Diversity Debate

More schools nationwide are experimenting with diversity programs, report says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

As the city faces increasing pressure to promote school diversity, a new report shows that more districts nationwide are using socioeconomic status to shape admissions processes.

Ninety-one districts and charter networks now have at least one school that factors socioeconomic status into its assignments, according to a report released Tuesday by the Century Foundation. The number identified by the foundation has more than doubled since 2007 and represents about 4 million students nationwide, the report says.

The report comes after the city enacted a law to report school diversity statistics and more recent controversies over school-zone changes, and in the wake of a widely reported 2014 study showing New York City had one of the country’s most segregated school systems. In November, the city announced a pilot program designed to increase diversity at a handful of elementary schools.

Though the city has been reluctant to go further, this report suggests a menu of options that could be employed if it decided to make other policy changes. (The report does not assess whether these measures succeeded, however.)

“There is some momentum for this work and a greater policy toolkit for what districts are trying,” said Halley Potter, the co-author of the report who works as a researcher at the Century Foundation.

The admissions options vary. A magnet school in the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado made the list, as did the entire district of Cambridge, Mass., which aims to achieve school diversity with a citywide formula.

Several school districts in New York City made the cut for participating in the elementary-school pilot program, which will allow schools to reserve seats for low-income students including Brooklyn New School, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, and the Neighborhood School in the East Village. P.S. 133 in Brooklyn, which admits students from two neighboring districts in an effort to maintain diversity, was also included.

Simply considering a student’s socioeconomic status in admissions does not make a school diverse, Potter warns. In fact, the report suggests that three of the common strategies — magnet school programs, charter school admission systems designed to draw diverse students, and transfer policies that consider diversity — have less potential than other strategies to promote district-wide integration, though they can be effective at the school level.

“It’s a separate and more important question to ask, how big are each of those steps?” Potter said.

Potter chose to focus on socioeconomic integration, in part, because using race explicitly is legally tricky. Federal guidance allows school districts to adopt race-based integration strategies, but only after they have considered race-neutral options. Socioeconomic status can be a good proxy for racial diversity, since a high proportion of low-income students are black or Hispanic. (While all of the schools in this report considered socioeconomic diversity, some have also adopted race-based enrollment strategies.)

Of the five methods of integration detailed in the report, rezoning is the most frequently used. Most public schools nationwide, including most elementary schools in New York City, enroll all students that live within a geographic area. If families of similar income levels and backgrounds live near each other, this creates schools with student populations of similar race and class.

Redrawing the lines with careful attention to the socioeconomic makeup of surrounding neighborhoods can help balance diversity in schools. Of the 91 districts and charter networks in the report, 38 employed this strategy.

As more districts adopt diversity policies, the Obama administration is expected to ask for a $120 million grant program Tuesday in its final budget that would help schools become more integrated, according to Education Week. The program could be similar to the socioeconomic integration pilot program started in New York by now-U.S. Education Secretary John King.

Potter said that the attention at the federal level, coupled with policy shifts around the country, could create a friendlier environment for integration policy experiments.

“Hopefully those two ingredients together will be a good mix,” Potter said.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.