Segregation now

Fifty years after landmark Coleman report, does diversity in schools still matter?

PHOTO: Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library
Grace McKinley escorts her daughter Linda Gail and a friend to Fehr Elementary School in Nashville in September 1957 amid Nashvillians protesting desegregation of the city's schools.

In 1966, America got a wake-up call about educational inequality with the release of a 700-page report commissioned by the federal government.

The underlying conclusion of the document, called the Coleman report after its principal investigator, was that inequalities outside of schools resulted in unequal educational outcomes. The report remains hugely influential, in part because it informed a policy shift in the 1970s to large-scale school desegregation.

School districts have long since abandoned the desegregation plans of the 1970s. But diversity in schools still matters, perhaps more than ever, says a panel of experts exploring education equity 50 years after Coleman.

“We’ve slid back,” said Claire Smrekar, a professor at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, which hosted the panel discussion on Thursday in Nashville.

Smrekar, who also serves as a consultant with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, listed policy changes that have resulted in schools reverting to their pre-desegregation racial makeups: Busing has long since ended and was far from perfect while it lasted, burdening black families more than white families, she said. Courts have forbidden districts from adopting assignment plans that specifically address race. Magnet schools, also known as optional schools in some districts, were championed as a tool for integration in the 1990s but have largely had the opposite effect.

The panelists argued that, despite challenges and setbacks, school diversity is crucial both to raising academic achievement and building trust among people of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, pointed to recent unrest in Charlotte, N.C., following the police killing of a black man.

Charlotte once was an exemplar of school desegregation but, like districts in Tennessee, the city quickly re-segregated its schools across the 1990s and 2000s. Now it has one of the lowest upward mobility rates for low-income children in the country, because of both school and housing segregation. “That’s not a coincidence,” Johnson said.

Panelists said school choice — the use of charter schools, magnet schools and other programs allowing parents to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood — might be one of the best tools to boost education equity.

But that takes thoughtful planning, said Carol Johnson, a former school superintendent in Boston, Minneapolis and Memphis, when charter schools first opened in Tennessee. Her husband taught at one.

“Choice is something we value as parents, but we have to be careful, because there are unintended consequences,” said Johnson, who headed Memphis schools from 2003 to 2007. “It’s not the what, it’s the how.”

Johnson said many black parents have expressed to her through the years that they value diversity because it prepares their children for life after school. “We have to get better at educating a more diverse population so we can compete internationally,” she said.

Richard Dinkins, who represented the plaintiffs in Nashville’s desegregation case and is now a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, said neither lawsuits or research are enough to ensure that desegregation actually happens.

“We need to have a coordinated community effort on how we are going to educate our children,” he said. “The lawsuit can’t do it. The research by itself can’t do it. We all have to do it.”

Behind the numbers

New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

When education officials announced this month that New York City had achieved the highest graduation rates in history, they made a point of highlighting the gains in high schools that have struggled for years.

At the city’s 31 “Renewal” high schools — historically low-performing schools that receive extra social services and academic support — graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014. That growth is greater than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe (though at 59 percent, Renewal schools’ average grad rate is still still far below the city’s 72.6 percent average).

The city touted these figures as evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, which is projected to cost $850 million, is having an effect — good news for education officials who have struggled to point to clear signs of progress in the face of decidedly mixed results.

But despite the increase in graduation rates, Renewal schools are graduating far fewer students than even one year ago, according to a Chalkbeat review, and roughly half of Renewal schools have higher dropout rates than when the program started — a sign that the city is still struggling to persuade students to enroll and stay in them.

Just 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools last year, 10 percent fewer than the previous year, and 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated three years ago, immediately before the program started rolling out.

August Martin High School, for instance, has boosted its graduation rate by nearly 14 percent over the past two years. But the Queens school also shed nearly a third of its 679 students over the same period.

“In one sense, it can almost be framed as a marketing problem,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Even though many Renewal schools have been losing students since before they were placed in the program, “schools that are struggling and have been identified [as Renewal schools] are not as attractive to families.”

Enrollment problems pose an existential threat. School funding is partially dependent on the number of students in the building, and as that number slips, schools may need extra cash just to offer core math and English classes — let alone extracurricular activities or art classes. And last month, the city cited low enrollment as one factor in its plan to close or merge nine Renewal schools.

Department of Education spokesman Michael Aciman acknowledged the enrollment drop-off, but pointed out that the rate of decline slowed across Renewal high schools this year. “We are explicitly working with school leaders and families to highlight improvements and help them get the word out about the strong work that is happening in an effort to reverse those trends,” he wrote in an email.

The new data also reveals that while a greater proportion of students at Renewal high schools are graduating, dropout rates have remained stubborn: Sixteen of the 31 Renewal high schools posted higher dropout rates last year than when the program started.

Partly due to enrollment declines, the raw number of students dropping out was about 25 percent lower last year than when the program started. But the overall dropout rate at Renewal schools has increased to 19 percent, about one percentage point higher than it was three years ago, and more than double the city average of 8.5 percent.

Aciman noted several efforts designed to shepherd high school students to graduation, including prep for high school exit exams, and tools that allow educators to better track students who are chronically absent or falling behind on credits.

And he pointed to data that shows progress in reducing in rates of chronic absenteeism and boosts in attendance — signs of engagement, he said, that could ultimately affect future graduation and dropout rates.

“Decreasing the dropout rate at Renewal schools will take time,” Aciman wrote, “but we’re putting the necessary structures and early interventions in place to make sustainable improvements.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.