'small steps'

In Brooklyn’s segregated District 15, a plan to boost diversity emerges

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
City Councilman Brad Lander, left, talking about Chancellor Carmen Fariña to a group of parent leaders in 2014.

A Brooklyn city councilman who is becoming a leading voice against segregation wants every middle school in his local school district to reserve some spots for poor students.

Under Councilman Brad Lander’s proposal, each middle school in District 15 would set aside a percentage of seats for students from low-income families — just like schools in the city’s new Diversity in Admissions initiative, which allows schools to change their enrollment policies to boost student diversity.

But parent leaders say more comprehensive reform is needed to take advantage of the district’s unusual potential for diversity. According to Lander’s own simulation, the proposal might increase the number of poor students at only three schools in the district, which is heavily stratified by race, class and academic achievement.

“It’s not going to achieve something like full integration in which every school would have demographics that would match the demographics of the district. What it is, in my opinion, is a meaningful step forward,” Lander said.

Lander called his proposal an “idea” rather than a concrete plan — and only one step towards broader changes.

It’s unclear how a district-wide set-aside would be implemented. So far, the Diversity in Admissions program has required individual schools to opt-in. The District 15 Community Education Council is expected to further debate the proposal at its next meeting.

In District 15, 16 percent of students are Asian, 15 percent are black, 38 percent are Hispanic and 28 percent are white. But 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective schools, according to an analysis by parents.

And while 66 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch, they are not distributed evenly throughout the district. Some schools serve virtually only poor students, while others have as little as a quarter of students from low-income families.

A group called Parents for Middle School Equity argues that the district’s admissions policy ultimately must change to make a real difference.

School segregation is often blamed on housing patterns and attendance boundaries. But District 15 has a “choice” policy for its middle schools, and each school sets its own admissions criteria. Reyhan Mehran, a member of the parent group, said the system favors plugged-in parents with the time and resources to navigate an opaque and complicated process.

“It ultimately sorts the kids in this district into two groups of schools: one that educates the majority of our higher-needs kids, and those schools happen to educate most of the Latino kids,” she said. “And another group of schools that educates most of our lower-needs kids. And those schools happen to educate most of the white kids in our district.”

Lander has said he also supports “broader reform” when it comes to the admissions process. Parents for Middle School Equity has not advocated for any particular solution, only saying that community input is needed to pinpoint the problems and come up with potential fixes.

Superintendent Anita Skop said the district has already taken steps to make the application process more fair, like making sure selective schools conduct outreach in both well-heeled and working-class communities. She has also started a diversity committee to start talking about district-wide issues.

Before making wide-scale changes, Skop said she wants to make sure she hears from a broad range of parents.

“I do not have the right to speak for people whose skin I don’t live in, whose shoes I don’t wear,” she said.

It's Friday. Just show a video.

How a push to save some of Indiana’s oldest trees taught this class about the power of speaking out

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students working at the School for Community Learning, a progressive Indianapolis private school that depends on vouchers.

Alayna Pierce was one of seven teachers who participated in story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

Pierce’s story is a letter she wrote to her second and third grade students at the School for Community Learning, a private school in Indianapolis. In it, she recounts how they came together as a class and as a community to save some of the state’s oldest trees.

Check out the video below to hear Pierce’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.

Charter appeals

Siding with local district, Tennessee State Board denies two Memphis charter appeals

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of Tennessee State Board of Education

Tennessee’s education policymaking body is switching course this year to side with the state’s largest school district in denying two charter school applicants.

On Friday, the nine-member Tennessee State Board of Education unanimously rejected the appeals of two charters that sought to open all-girls schools in Memphis next fall. The charter applicants will now have to wait until next year and reapply with Shelby County Schools, which had rejected their applications this year, if they so choose.

The decision on Friday stands in contrast to the state board’s dramatic overruling of the local board last year that resulted in the first charter school authorization by the panel in Memphis. That essentially added another state-run district in the city, and the State Board of Education joins just one other state in the nation to also operate as a school district.

The board acted in accordance this year with recommendation from Sara Morrison, the executive director of the State Board of Education, in the denial of appeals by The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders.

The vote comes a month after the Shelby County Schools board turned down their applications,  along with nine others. After a charter applicant is denied by the local school district, they can appeal to the State Board of Education and be re-reviewed by a six person committee.

Morrison told board members that both charter applicants failed to meet requirements in their plans for school finances (Her analysis specified that one of the schools relied too heavily on philanthropic donations).

She added that the applications did not fully meet standards in the other two categories measured: operations and academics.

Board members accepted her recommendations on Friday without questions.