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.”

moving forward

Frequent school changes are hurting students. Here’s how Detroit’s educators want to fix it.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, second from left, says a tweak to school funding policy in Michigan would alleviate some of the effects of high student mobility. Looking on from left are moderator Stephen Henderson of WDET, Darienne Driver, CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Maria Montoya, who works in the charter school office of Grand Valley State University.

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum came in the wake of a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of Detroit Today on WDET, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, spoke about the impacts of students changing schools.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Communities in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.