how we got here

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
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This is the second entry in a new series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

Even before my children were born, I spent hours envisioning them in a kindergarten classroom, smelling of crayons, Tempera paint, and Elmer’s glue. Little scissors, blocks, and dress-up clothes completed the Norman Rockwell picture.

Once my son was born, I spent years thinking about how to move to an area with a good school. We worked hard and eventually bought our way into Brooklyn Heights, a sought-after neighborhood that is home to the coveted, and overcrowded, P.S. 8. By the time I filled out my son’s kindergarten application, it was a moment more than five years in the making.

I waited with anticipation to receive our acceptance letter. When it came, I opened the envelope and read, “We are pleased to announce that your son will be attending P.S. 307.”

Waves of panic washed over me. P.S. 307, while also nearby, is not P.S. 8. Most of its students live in poverty. I sat awake at night envisioning my precious little blond boy going to a school with a towering housing project in its shadow. In that moment, I wondered: How could this happen?

Months later, I wonder more about how I could I have reacted that way. I want to take you on my journey as I faced my own ignorance — as “choosing” a school taught me about my own prejudice.

During those first panicked weeks after receiving the letter, I desperately looked for other options for my child. Then I got a phone call with a cheery female voice on the other line. “We are inviting all of the families who were accepted to P.S. 307 to the school this Saturday to welcome you,” she said. “Would you be able to attend?”

And so I went. When I arrived, a friendly security officer said hello. I heard trickling water and turned to see two handsome turtles in an aquarium.

I learned that the turtles are a result of a recent grant to boost science education. The school has on-site STEM director who helps the teachers write highly engaging, rigorous, hands-on, project-based units connecting science, technology, and math. Each class has an animal, insect, or plant in the classroom. Literacy lessons connect to the science content.

I also learned how much Principal Roberta Davenport cares about her students. She grew up in the public housing across the street, and drove in every day from Connecticut to serve the community where she grew up.

When I visited again later, students were on task and engaged. It was a quiet and peaceful environment. A pre-kindergarten class was testing out vehicles in the hallway that they had created in the science lab. One class was singing as a teacher played guitar, while another was reading and playing music on keyboards.

The pre-K classrooms were inviting, with lots of nooks and cozy corners. I learned that the pre-K and kindergarten classes get 20 minutes of playground time in addition to regular recess. I learned that the school has a band, a chorus, and even offers violin lessons.

I was stunned by this little school, which I had so harshly judged. I felt energized and full of hope for my son, and I was angry with myself for making assumptions that this school would be unimpressive because it served poor students.

But while I felt hopeful, the other parents on the tour with me had more negative reactions.

“Why are test scores are so bad? Explain that to me.”

“It is just such a long walk to the school. It is too far.”

“The kids have to wait outside in the rain when they get picked up. I can’t have my nanny wait in the snow and rain like that.”

I felt like these parents were finding reasons to discredit the school before learning more. Why couldn’t they see what I was seeing?

This started my effort to try to understand what we were all looking for. What messages have we internalized? How do those ideas come out in ugly ways when our children are at stake?

One parent told me she has to consider the people her child will meet in school. “He could make some great connections that could help him later on,” she said. I guessed that she meant that she wants him to get a good job. I also think she meant that she wants him to be part of upper middle-class society.

I remember another conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee in Brooklyn Heights. I asked, what kind of school do you want your child to go to? It was a heated discussion with lots of words dropped: safe, nurturing, inquiry, project-based.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.

I bring my own desires and biases to this, too. I am an educated, white, privileged woman. I am also a teacher.

I know from experience in my classrooms that upper-middle-class kids who come from educated backgrounds do well. They test well. They go to college. They get jobs. They do fine. As a teacher, I’ve also learned that the more diverse a classroom, the richer the discussions are, the more empathy is grown, the deeper we go into content knowledge.

And yet, even after deeply thinking about this — even after acknowledging these impulses — I did not happily send my child to P.S. 307. It was a complicated decision that followed many fraught conversations.

Ultimately, I decided that I wasn’t ready to take such a dramatic step. I wanted my son to have an educational environment like the one I saw at P.S. 307, but I couldn’t get past the idea that the level of need that most of its current students had was too different from my child’s. I also worried that, with Principal Davenport leaving, I wouldn’t be able to count on the quality I saw being sustained. And maybe the final decision was also rooted in a deep need to belong in my own whiteness.

But my son’s offer to P.S. 307, and my months of thinking on this issue, also led me somewhere surprising. Just a week before school began, my son did receive a seat at P.S. 8 — my dream scenario from the start.

We declined it. I knew that going to P.S. 8 would only further the institutionalized segregation in the city. I had become too uncomfortable with what the school’s relative homogeneity would mean for my son, despite the school’s enviable partnerships with Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim Museum.

Instead, I chose to send my son to P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, a school with a more even mix of white students and students of color. It felt like a school where my son would be exposed to classmates truly different from him, but without the worries I couldn’t shake about P.S. 307. There, he could choose between chess or double dutch, gardening or African drumming, ballet/tap or hip-hop dance. It felt right.

The online review of P.S. 261 notes that “It has an active parent body that includes lawyers, hairdressers, writers and maintenance workers. This frank-talking community embraces the friction ethnic and economic diversity can sometimes bring, believing that kids coming together from different backgrounds creates a better world.”

This feels like a glimmer of hope. When we push past our neighborhood and visit each other’s schools, we can see into another world of possibility. And maybe when we do, we start to block those covert messages that are sent to us when we only attend white, upper-class schools.

Maybe those messages are born from segregation. And just maybe, sending my son to a more integrated school can start to break the cycle.

Interested in contributing to How We Got Here? Email us.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.