integration conversation

Grilled by reporters, de Blasio says he wants to ‘level with the people’ about school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Two days after New York City released its much-anticipated school diversity plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced to defend its rollout, scope and goals.

The mayor held a press conference Thursday to announce an expansion of Advanced Placement courses, but reporters seized the moment to ask about his plan for integrating schools. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña was present for the first part of the conference but left without taking questions.)

The diversity plan, unveiled Tuesday, includes specific diversity targets, changes to middle and high school admissions, and an advisory group to continue the work. De Blasio called the plan a “good first step,” but critics have argued it is unlikely to make a dent in one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

Though he started the press conference by arguing his education agenda moves with “lightning speed,” de Blasio took a decidedly more measured approach when the conversation turned to school integration — suggesting his “priority” is to improve schools as they exist now.

“If I were to say we can’t give kids an excellent education in the current dynamics – come on, guys – do you know how many decades it will take to fix all this?” de Blasio said. “So would you really just tread water for those decades? I don’t think that’s fair. I think we have to fix the schools right now.”

His comments were reminiscent of ones he made last month, when he told reporters he couldn’t “wipe away 400 years of American history” in achieving integrated schools.

He also did not seem concerned about the difference between the words “integration” and “diversity,” despite some critics’ concern that the city’s choice to use only “diversity” in its plan downplayed the crisis. “I don’t get lost in terminology,” the mayor said. “I think the notion of saying we have to diversify our schools is the best way to say it.”

Here are some of the notable moments from the press conference:

On why de Blasio did not hold a press conference to release the plan

I think in this case we have an embarrassment of riches this week. We have a lot we’re announcing, a lot that’s going on, but I can safely say that’s going to be a major focus and it’s an important first step.

On what he considers to be a “right now” problem

We are concerned deeply with the kids right now in our schools who are living in a situation that is not yet fair, and we have to do a lot more right now to address it. The larger issues related to housing patterns and economic realities, which, again, were created over not just decades, but over centuries.

But my concern and how I always make clear the hierarchy of need here, is we have a right-now problem, and it’s not abstract – it’s practical and it’s real. We’ve got kids right now that we have to reach better, and the kids coming up right now. That’s why we’ve done things like pre-K and we’re moving to 3-K.

We have to improve the quality levels of our public schools and we have to do it in a way that promotes equity – that’s the mission, now – that’s the central mission. And so, I will look forward to a continued dialog, but I need people to understand that’s how I see the priority, because I’m concerned about reaching kids in the here-and-now.

On whether he will address screened schools in the future (The city’s high schools are academically segregated, which leads to racial and socioeconomic segregation)

Yes, absolutely. Some of that you see the beginnings of in the plan that was put out this week. There will be more to come. I personally want us to use every tool we have. I want to make sure there’s maximum access for kids of all backgrounds – that has not been the case previously. And I think kids really benefit from learning together – kids of different backgrounds. So, yeah, I think there is more we can do about the screened schools. I think the situation with the specialized schools is particularly troubling, and, again, I look forward to the day when that gets resolved. I think that’s something we have to do for the good of New York City. But yeah, we can do a lot more with the screened schools.

On whether students can get the education they deserve without attending fully integrated or diverse schools

Absolutely. And it’s not – look, would I like a perfectly diverse school for every child? Yes, I would. I really would. I think that would be the optimal situation. To achieve that will take many, many years and be up against immense physical and geographical barriers.

And that’s where I want honesty in the discussion. I think you guys are right to press me and my team. But I think you guys also need to look at the hard, hard reality of what we’re dealing with physically and historically.

On whether racially separate schools can be equal

You’re asking it in a way that I think is leading the witness. I don’t want that.

I would love perfectly diverse and integrated schools. If I could achieve that with the stroke of a pen, I would do that right now. And in my lifetime, I’ve benefitted from being in diverse schools. I wanted my children in diverse schools. I really get it. But again, we can have a conversation where we don’t come to grips with hard realities or we can level with the people of this city. And I’m trying to level with the people of this city.

If I were to say we can’t give kids an excellent education in the current dynamics – come on, guys – do you know how many decades it will take to fix all this? So would you really just tread water for those decades? I don’t think that’s fair. I think we have to fix the schools right now.

insider talks

Signal Mountain leaders just visited Shelby County to learn about school secession. Here are five things we heard.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley speaks with Valerie Speakman, general counsel for Arlington Community Schools, during three days of discussions with leaders of Shelby County's suburban school systems.

Leaders from a mountain town near Chattanooga spent much of this week learning how to follow in the footsteps of suburban town leaders near Memphis to create their own small school system.

Calling their trip to Shelby County a fact-finding mission, the mayor of Signal Mountain and a small committee of citizens met with leaders from the towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown, all of which just completed their third year of operating their own school systems.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from Hamilton County Schools and is home to three of the district’s higher-performing schools. If the town opts to exit, it would do so under the same state law used by Memphis-area suburbs to leave Shelby County Schools in 2014.

The law, which was pushed by the suburban leaders, allows towns with 1,500 or more students to form a district if the majority of its citizens vote in favor of the change. It doesn’t require the approval of the district left behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

For Signal Mountain, the circumstances are somewhat different than for Shelby County in 2014, which followed the 2013 merger of the mostly black and low-income Memphis City Schools with the whiter and more affluent county school system.

“We don’t have that impetus for change,” Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley said Wednesday about the Shelby County merger. “(This exploration) started with a group of parents expressing concern about the way our schools are going.” 

The committee will take their findings back to Signal Mountain, just in time for a public meeting next week. A full report of the committee’s findings will be released in the fall.

Chalkbeat sat in on all three days of this week’s discussions. Here are five takeaways:

1.  Signal Mountain leaders are asking how — not if — the town should secede.

While they stressed that they were on a fact-finding mission to decide whether even to pursue a pullout, much of the exchanges focused on the nuts and bolts of how to take that path.

Committee members were eager to hear what exactly the process was for the Shelby County de-merger and what it looked like to start their own districts — from teacher rights to employee benefits to transportation services.

Committee Chairman John Friedl specifically wanted to know about how to retain teachers should Signal Mountain exit the Chattanooga district. In Shelby County, each municipality kept all teachers who wanted to stay in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Their leaders encouraged Signal Mountain to do the same.

The committee was appointed in January by Signal Mountain’s Town Council and has invested months into figuring out if a new school district is viable. One parent member, Amy Wakim, has crafted a hypothetical budget that Howley said has gotten positive feedback from the State Department of Education. 

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Tom Cullough, John Friedl and Melissa Wood listen to municipal leaders.

While committee members focused on getting into the nitty gritty of forming Signal Mountain’s own district, Howley stressed that the town is far from heading toward a vote.

“This is a huge, huge decision,” he said. “… The minimum thing that comes out of this is that we can go share what we found with (Hamilton County school leaders).”  

2.  They heard glowing reviews of Shelby County’s 3-year-old municipal districts.

From academic gains to expanded course offerings to wider community support, the positives of local schools under local control were touted by a parade of municipal leaders.

“Education has become much more personalized,” said Arlington Superintendent Tammy Mason. “And buy-in from the local community has had a direct impact on student achievement.”

“The housing market in Collierville is going nuts,” added James Lewellen, his town’s manager. “The way people look at Collierville has changed. … We’re not doing this just to govern our own schools, but to change the way children are educated in Collierville.”

Other leaders described spikes in population and home prices as a result of the locally controlled school systems.

“This is a pristine example of if you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped to lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

After the first year of operation, five of six municipal school districts welcomed mostly positive state test scores. Districts in Arlington and Millington also saw their ACT scores go up, although college entrance scores in Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett stayed stagnant or decreased slightly last year.

Each municipality was represented at this week’s talks by their school superintendent and a town leader such as the mayor or city manager. No one from the Memphis-based urban district was invited.

3.  Local control comes with a price tag. Every municipality has raised taxes since the breakaway.

Starting a school district from scratch isn’t a cheap endeavor, municipal leaders acknowledged.

“Every one of the municipalities has raised their taxes … with tremendous support from community because people see dollars going directly into their schools,” Pickler said.

Most of the increases have been for property taxes, but some towns have upped their local sales taxes too. Bartlett recently approved a 35-cent property tax increase, in part to fund expansion and renovation of Bartlett High School at a projected cost of up to $60 million.

Facilities have proven to be one of the more expensive, and contentious, issues between the municipalities and the district they broke away from. In Shelby County, the facilities followed the students, meaning that new districts inherited school buildings in their city limits if a majority of its students lived in that city. That meant inheriting some aging buildings with significant maintenance needs. (Shelby County Schools is also dealing with deferred maintenance needs that total about $500 million.)

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Amy Wakim and Tom Petterson and attorney Phillip Noblett.

“We inherited a high school where the roof had leaked so badly for so long, there was mold was growing inside building,” said David Roper, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, the most socioeconomic diverse and cash-strapped municipality. “It wasn’t like we took over sparkling clean buildings … and (their condition) had not sat well with Millington for some time.”

4.  Leaders bristled at any suggestion that their pullouts are racially motivated.

The breakaway movement has taken a beating this month from researchers at EdBuild, who released a long-awaited national report labeling the breakaways as secessions and characterizing the trend as a new form of school district segregation.

That notion riled leaders from the Shelby County municipalities, who say the 2013 merger left many of their residents concerned that their schools would get lost in Tennessee’s largest district.

“It’s not about white or black, rich or poor,” said Pickler. “It’s about a community saying we want something better and are willing to invest our time, our talent, our energy.”

Lewellen of Collierville urged Signal Mountain to record and document every proceeding, in case charges of racism or classism arise.

“People try to rewrite history, and tell you why you did what you did,” Lewellen said. “People say there are underlying motives for it. No there wasn’t. … We wanted to self-govern.”  

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
“If you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

When the municipalities first announced plans to break off, the newly consolidated Shelby County Schools sued, charging that race was the motivation for leaving. A federal judge dismissed the suit and a settlement was negotiated.

Friedl expressed concern that a pullout by Signal Mountain would further isolate the community from the rest of Hamilton County, which is poorer and more racially diverse than the mountain.

“Our kids will have a better educational experience if they are exposed to more diversity than they currently are,” Friedl said. “We can’t reach down off mountain and pull kids up. … We can’t manufacture diversity.”

Shelby County leaders suggested open-enrollment policies as a way to avoid the perception of “walling yourselves off.” Any student living in the county can apply to attend a municipal school district free of charge. But there are caps on how many out-of-district students that municipalities can take, and those open-enrollment policies could change.

5.  Messaging is key.

Concerns about perception and communication strategies reverberated throughout the meetings, but a two-minute litany of advice from Collierville’s Lewellyn especially perked the ears of Signal Mountain leaders.

“Control your message,” he told them. “And get the hell off social media. Social media will kill you. If you lose your message, it will kill you.”

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

Lewellen warned that the message can get lost if people who aren’t involved in the process begin to speak in behalf of your town.

“We had to get dirty and say, ‘You don’t speak for us; shut up. That’s not our motives or what we’re trying to accomplish,’” Lewellen recalled.

When Collierville elected its first school board, Lewellen hired consultants to coach members about the importance of messaging and how to speak with the news media. He called it “the best thing (we’ve) ever done.”

“We talked about the importance of acting presidential, not acting like dysfunctional bunch of spoiled children. Show some leadership because the world’s watching right now. When you go in a public meeting, sit up straight, act presidential. Don’t fight it out in a public meeting; fight it out elsewhere. Be good leaders in this.”

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

'Each One Teach One'

This Denver program is tackling the literacy gap. Trump’s budget proposal puts it at risk.

Greenwood students Ja'zione and Arinze practice spelling the word "possessions" at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Photo by Marissa Page)

School has been out for weeks at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Montbello, but on a recent weekday morning three students sit around a table littered with neon-hued notecards and richly illustrated books. They listen attentively as longtime Denver Public Schools teacher Mary Ann Bash leads a lesson on “Ubiquitous,” a picture book about ancient organisms.

“What’s the oldest life form?” Bash asks.

The table is silent for a moment. Then one student, a soon-to-be fifth grader named Marissa, lights up. “Bacteria!” she shouts. And she’s right.

“She learned that from a book in 3rd grade,” Bash said. “They don’t forget anything they’ve learned here.”

This level of comprehension is exactly the objective of Each One Teach One, an after-school and summer program Bash created a decade ago to narrow the 30-million-word literacy gap for low-income students and students learning English throughout Denver. Now, all that is at risk as the federal program that is the main funding source for Each One Teach One and programs like it nationwide will be cut if the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget passes in its current form.

Already, Each One Teach One is coping with budget problems. Its initial five-year federal grant expired at the end of April, and the U.S. Department of Education denied the program’s application for a waiver that would have extended funding for another year. As a result, Bash said she had to cap summer enrollment — and will not be able to run after-school programming for the 2017-18 school year.

Bash said the federal grant funded 51 percent of Each One Teach One in previous summers, which was supplemented this year with a combination of private funding and DPS support.

All of the after-school programming, which includes a horticulture club, biking club, literacy service and English classes for parents learning the language, was federally funded. Bash said Each One Teach One’s after-school program will cease to exist unless it can find an alternate funding source.

The program, which combines intensive literacy training with hands-on activities such as art, gardening and biking, started in 2007 at College View Elementary in southwest Denver. Variations on the program have since run in seven schools, and Each One Teach One has operated at Greenwood in the primarily Latino Montbello neighborhood for the past eight years. The summer program runs mornings through the end of June.

Each One Teach One also includes instruction for parents for whom English is not their first language. Some of these parents in turn teach sections of the program’s classes in Spanish and English.

Students work in small groups of up to five, diving into thick picture books rife with illustrations. As they learn new vocabulary words, many based off the drawings and not solely found in the text, they practice spelling and use. Once they’ve learned a word, they write them on color-coded index cards — “keys to the future,” as Bash calls them — and carry them on lanyards.

Bash said she writes all of Each One Teach One’s curriculum and selects the books, which explore themes of the natural world and “giving back to your community.”

“We’ll talk about a word in the book like tendrils, and then we’ll go out into the garden and see what a tendril actually looks like,” said Micheala Carbonneau, a first grade teacher at Oakland Elementary and first-time Each One Teach One instructor. “It goes beyond the book’s vocabulary… They actually experience these words in a meaningful way.”

Closing the literacy gap for students learning English takes a lot of time and individualized attention. According to data from the 2014-16 school years, 58 percent of Each One Teach One participants narrowed the 30-million-word gap, which is believed to increase over time without rigorous instruction.

“The gap gets bigger and bigger for students that had less of this rich oral learning,” Bash said. “When they don’t have that, they don’t get as much out of their classroom instruction, and then they go home and don’t get it reinforced and the gap just gets bigger.”