Sorting the Students

In the face of parent pleas, Indianapolis Public Schools board modifies Butler lab expansion plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Luba Winship and her family live on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She is concerned that her youngest son may not be able to enroll at School 60.

The Indianapolis Public Schools board approved a plan to convert School 55 to the second magnet school in partnership with Butler University Thursday. But in the face of pleas from crying students and parents, the board modified the proposal.

The challenge facing the board was finding a way to accommodate families from across the district who are currently at School 60, the first Butler lab magnet, while also recreating the same school culture at a second campus and containing transportation costs.

The board is committed to replicating successful programs throughout the district, and families need to enroll in newly created programs for them to succeed, said board member Michael O’Connor.

“Some difficult decisions are going to have to be made,” he added.

The decision to convert School 55 to a magnet is the district’s latest move away from the traditional model of assigning students to schools by neighborhood in favor of an approach that encourages families to choose schools by academic focus and philosophy.

Because School 55 will be the second Butler lab magnet, the board designated boundaries for the two schools that aim to reduce transportation costs, balance the number of children eligible for each school and keep the schools diverse. Families who live on the east side of the district will be eligible to apply to School 55. On the west side, families will apply to School 60.

For the 160 students who are currently at School 60 but live in the School 55 boundaries, the initial proposal offered what was meant to be a compromise: They would be allowed to remain at School 60, but the district would no longer bus their children. If they chose to move to School 55, there would be busing.

But the offer did little to appease the parents who delivered impassioned pleas to the board ahead of the vote Thursday.

Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60, live on the east side, in the School 55 boundaries.

Spencer went to the microphone with his mother to read a letter to the board. “There are many people out there that can’t drive their children to school,” he said, before his sobs overwhelmed him and he had trouble speaking.

Driving her son to school every day isn’t an option for her family because she and her husband work, Goodson said.

“Zero of Spencer’s closest friends are also zoned for 55,” she said. “My heart ached when I realized that quite possibly Spencer is going to be separated from people he has cared about for over half his life.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60.

Estimates suggest that providing busing for east side students could cost more than $200,000 per year, or over $1,000 per child, said IPS staffer Joe Gramelspacher.

But in the end, the pleas of parents like Goodson swayed the board. Although they approved the proposal to make School 55 a Butler lab school, they also voted to continue providing transportation to current east side families at School 60 for one year.

“This is the cost of doing business,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “If you are going to expand programs there is going to be an additional cost at least initially.”

But there are other issues raised by current School 60 families that the board didn’t address.

Luba Winship also lives on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She raised concerns that with the proposed boundaries, her youngest child, who is not yet in school, may not be able to win a spot at School 60 because students in the school’s boundaries will have an advantage in the admissions lottery.

“We live less than a mile away from our school,” she said. But “as proposed our last child will have to go to a separate school from his siblings and travel over two and half miles to do so.”

The Butler lab program uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which emphasizes hands-on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. It began at School 60 about five years ago, and since then, it has become one of the district’s most popular magnet programs. Last year 266 students were placed on the school’s waitlist.

In contrast, enrollment at School 55 has been falling, and the elementary school with grades K-6 enrolled just 172 students last year, far below capacity. When it becomes a magnet school, current students at School 55 will be encouraged to stay. The district plans to expand the school up to 8th grade (something parents pushed for), and in order to fit all the students IPS expects, it will add six portable units to the building.

The effort to expand magnet schools goes hand-in-hand with other changes taking place in the district that emphasize options for families and students instead of neighborhood schools. This fall, the district will use Enroll Indy, common enrollment website that allows families to apply for charter schools and magnet schools in one place. And next year, IPS will convert all of its high schools to magnet programs, where students choose the school’s they attend based on their academic and career interests rather than geography.

School 55 was the last remaining neighborhood school in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor. Beginning next year, students who live in that vast territory will have a single boundary school, School 43, which has a new principal following years of instability and low test scores.

The other schools in the northside area offer a broad spectrum of options — Montessori, International Baccalaureate and gifted programs — but they have one thing in common: Students must apply and space is limited.

At most of the district’s magnet schools, families apply the year before and students are admitted by lottery if there are more applicants than seats. Some students get priority in the lottery, including those who have siblings at the school, who live within a zone about a half mile around the school and whose parents work for the district.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.