Sorting the Students

An Indianapolis private school touted by DeVos is adding 400 more seats

PHOTO: Provided by the Oaks Academy

An Indianapolis private school that is dedicated to promoting racial and economic integration is planning to grow by 50 percent in the coming years.

The growth, which school officials say was made possible by larger-than-expected donations, will set the Oaks Academy up to potentially bring in even more in voucher funding from the state.

The Oaks is a private Christian school with three campuses in the city’s urban core. Leaders plan to expand the school to educate 1,224 students, up from its current enrollment of 815, according to a release.

The school consistently earns top marks from the state because of students’ test scores and, unusually, has a racially and economically diverse student body. Chalkbeat visited the Oaks in 2015 as part of a series that documented how widely segregated Indianapolis schools remain decades after students began being bused to township schools.

The Oaks, which was founded in 1998, was designed to draw middle-class families with options back to the city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’ ” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

Because the Oaks enrolls a high number of low-income students, it is also one of the largest beneficiaries of Indiana’s voucher program, which gives state money to eligible low-income and middle-class families to pay tuition at private schools.

The school decided to expand after exceeding its fundraising goal of $4 million by $1.5 million, Hart said in a statement last week.

“Originally our plan was to grow to 870, but we were overwhelmed with the support of the community and interest from families,” Hart said. “We are now seeking an additional $2 million in donations to fund infrastructure, hire new teachers and make modest facility improvements to accommodate 1224 students total over the next several years.”

The Oaks has also won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who mentioned the school in March when asked whether school choice policies should be structured to promote integration.

“I clearly think that having diversity, racial and socioeconomic measure of diversity, is a real benefit in schools,” DeVos said. “I think about a school I visited in Indianapolis, The Oaks school. The mission is to really have a wide range of diversity school economically, racially. And it’s a successful school model.”

data points

A new report highlights Indiana foster children’s struggles in school. But is the problem even worse?

PHOTO: Getty Images

A new national report shows teenagers and young adults transitioning out of foster care are falling behind in graduating from high school, pursuing college, and finding jobs.

It’s a trend that holds true in Indiana, too: Young adults who have been in foster care graduate at slightly lower rates than their peers, are employed at lower rates, and rarely receive financial help to pay for educational expenses, according to the report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But one Indiana advocate says he believes the outcomes are even more bleak — and upcoming state data could show children in foster care struggle a lot more in school.

The numbers from the foundation’s report are based on a self-reported survey of young adults still connected to foster care supports. Brent Kent, CEO of Indiana Connected By 25, a nonprofit that supports young adults in the transition out of foster care, worries those results don’t represent the broader experiences of all children in foster care.

“They only survey the kids they can reach,” Kent said. “Those who are homeless, transient, or in shelters — they don’t get surveyed.”

Kent cited research showing more dramatic gaps, and said the report underscores the need for better state tracking of educational outcomes for children in foster care. The state is expected to release a report in the spring that for the first time breaks out data on students in foster care, including examining their test scores, discipline rates, and graduation rates.

The instability and disruptions of foster care — separating children from their families and placing them in temporary living situations — can cause children to fall behind in school and struggle to catch up. Children who have been in foster care are also more at risk of becoming homeless or being unemployed as adults.

Indiana serves about 32,000 children in foster care, according to federal data — a number that has been recently rising in part because of the opioid crisis.

The state’s education agencies and Department of Child Services will also work on plans next year to better support children in foster care in schools.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting.