New York

Are "culturally focused" schools worth watching?

Today, the Daily News reported that backers of a proposed charter school that would focus on Hebrew language and culture have already ruled out the possibility of trying to secure space in a public school building. Most charter schools in the city are housed in existing DOE buildings, but as the DOE has opened more and more schools, both charter and non-charter, existing public schools have put up battles over having to share space. Any charter school operators with the financial wherewithal to contract their own space would eliminate some headache by doing so.

In addition, backers of the Hebrew-language school are surely thinking already about how to avoid the problems that have plagued the Khalil Gibran International Academy since before that school opened in 2007. The two schools with which the DOE assigned Khalil Gibran, an Arabic-themed non-charter middle school in Brooklyn, to share space put up a serious fight, with some opponents veiling their racism only thinly or not at all. This fall, Khalil Gibran is being moved to a different school — PS 287, an elementary school with declining enrollment near the Brooklyn Navy Yard — and the antagonism resurfaced briefly. All of this commotion was no doubt distracting from the already difficult tasks of teaching and learning.

On the other hand, intentionally isolating the proposed school from existing schools heightens the impression that the school presents no church-state conflicts. In fact, the expansion of themed schools in New York and elsewhere has created situations where the line between church and state can appear blurred. In Minnesota, the state department of education recently investigated the Tarek ibn Ziyad Charter Academy, which has many Muslim students, and found that it “generally complied” with federal rules about the separation of church and state. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune recently ran the transcript of an illuminating discussion among several charter school operators from the Twin Cities area, where a vibrant charter school culture includes several schools that serve students of predominantly one religious or ethnic group. In the discussion, charter school operators describe how they negotiate the line between teaching religion and teaching about religion. They also expound on their thoughts about the benefits of educational environments centered around a particular culture.

Said the operator of Friends of Ascension charter schools, which launched in a Catholic church with a “classical curriculum”:

With regard to segregation, if a school were established with a Western European focus, that would create an outcry. But there is no denying the achievement gap involving students of color. Research indicates that single-gender schools improve academic results. Similarly, results of culturally focused schools are worth watching. If they eliminate or reduce the achievement gap, who would say that’s not a great thing? …

Saying that “culturally focused schools” — here, clearly a euphemism for “culturally segregated,” given the contrast with single-gender schools mentioned immediately before — are “worth watching” is appealing, but it isn’t supported by evidence. In fact, all of the evidence we have shows that schools that are segregated by race and class are associated with a number of negative outcomes for students, both educational and non-academic. Themed and charter schools are often successful in generating high test scores (although the chaos at Khalil Gibran in its first year suggests high test scores may be unlikely there). But it’s hard to extrapolate from that that the schools’ cultural themes actually contributed to their success. Without careful evaluation of what leads to success in “culturally focused schools,” it’s possible for them to be used as a screen for those who prefer to see schools remain racially, culturally, and economically segregated.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.