questions of equity

Disadvantaged students more likely to be impacted by Jeffco school closures

Students at Pleasant View Elementary and a visiting foster grandparent in 2016 (Jeffco Public Schools via YourHub)

GOLDEN – The brick school building with the turquoise trim is not far off Interstate 70, in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, a 50-unit mobile home park and aging strip malls.

Compared to the rest of Jeffco Public Schools, Pleasant View Elementary in Golden serves a high number of students who live in poverty. Families can pick up milk and eggs at a new on-site pantry, and parents who drop in swap recipe ideas with the school mom who runs it.

The school was built in 1950 and needs work, including new exterior doors and roof coverings. The parking lot is the original, and the building lacks a full sprinkler system.

If the Jeffco school board follows a district recommendation in a vote scheduled for Thursday, Pleasant View Elementary will be one of five district elementary schools closed after this school year, part of budget cuts triggered in part by the failure of district tax requests last fall.

The district’s plan would impact low-income students disproportionately, according to data reviewed by Chalkbeat. Of the more than 1,400 students enrolled at the five schools, about 62 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — a common measure of poverty. Only 32 percent of students district-wide fit that definition.

In 2014-15, the schools recommended for closure enrolled about 141 homeless students out of the 2,642 enrolled district-wide, or more than 5 percent of that student population.

“It’s going to be devastating on low-income families,” said Tom Gould, a community leader in Pleasant View’s neighborhood. “The impacts are more severe.”

Jeffco officials say they considered 10 factors in recommending which schools to close. That included the cost of maintaining the building, enrollment shifts and the ability of nearby schools to absorb the displaced students. They didn’t consider student demographics.

Diana Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district did not intentionally target schools for closure because they were low income, but that other factors were the cause.

“More established neighborhoods happen to have smaller schools that are closer together because that was the trend when they were built and thus were more likely candidates for proposed closures,” Wilson said. “I just think that’s how neighborhoods tend to be.”

Across the nation, it’s common for school closures to affect disadvantaged families, said Ben Kirshner, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied school closure policies nationally. School closures can have a harmful effect on these communities, which already face an array of other hardships, he said.

“It’s very dislocating for a school community to have a school be closed,” Kirshner said. “First of all, there’s quite a bit of research that schools really do often serve as a kind of anchor for a community, a physical place that represents bonds that tie people together.”

Several people said that is the case at Pleasant View Elementary.

Peggy Halderman is president of the Golden Backpack Program, which provides sacks of food at the end of the school week for students at Pleasant View Elementary and other area schools.

Sitting at a desk in the pantry that opened just this week, Halderman called the school the heart of the community.

“If I had to go and say I need informed enthusiastic staff and parents who are willing to step up and a set of volunteers that we can call on, there’s only one elementary school that’s got all the trappings,” Halderman said. “My experience has been that the community steps up in a way that I don’t see in a lot of neighborhoods.”

While Halderman looked on, the mother who works as pantry manager, Jessica Estes, helped a fellow mother, Amanda Holycross, pick out chicken egg rolls and grapefruit juice to take home.

The mothers swapped stories about their kids. Holycrosse remarked that her family rarely buys grapefruit juice because it’s expensive. Estes promised to share a crockpot recipe with her.

“It’s building an even stronger community,” Halderman said.

Of the four other schools slated for closure, three have low income student populations well above the district average — Peck, Pennington and Swanson elementaries.

Those school communities, like Pleasant View, also support students’ non-academic needs.

Of the five schools facing closure, Pennington is the smallest, with just over 200 students, and serves the highest poverty population; 85 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Built in 1961, the school is tucked away in a residential neighborhood, easy to miss.

The Wheat Ridge school is also in its first year of turnaround status, meaning it is undergoing changes to help lift poor academic performance.

Esmeralda Gaytan, mother of a kindergartner and sixth-grader at Pennington, said that every time she’s had a question about education or how to provide for her children, she feels comfortable walking into the school and knows she will get an answer.

At Peck Elementary School in Arvada, 58 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches. The school last fall celebrated its 50th anniversary with a 1960s flashback party. Peck has built such a devoted community, it has an alumni association.

The school also has received high marks from the state for closing achievement gaps.

Amber Bowes, a single mom of a girl at Peck, said her school feels like a family. Bowes said her daughter is the third generation in her family to attend Peck.

“I know the school is safe,” Bowes said. “It’s a good mix of people. It’s a caring and nurturing environment.”

At a community meeting this week, parents and alumni of Peck Elementary voiced concerns about their school’s closure and that the district didn’t consider the school’s high performance.

Amanda Stevens, a Jeffco school board member, said Friday she is interested in exploring different factors the district could consider when closing schools. But she also guaranteed that regardless of what school students go to next year, they will get the services they need.

“We’re committed to seeing all of those services and programs continued,” Stevens said. “I think it matters in every decision we make that we consider equity.”

Wilson, the district spokeswoman, said district leaders have talked about how to best keep communities together when considering where kids from closed schools would be sent. Merging two schools that are in the same city might make more sense than combining schools in different cities, or in communities divided by barriers such as highways.

“So you’re still trying to keep kids that should know each other together,” Wilson said. “It’s about trying to redraw the boundaries so that they still make sense.”

But Kirshner, of CU Boulder, said school closures put other burdens on low-income families, including transportation challenges getting to and from school and after-school activities.

“It’s just disruptive to the routines of families,” Kirshner said. “They’re just inconveniences that not everyone is having to experience.”

Trying to avoid inequitably placing too much burden on one student group isn’t easy or cheap, Kirshner said. The best solutions, he said, involve long-term planning to create integrated schools and plenty of community involvement.

In Jeffco, concerns also have been raised about whether the schools set to take the displaced kids can afford to provide the same resources to students as their current schools.

Three of the five schools slated for closure are designated as Title 1 schools, meaning they get extra federal dollars because more than 65 percent of their population qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.

“You have a couple hundred kids who go to Title 1 schools, and they have access to extra funds and enrichment, but what happens when that goes away?” Halderman said. “Their needs and demands remain the same regardless of where you put them.”

Wilson, the Jeffco spokeswoman, said those resources won’t go away. In Jeffco, all schools get a set amount of money per student who qualifies for subsidized lunch.

Schools that have the Title 1 designation also get an extra amount on top of the per-student amount. Schools can use the money for a variety of things including to pay for extra teachers, social workers, extra teacher training or to support families. Schools with the designation can also choose to offer breakfast for free to all students in the classroom.

At Pleasant View, help the school provides includes a parent academy, weekly parent coffee meetings and service-based learning, which mixes community service work with instruction.

Pleasant View principal Janace Fischer said in a statement through the district communications office that she believes other schools will continue to support her students’ needs.

“I can confidently say that if (Pleasant View) does close, that doesn’t mean that these programs and resources will go away,” Fischer said. “They may occur in a different format and with different people but I am confident that other Golden-area schools will actively continue and support much of the current programming that we offer.”

Some of the schools Jeffco is proposing that students go to if the board agrees to close the five schools are not designated as Title 1 schools, but could be next year depending on which new students would enroll there.

No matter the fate of Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, the new food pantry that has quickly become a community gathering place will not disappear, said Halderman, who started it. She said the program would find a place in another school.

“We’ll follow wherever the kids are,” Halderman said

Halderman knows she will find the support she needs. When she called a local moving company to relocate industrial refrigerators to the new pantry, the man who did the move cut the bill in half.

He was a Pleasant View graduate.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.