integration benefits

When school districts resegregate, more black and Hispanic students drop out

PHOTO: Renaenia Cipriano Pangan

After courts lift school desegregation orders, students of color are more likely to drop out, a new study finds — the latest signal that school segregation harms black and Hispanic kids.

Court-mandated integration efforts across the U.S. have sharply declined in recent decades. Of 480 school districts that had an integration order in place in 1991 (and at least 2,000 students), 214 had the court order eliminated by 2010. Officials often moved quickly to dismantle assignment systems designed to achieve integration.

In those districts where a desegregation decree was lifted, researcher David Liebowitz found immediate and persistent increases in the dropout rates for both black and Hispanic students.

Specifically, lifting the court orders led to a sustained increase in dropout rates among Hispanic students of 3 percentage points, and black students of 1 percentage point, compared to similar districts where mandates remained.

White students were no more or less likely to drop out of high school after the districts resegregated — a finding generally consistent with past research on school integration, which has been shown to help students of color and have little measurable impact on white students.

“If policymakers have an interest in increasing the graduation rate of black and Hispanic youth, one tool in their disposal … is promoting racially integrated schools,” said Liebowitz, who conducted the peer-reviewed study as a graduate student at Harvard and is now an analyst with the OECD.

Mandates to eliminate school segregation came after landmark Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg in 1971. The affected districts educated millions of students in total, and were usually, though not exclusively, in the south.

But in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court made it easier for districts to get out of court supervision — and many did.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, one of the districts that pioneered using busing to integrate its schools, had its mandate lifted in 1999, for example. School board members would soon put in place a choice plan that put much greater weight on neighborhood assignment. Subsequent research showed that school segregation had significantly expanded, to the detriment of students in newly segregated schools.

Nationwide, schools have become increasingly stratified economically over the last several decades. Racial segregation has also increased by some measures, largely because there are more students of color than before.

That means fights over whether — and how aggressively — to integrate schools continue.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently issued a school diversity plan, which was widely panned as not ambitious enough. In Kentucky, a longstanding integration initiative was recently threatened by state lawmakers, though it eventually died in the legislature. In Charlotte, North Carolina, efforts to (re-)integrate schools persist, but remain contentious.

Liebowitz hopes his findings encourage more places to act.

Districts have leeway to do so: A 2007 Supreme Court decision was widely, but inaccurately, interpreted as prohibiting race-based integration efforts. In fact, guidance from the Obama administration explicitly allowed districts to “consider the race of students in carefully constructed plans to promote diversity or, in K-12 education, to reduce racial isolation.”

The directive remains in place under the Trump administration, but Liebowitz worries it will be rescinded.

“If legal doctrine shifts to prohibit consideration of race in the development of policy or on the impact that a policy will have, it may lead to other similar negative outcomes,” Liebowitz wrote.

school closures

Board approves merging two Whitehaven schools into K-8 amidst parent division

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

Two Memphis schools are combining into one kindergarten through eighth-grade school next year.

Manor Lake Elementary School will close and students will be assigned to Geeter Middle School, which is about a half-mile away. The name of the new school will be Geeter K-8.

The decision from the Shelby County Schools board Tuesday came after a community group charged with overseeing a group of low-performing Whitehaven schools proposed the consolidation to prevent an outright closure that would have scattered the elementary students.

That proposal was opposed by elementary school parents who were worried about the influence of older students in the building. School leaders assured them at a meeting last month that the children would be housed on separate floors.

A few parents spoke at the meeting against the merger.

“That’s not acceptable,” said Laura Ross. “Our area is dying and you’re not helping us.”

Both schools held far fewer students than their capacity and the district considered Manor Lake’s building in poor condition. Combined, the K-8 school could have about 600 students. The decision means that Manor Lake Elementary would be the district’s 22nd school closure since 2012.

The schools are slated to enter the district’s Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, a cluster of four low-performing neighborhood schools that is adding five more next year. The Empowerment Zone is a district program that seeks to increase collaboration across schools and grade levels, and offers extra support for teachers and administrators. It is neighborhood specific to Whitehaven and a less expensive turnaround model for schools in danger of appearing on the state’s “priority list” of lowest performing schools.

Part of that transition to the Empowerment Zone means that teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs. Teachers with evaluation scores below a 3 on the district’s five-point scale will be reassigned to other schools.

Geeter Middle School was one of the first in the district’s Innovation Zone, a program that adds an extra hour to the school day and offers support services for students, most of whom live in poverty. Schools in the Innovation Zone — also known as the iZone — are located all over the city and cost about $600,000 extra to operate per school per year. Unlike Empowerment zones, schools in the iZone are already on the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

Manor Lake Elementary was one of 20 schools that exited the state’s list of lowest-performing schools in 2017 and is currently not in danger of appearing on the list again.

When Geeter switches to the district’s Empowerment Zone, the middle school will be the first to leave the iZone to go into a different district program meant to raise student test scores.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.