money matters

When diversity backfires: How schools can lose funding as they try to integrate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

For years, M.S. 442 Carroll Gardens School for Innovation served mostly low-income students. But with more well-off families picking the Brooklyn school than ever before, it is at a tipping point — and so is its budget.

Schools in Brooklyn must enroll at least 60 percent poor students to receive Title I money, a pot of federal funding that supports schools with many needy families. The recent influx of middle-class students has pushed M.S. 442 right below that threshold, to just under 59 percent last school year, likely leaving it with a budget hole of almost $120,000.

“We’ll have to dig deep,” said Principal Noreen Mills. “My main concern and goal is for my students to have all the opportunities we have now, when we do have Title I funding.”

Across New York City, parents, educators and students have led a grassroots effort to better integrate schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. But for all its academic and social benefits, greater socioeconomic diversity can create new problems for school budgets.

When high-poverty schools attract just enough middle-class families to fall below the Title I cut off, the federal funding spigot abruptly shuts off. While the city education department extends the funding for one year after schools cease to qualify, principals are soon left scrambling to plug the budget hole — even as they continue to serve a large share of low-income students who may need extra support.

“There’s no nuance in it,” said Jody Drezner Alperin, a parent at M.S. 442. “You either are, or aren’t,” a Title I school.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Students start the school day at M.S. 442 in Brooklyn.

Those newly diverse schools may not yet have enough higher-income families who are able to raise or donate funds equivalent to the lost Title I money. But even if that’s possible, some principals hesitate to rely too heavily on parents’ checkbooks. They worry that doing so would devalue the contributions of families who can’t afford to donate, while giving affluent parents greater sway over school decision-making and programming.

“It throws it over to the middle class to be the financial saviors of the school,” said Julie Zuckerman, the principal of Castle Bridge School, a mixed-income school in Washington Heights that doesn’t yet qualify for Title I. “We want to have the resources to do right by all the kids.”

At M.S. 442, more than 74 percent of students qualified for free lunch just five years ago, the measure the city uses to decide whether a school will get Title I money. That was before the school underwent a makeover and moved to a new building, which drew in many higher-income families. Today, about 48 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

But the influx of middle-class parents has not meant an infusion of cash. The school still relies on its roughly $120,000 in Title I funding per year to pay for student clubs, sports teams, teacher training, and mental-health services for students and families. (Because the school dipped below the Title I cutoff last year, it is currently receiving its one-year funding extension.)

The parent organization still gets $1 donations and holds bake sales. On its website, it asks families to consider pledging $4.42 a month — far short of the $200 yearly suggested donation at a nearby middle school with a less needy population.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Noreen Mills is the principal of M.S. 442 Carroll Garden School for Innovation, which has fallen just below the threshold to qualify for federal Title I funding.

Rather than selling tickets to events like movie nights as a way to raise money, the M.S. 442 parent organization invites families to come for free, Drezner Alperin said. It sees the gatherings as opportunities to build community — but it also knows that charging admission would place a burden on some families.

“Our fundraising ability is reflective of the community of our school,” Drezner Alperin said. “Some people give, some people can’t.”

Now, schools have a new tool to try to save their Title I funding — and their socioeconomic diversity.

In 2015, the education department launched the “Diversity in Admissions” program, which allows schools to reserve a portion of their seats for disadvantaged students — some have saved spots for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch or who are still learning English. So far, 42 schools have joined.

For schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, the program can help ensure they remain an option for low-income families — and that the schools hold onto their Title I funding. But it can also work in the other direction: Schools popular with middle-class families can set aside spots for a larger number of disadvantaged students than they currently serve. Doing so can boost their diversity and also, potentially, help them qualify for Title I money.

That’s what Principal Zuckerman is hoping to engineer at the Castle Bridge School.

The school’s progressive approach, where students get to choose which books to read and projects to pursue, appeals to many middle-class families, among others. But its dual-language classes taught in English and Spanish — along with targeted recruitment — has ensured the school enrolls many low-income students, too.

The result is a mixed-income school that has, until now, fallen just short of the Title I cutoff. Without that boost, the school uses $100,000 from its budget to pay for after-school programs, while the parent organization raises more than $2,000 a month to support a snack program that lets students cook and share food.

So when Zuckerman had the chance to become one of the first schools to join the Diversity in Admissions program, she jumped at the opportunity to protect the school’s diversity from the threat of gentrification — and to push it above the Title I threshold. With 60 percent of seats reserved for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and another 10 percent set aside for children with incarcerated parents, she expects Castle Bridge to qualify for Title I funding next school year.

The extra funding would free up money in the school’s budget to take students on a camping trip where students from different backgrounds would get to explore the world together, Zuckerman said. In that way, the Title I money would help the school truly take advantage of its diversity.

“The idea is that we want to bring multiple communities that can learn how to speak across cultural divides or differences,” she said.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.