By the numbers

In Detroit and across the U.S., school district borders segregate in a dramatic way

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

School district borders often divide students by income — and in Detroit and many other places across the U.S., that gulf is especially wide.

That is the conclusion reached in a report released Tuesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to overhauling the way states fund education. The report looked at neighboring school systems and found that the poverty rate can be eight times higher from one district to the next.

“You’re talking about, really, haves and have-nots that are living across an imaginary border that has become very important and has become impermeable,” said Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of EdBuild.

With education budgets funded largely by property taxes, poorer school districts can’t pull in as much money as their better-off neighbors — even taking into account federal aid for poor students. Meanwhile, students who live in poverty often need more resources to succeed in school.

The starkest dividing line in the country separates Detroit from neighboring Grosse Pointe Schools, according to the report. In Detroit, 49 percent of children live in poverty, while the poverty rate in Grosse Pointe is only 7 percent. (Other recent measures of child poverty put Detroit’s rate even higher.)

The disparity is deeply rooted. In the 1970s, black parents and the Detroit NAACP sued over racial segregation in the city’s schools. In Milliken v. Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that neighboring school districts could not be forced to participate in integration plans. Today, the income disparity between Detroit and Grosse Pointe is even greater than at the time of the court decision, according to EdBuild’s report.

“It is sadly ironic that the number one border remains the border that was decided in Milliken,” Sibilia said.

Separating students by income can have damaging effects in the classroom, said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, a think tank that focuses on inequality, among other issues.

“When you have concentrated poverty you tend to see the weakest outcomes for low-income students,” she said. “Students are missing out on some of those chances to learn from different exposures, different experiences than they’ve had.”

The neighboring school districts with the widest disparity in poverty rates:

  • Michigan: Detroit City School District (49.2 percent) and Grosse Pointe Public Schools (6.5 percent)
  • Alabama: Birmingham City School District (48.5 percent) and Vestavia Hills City School District (6.2 percent)
  • Alabama: Birmingham City School District (48.5 percent) and Mountain Brook City School District (7 percent)
  • Pennsylvania: Clairton City School District (48 percent) and West Jefferson Hills School District (7 percent)
  • Ohio: Dayton City School District (47.2 percent) and Beavercreek City School District (6.58 percent)
  • Arizona: Balsz Elementary District (51 percent) and Scottsdale Unified District (11 percent)
  • Ohio: Dayton City School District (47.2 percent) and Oakwood City School District (6.96 percent)
  • Ohio: Youngstown City School District (46 percent) and Poland Local School District (7 percent)
  • Colorado: Sheridan School District 2 (49 percent) and Littleton School District 6 (9 percent)
  • Illinois: Carbon Cliff Barstow School District (45 percent) and Geneseo Community Unit School District 228 (6 percent)

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.”