Diversity Debate

More schools nationwide are experimenting with diversity programs, report says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

As the city faces increasing pressure to promote school diversity, a new report shows that more districts nationwide are using socioeconomic status to shape admissions processes.

Ninety-one districts and charter networks now have at least one school that factors socioeconomic status into its assignments, according to a report released Tuesday by the Century Foundation. The number identified by the foundation has more than doubled since 2007 and represents about 4 million students nationwide, the report says.

The report comes after the city enacted a law to report school diversity statistics and more recent controversies over school-zone changes, and in the wake of a widely reported 2014 study showing New York City had one of the country’s most segregated school systems. In November, the city announced a pilot program designed to increase diversity at a handful of elementary schools.

Though the city has been reluctant to go further, this report suggests a menu of options that could be employed if it decided to make other policy changes. (The report does not assess whether these measures succeeded, however.)

“There is some momentum for this work and a greater policy toolkit for what districts are trying,” said Halley Potter, the co-author of the report who works as a researcher at the Century Foundation.

The admissions options vary. A magnet school in the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado made the list, as did the entire district of Cambridge, Mass., which aims to achieve school diversity with a citywide formula.

Several school districts in New York City made the cut for participating in the elementary-school pilot program, which will allow schools to reserve seats for low-income students including Brooklyn New School, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, and the Neighborhood School in the East Village. P.S. 133 in Brooklyn, which admits students from two neighboring districts in an effort to maintain diversity, was also included.

Simply considering a student’s socioeconomic status in admissions does not make a school diverse, Potter warns. In fact, the report suggests that three of the common strategies — magnet school programs, charter school admission systems designed to draw diverse students, and transfer policies that consider diversity — have less potential than other strategies to promote district-wide integration, though they can be effective at the school level.

“It’s a separate and more important question to ask, how big are each of those steps?” Potter said.

Potter chose to focus on socioeconomic integration, in part, because using race explicitly is legally tricky. Federal guidance allows school districts to adopt race-based integration strategies, but only after they have considered race-neutral options. Socioeconomic status can be a good proxy for racial diversity, since a high proportion of low-income students are black or Hispanic. (While all of the schools in this report considered socioeconomic diversity, some have also adopted race-based enrollment strategies.)

Of the five methods of integration detailed in the report, rezoning is the most frequently used. Most public schools nationwide, including most elementary schools in New York City, enroll all students that live within a geographic area. If families of similar income levels and backgrounds live near each other, this creates schools with student populations of similar race and class.

Redrawing the lines with careful attention to the socioeconomic makeup of surrounding neighborhoods can help balance diversity in schools. Of the 91 districts and charter networks in the report, 38 employed this strategy.

As more districts adopt diversity policies, the Obama administration is expected to ask for a $120 million grant program Tuesday in its final budget that would help schools become more integrated, according to Education Week. The program could be similar to the socioeconomic integration pilot program started in New York by now-U.S. Education Secretary John King.

Potter said that the attention at the federal level, coupled with policy shifts around the country, could create a friendlier environment for integration policy experiments.

“Hopefully those two ingredients together will be a good mix,” Potter said.

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.