integration 2.0

A top state education policymaker benefited from integration. Now, he wants to bring it back.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Rosa and Vice Chancellor Brown attend a Board of Regents meeting.

If Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown had been born a few years earlier, his schooling — and possibly his life — could have been very different.

Just four years before Brown was born, the Supreme Court decided a landmark case outlawing legally enforced segregation that coincidentally bears his name: Brown v. Board of Education. Against that backdrop, Brown’s hometown of Kingston, New York began efforts to integrate schools.

For Brown, then a preteen, that meant hopping on a bus that took him to a different school than his siblings attended. It was farther away from home, wealthier and whiter — and Brown, who is African American, thinks that made a big difference.

“I think the benefits are huge and lifelong,” Brown said. “It’s just easier working with people that you come in contact with throughout your life if you have a comfort level with people of different backgrounds.”

Now, Brown, a lawyer in Rochester, is determined to make sure students across New York state have the same opportunity today that he did some 50 years ago. Brown, along with the other members of the Board of Regents, has jumped into the fray around school integration.

The context, of course, is very different now. Brown’s education came at a time when the federal government and courts forced some districts to desegregate, but today’s push to integrate schools relies on communities to act voluntarily.

The Board of Regents is taking on school integration as part of its effort to rethink state education policy. It follows a period of transition, in which the board elected a new leader and shifted the policy focus away from test-based accountability that had dominated the previous several years. Now, the board is using the Every Student Succeeds Act to chart a new course for state education policy, and integration appears to be part of the mix.

Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose recent diversity plan notably avoids the word “segregation,” Brown said said he’s not afraid to use the word or tackle the problem.

“I think the biggest problems require us to address them head-on and segregation is a big problem. And diversity and segregation are not one in the same,” Brown said. “To talk about how much diversity you have can well be a distraction away from what needs to be done to promote integration.”

Brown and other board members frequently cite a study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project that found New York has the most segregated schools in the country. But they are still in the early stages of figuring out how their outrage will translate into policy.

As Brown pointed out, tackling integration is hardly new to the Board of Regents. The first black person elected to the Board of Regents was Dr. Kenneth Clark, whose psychology research testing children’s perceptions of race with white and black dolls was cited in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown sees today’s Regents as continuing Clark’s work.

“It really was a significant position to carve out back then, but we’re still arguing for the same things today,” Brown said.

So how does Brown suggest the Regents tackle school integration today? It’s unclear what power the board has to integrate schools. Though the Regents set education policy, they do not control school funding nor do they draw district or school lines.

Brown was clear integration can’t be accomplished without help from other state entities like the governor and legislature. But he did suggest a few things the Regents may be able to do, while also noting that they are reaching out to experts to solicit ideas.

The Regents could design a metric to measure integration, he said. That’s something the board has floated before in the context of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows the state to come up with different ways to track a school’s progress.

The board also may be able to encourage districts that are close geographically but have significantly different student populations to work together, he said, or provide funding to those who want to promote integration, another measure state officials have taken in the past. For instance, former New York State Education Commissioner John King started a $25 million grant program to encourage integration.

Brown also took aim at New York City’s emphasis on the school choice process. While encouraging choice was good in concept, he said, it hasn’t panned out the way advocates had hoped. For instance, though students can apply to any high school in New York City, elite public high schools skim off the top-performing students, which are more often white and Asian, leaving few school options for a large swath of black and Hispanic students.

“If you give people a choice, then those kids in underperforming areas will be able to go to other schools. I understand that. But it hasn’t worked like that,” Brown said. “So to a significant extent, school choice has actually, for a significant period of time, it actually led to further segregation.”

Brown said he thinks the most effective change will come if districts voluntarily commit to integration and that the Regents’ first task is to convince districts that integration benefits all students — including white students from wealthier districts.

But desegregation has historically been a tough sell politically and, in some suburban and rural areas, would require transporting students across district lines. In those cases, Brown is still grappling with how far the Regents should push reluctant districts, but suggested that the courts may have to get involved.

“It may well be that court intervention is going to be necessary if other means don’t work,” Brown said.

Most notably, Brown says he now sees integration as core to the entire Regents agenda and their effort to narrow the achievement gap, in which black and Hispanic students typically perform worse than their white and Asian peers. Without integration, Brown said he is unconvinced the rest of the Regents’ work will have an impact.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see the closing of those gaps unless we meaningfully confront the problems of segregation,” Brown said. “You can’t separate the two.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.