another round

In a growing push to promote school integration, New York announces new round of grants

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

New York State education officials on Tuesday announced they will launch the second round of a grant program that attempts to improve struggling schools by integrating them.

Called the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, or SIPP, the initiative was eventually replicated at the federal level before being axed by President Trump’s education department. In New York City, the program helped spur a district-wide integration plan on the Lower East Side.

The state will award up to 30 districts with the new grants, whose purpose has expanded beyond just economic integration. At a Board of Regents meeting Tuesday, Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz said the state also wants to achieve a more even racial and ethnic balance in schools, in addition to a better mix of students who have disabilities or are learning English.

Richard Kahlenberg, who reviewed applications for the first round of grants in 2015, applauded the program’s expansion.

“Socioeconomic integration is a powerful lever for improving academic achievement, and racial and ethnic integration is an important way to strengthen our democracy,” said Kahlenberg, a senior research fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “So I think both goals are important and should be pursued.”

Extending the grant program is just the latest indication that state officials are serious about fostering diversity in New York, which has been described as having the most segregated education system in the country, according to a widely-cited 2014 report by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. The state’s many school districts span wealthy suburbs, poor rust-belt neighborhoods and New York City — with students largely separated by race and class in their schools and classrooms.

State officials are also working on a policy statement affirming their commitment to integration and plan on creating a commission of policymakers, researchers and educators who will help develop integration recommendations. And in its plan for improving low-performing schools that each state was required to submit under the new federal education law, New York listed integration as one of its interventions.

Mike Hilton, who reviewed grant applications for the initial pilot, said the moves make New York State unique.

“New York State is special in that there is no court order saying that the state has to pay attention to diversity or pursue these kinds of remedies,” said Hilton, who works on education policy for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the National Coalition on School Diversity. “This is New York State leading the way.”

The state has not said how much it will spend on what officials informally called “SIPP 2.0,” which is funded through federal school-improvement money. Applications will open within the next month.

Initially, the funding will be used to provide district leaders a crash-course in integration research, policy and best practices. Each will receive between $30,000 and $50,000 and spend six months training and sharing ideas in what the state calls a “professional learning community.”

The community was created in response to feedback from districts in the pilot program, said Angélica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner with the state education department.

“We heard back from the participants that they would have liked a little more support,” she said. “So we built that in so that they can create a community, learn from each other and learn from experts.”

District leaders can then apply for additional funding to turn their ideas into full-fledged integration plans, and a final round of grants would go towards carrying out those plans.

In the first pilot program, 25 schools across New York participated, using the grants for initiatives like creating magnet programs or conducting outreach to families.

In New York City, the grant served as the foundation for what became a district-wide integration plan in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village. Starting next school year, every elementary school will give preference to students who meet certain indicators of poverty or wealth, in an attempt to enroll a similar percentage of needy students across the entire district.

Putting the grant-funded integration plans into action has not always gone smoothly.

In District 1, planning fell far behind schedule and parents often clashed with city officials over how to carry out a new enrollment system. In Rochester, the grant was used to devise an interdistrict plan to attract families from the suburbs to schools in the city, but paying for transportation costs has been a major barrier.

In one of his last acts as state education commissioner, John B. King launched New York’s grant program. Experts said it was the first known state program of its kind.

King went on to become secretary of the U.S. Education Department, where he implemented a similar model. But in March, the department announced an end to the $12 million program — called Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities. Federal officials told the Washington Post that it was a poor use of tax money since the funds were used for planning and not implementation.

“The federal climate and the lack of federal leadership on key education issues reinforces the importance of New York leading on issues like this,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust – New York. “There’s a lot that New York can and should be doing.”

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”