Great Divide

Upper West Side parents gather to tackle middle-school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

The contentious rezoning of elementary schools on the Upper West Side drew citywide attention to the challenges of integrating schools in a district that includes both affluent high-rise buildings and public housing. Now community members in the area are turning their attention to another integration battlefield: middle schools.

The Community Education Council in District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and parts of Harlem, hosted a symposium Thursday night focused on middle school diversity. It featured a panel of integration advocates and experts, including Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a secondary school; David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s Community Education Council; and Jeff Young, former superintendent of the Cambridge, Mass. school system.

In elementary school, students are assigned to schools based on where they live, but in District 3 and several others districts across the city, students can apply to different middle schools across the district. Yet, despite that freedom, the middle schools in District 3 remain deeply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

It’s no secret that school choice is not always an antidote to segregation. The city’s system of universal high school choice has not desegregated schools, nor that happened in other middle school choice districts, or when the city “dezoned” a district on the Lower East Side.

In some cases, that is likely due to the barriers schools use to shape their student bodies — like requiring students to submit test scores or projects, or come to open houses — all of which advantage those with the savvy to work the system.

Still, the influence of those obstacles on school segregation has been a relatively small part of the conversation. When asked at a press conference Thursday about how high school choice can lead to extreme academic sorting, Mayor Bill de Blasio jumped to an explanation that involved housing segregation — even though prospective high school students can apply to any school in the city.

“The history of our city, the geography, all sorts of other things that have determined how we are shaped today,” de Blasio said. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City.”

But the panelists Thursday spoke about ways to address middle school segregation — from personal appeals to district-wide plans. Here are three significant moments from the event:

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, on how she spoke with parents of new students when integrating schools

So in 2011, 10 somewhat trepidatious, white middle-class families came into our school. And we had said from the beginning, “You are welcome in our school.” And … there was zero discussion of what we are going to do for you. We said, “Here’s what we do for the kids who are here. We think it’s amazing. You are welcome to join us.”

So there were lots of questions about safety, which are really very coded questions about race and racism. We assured them that their kids would be fine.

They wanted to meet the teachers. They wanted to see the classes. There were lots of discussions of, “How’s my child going to learn next to this child who doesn’t look like him and I’m assuming isn’t as bright?” I’m just going to put it out there. So we just said, “Look, the kids here are just as bright as your kids and we’re going to teach them exactly the same way.”

David Goldsmith, president of CEC 13, on what he’s learned from trying to integrate District 13 about the importance of looking at the system as a whole

You cannot plan for success for some kids, or one school, and not plan for success for all the schools. So we decided very quickly that single-school models for set-asides was not fair, and it’s not what we were interested in. We would create these little Shangri-Las of these beautiful little high-performing schools that were diverse and all that. Meanwhile, all the rest of the schools got squat. And that wasn’t our plan, so we went districtwide.

Jeff Young on why parents have to be receptive to integration before you can enlist them

I just think the framing of the question of “How do you convince somebody to do something?” is problematic. How do you convince a kid to eat broccoli? You can tell them that it’s good for you. It tastes good, trust me. Or whatever kinds of things we say to kids to make them eat broccoli. But they have to kind of want to try the broccoli … If I had some little laminated 3 x 5 card that I could give you that say, “Say these three things and you’ll convince people,” I’d be happy to hand you such a card. But I just don’t think it exists.

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.

unions in charters

When charter schools unionize, students learn more, study finds

A UFT organizer hands out a pro-union flier to Emily Samuels, one of Opportunity Charter School's administrators. To the left, Ana Patejdl, a teacher at the school.

When charter school teachers push to unionize, charter leaders often fight back.

That’s happened in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Unionizing, they argue, would limit the schools’ ability to innovate, ultimately hurting kids.

But a new study of California schools finds that, far from harming student achievement, unionization of charter schools actually boosts test scores.

“In contrast to the predominant public opinion about school unionizations, we find that unionization has a positive … impact on student math performance,” write researchers Jordan Matsudaira of Cornell and Richard Patterson of the U.S. Military Academy.

The analysis is hardly the last word on the question, but it highlights the limited evidence for the idea that not having unionized teachers helps charter schools succeed — even though that is a major aspect of the charter-school movement, as most charters are not unionized.

“Contrary to the anti-worker and anti-union ideologues, the teacher unions in charter schools don’t impede teaching and learning or hurt kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in more than 240 charter schools. “And the findings — that schools with teachers who have an independent voice through its unions have a positive effects on student performance — are consistent with common sense and other studies.”

The study, just published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, finds that about a quarter of all charters in California — 277 of 1,127 — were unionized as of 2013. Together, they taught nearly a third of the state’s students in charter schools.

Forty-four of those schools unionized between 2003 and 2013. To understand the effects of that change, the researchers compared trends in test scores of schools after they unionized to similar schools that didn’t unionize during that time.

The researchers find that unionization increased students’ annual math test scores, and those gains persisted for least three years. The students who started at the lowest achievement levels seemed to benefit the most.

Those gains were fairly substantial: In math, they were about three times the size of the total advantage conferred by urban charter schools nationwide, according to research frequently cited by charter school advocates.

The estimated impact on English scores was positive, but small and not statistically significant.

The paper was not able to explain why unionization seemed to improve student learning, though the authors say it could relate to improved teacher morale or better relationships between teachers and school leadership. Oddly, unionization seemed to lead to a decline in teachers’ years of experience; it did not have any effect on class size.

The study comes with some significant caveats. Although the researchers make extensive efforts to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, it’s difficult to be sure that unionization is what caused the test-score gains. If schools that were already more likely to improve were also more likely to unionize, that could explain the results.

David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said the study was well done but noted its inability to explain the results.

Griffith, who released an analysis last week showing that unionized charter schools have relatively high rates of teacher absenteeism, also pointed out that many charters without unions are successful.

“Even if this study is true for these particular schools, we have examples of really high-performing non-unionized charter schools,” he said. “It’s difficult to leap from this study to say that [for example] KIPP, which gets these fantastic results, should unionize.”

Previous research has shown middling performance for one of the most high-profile unionized charters in the state, Green Dot, while other non-unionized schools, like the Alliance charter network in Los Angeles, posted better scores.

In contrast to the latest research, a previous study of California’s charter schools found that unionization had no significant effect on test scores.

Since the findings are focused on just a fraction of California’s unionized charter schools, they might not apply to other charter schools in the state or country — or say anything about the effects of unions in traditional public schools.