S. 20, which shares a building as Arts & Letters, because it was seen as siphoning off middle-class families.

The district-wide task force on diversity wants to manage the demographic changes in District 13 so that the effect on schools isn’t determined by competition. Led by parents, including Goldsmith; a handful of principals, including O’Reilly; and Superintendent Barbara Freeman, the task force has been studying districts where integration policies have been implemented, such as Wake County, N.C., and Cambridge, Mass., and are developing a plan to establish more diverse schools in District 13.

The group wants to build on the momentum established by a handful of recent enrollment initiatives in the district. In one case, Freeman and the superintendent of District 15, which includes much of middle-class Brownstone Brooklyn, together applied last year for funds from the U.S. Department of Education that would let four schools with high concentrations of poor and nonwhite students open new programs in an effort to woo more affluent and white students from both districts.

At the same time, P.S. 133, another District 13 school, was reopening with an innovative admissions model. This year, P.S. 133 began enrolling students from both District 13 and District 13, while also setting quotas for low-income students and students who are learning English.

Goldsmith said it’s still too early to know what policies the task force will end up proposing. But he said he’d like to eventually develop a districtwide version of the weighted lottery model at P.S. 133.

Known nationally as “controlled choice,” the model’s aim is to offer an integrated education to all students in the district. No student is mandated to attend a school based on where they live. Instead, students are sorted based on a combination family preference, proximity, and prioritized demographic or achievement factors. Admission is often determined by set-aside lotteries at oversubscribed schools and then tweaked so that each school reflected the overall district’s student population.

Goldsmith acknowledged that in order for such a system to work, it needs broad support.

“These plans have to come from the community,” he said. “They have to come from the ground up.”

An uncertain future for controlled choice

How quickly the task force could build public support and turn controlled choice into reality remains unclear. Even at Arts & Letters, O’Reilly said he knows that there are plenty of unanswered questions.

One question is technical: How will students be identified as middle-class or poor before they are admitted, since that information is generally collected once students are already enrolled?

Others are political: Will the new administration at the Department of Education keep the informal promise that O’Reilly said he received last year to move forward with his plans for a weighted lottery?

De Blasio has said little about what he’d do to change enrollment policies under the Bloomberg administration. For him, the primary engines to address the socioeconomic and racial achievement gap are through expanding early education and lengthening the middle school day. Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled support for creating more schools like P.S. 133 during a recent meeting with District 15 parents, but said, “These things take a long time.”

And then there’s the crucial question of public support: Will middle-class families, whose chances of admission to one of District 13’s most desirable schools would fall under the proposal, lobby against the plan? And will they choose to attend often lower-performing schools with many poor students, or will they curb the experiment by leaving the district?

Roberta Davenport, principal of P.S. 307 and another task force member, is optimistic that local residents will come to appreciate all of the options in the district.

P.S. 307 is one of three schools in the district, along with P.S. 15 in Red Hook, to have won the federal grant to create magnet programs aimed at attracting diverse families. The school, which is wedged among the Farragut Public Houses in Vinegar Hill and serves subsidized lunch 90 percent of students, received $1.8 million to develop its science and technology offerings.

Davenport said she hopes the new program — along with a program for autistic students — would attract more families from outside P.S. 307’s zone. In the future, she said, she anticipates her school’s high proportion of low-income students to drop.

“Each school will hopefully have something unique to offer,” said Davenport, who grew up in the same Farragut houses where many of her students live today. “It’s part of the vision for District 13. We are a district of choice.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.