unequal childhoods

The ‘shadow education system’: How wealthier students benefit from art, music, and theater over the summer while poor kids miss out

PHOTO: Tom Benton/Vision Prep
Third- and fourth-graders from Vision Prep tour the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale Street.

More affluent kids are about twice as likely to visit a museum, art gallery, or historical site or see a play or concert over the summer, as compared with their peers from low-income families.

That’s according to a new analysis released this month by the federal government, illustrating disparities in out-of-school experiences, which may be exacerbated by rising income inequality. It also comes as a slew of recent studies have shown measurable benefits of cultural experiences like attending a play or visiting a museum, including greater appreciation of art, higher tolerance, and stronger critical thinking skills.

The results are based on a national survey of parents and guardians from 2011 and focus on the experience of young children in the summer after kindergarten. While nearly two-thirds of students from non-poor families visited an “art galleries, museums, or historical sites with family members during the summer,” only one-third of poor students did.

Source: National Center For Education Statistics. Graphic: Sam Park

Just 15 percent of low-income families reported taking their kids to a play or concert over the summer, compared with a third of non-poor families.

There were also major gaps in students likelihood of attending summer camp: 39 percent of non-poor kids did, compared with just 7 percent of children from poor families.

The disparities were similar when examined based on parents’ level of education. The results were also consistent with a similar survey from a decade earlier.

What might explain these stark gaps?

Another study, released last week, points a finger at one potential culprit: rising gaps in income between the wealthiest and poorest households, that may allow some families to afford cultural activities that others can’t. The paper found that in states with greater income inequality, there were also bigger disparities in how much families spent on their kids for things like tutoring, sports, and other enrichment programs. Nationally those gaps have widened over time. Some scholars have referred to it as the “shadow education system” that higher-income families participate in.

In addition to cost factors, there may also be differences in parents’ ability to take time off work to go to cultural events, knowledge of those events, and ease of transportation to them.

The federal study does not have data to explain why gaps exist.

Source: National Center For Education Statistics. Graphic: Sam Park

The analysis also found smaller differences by families’ economic status in students’ likelihood of taking part in other activities, including visiting a zoo or aquarium, an amusement park, and a beach or national park.

The study reported little or no difference between groups in likelihood of students reading on their own or doing math and writing activities with family members, suggesting parental or student motivation is not likely a key factor in explaining other results.

Regardless of reason, recent research suggests that students are likely to benefit from these sorts of enrichment activities. (Keep in mind this research generally focus on access through school field trips as opposed to family events.)

A study published earlier this year found that students randomly assigned to see live theatre had increased levels of political tolerance as a result and had a better understanding of the plot and vocabulary of the play as a result; students who saw a movie version did not realize those benefits.

Students who took a trip to an art museum were more interested in visiting such museums in the future; the experience seems to boost students’ critical thinking skills, and may even increase math and reading test scores, although it’s not entirely clear why.

The benefits seem to extend to even early-grade students, like those seen in the federal analysis.

In some cases, gains appeared biggest for students with the least access, such as those from rural and high-poverty schools.

“It appears that the less prior exposure to culturally enriching experiences students have, the larger the benefit of receiving a school tour of a museum,” wrote researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel Bowen in one study. “Disadvantaged students need their schools to take them on enriching field trips if they are likely to have these experiences at all.”

changing times

To close or evolve? As teen birth rates drop, school programs for teen parents face a new landscape

PHOTO: quavondo | Getty Images

There was just one student in the Boulder Valley School District’s teen parent program last year. She graduated in May, and and the district spent the summer turning the program’s nursery into a child care center for staff.

In the Englewood district just south of Denver there were no students in the teen parent program last year, and in the western Colorado city of Montrose, the long-standing charter school for pregnant and parenting teens was newly closed because of dwindling enrollment.

These are just a few examples of Colorado’s shifting educational landscape for teen parents and the school districts that serve them. As some programs downsize or close their doors, others have worked to adapt to the times — stepping up advertising, adding online offerings, or moving away from single centralized programs.

In part, these trends are driven by the state’s record-low teen birth rate, which mirrors national declines. Other factors that may be siphoning students away from teen parent programs include the option of virtual school, the fading stigma of teen parenthood, and the ease of getting a job in Colorado’s thriving economy.

For many advocates, the changing shape of teen parent programs is cause for both celebration and concern. On one hand, it’s a testament to the success of a state program — launched with private funding in 2008 — that provided long-acting birth control to low-income women.

At the same time, they worry that such public-health victories obscure the fact that nearly 3,000 Colorado teenagers are still having babies every year — circumstances that put them at high risk for dropping out of school.

“There’s still a need for programs like ours,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of the Denver-based Florence Crittenton Services, which runs the state’s oldest high school for pregnant and parenting teens in partnership with Denver Public Schools.

“In the long run, without these programs being there, you’re going back to having these young moms not having a place to go and not graduating, and then their kids have a higher probability of becoming a teen mom or teen dad,” she said.

Sizing it up

It’s hard to get an exact picture of how many Colorado school districts offer teen parent programs and how many students enroll in them each year. For the most part, the state education department doesn’t track this.

It does tally enrollment for stand-alone schools for pregnant and parenting teens, but there are just two: Florence Crittenton and New Legacy Charter School in Aurora.

Credit: Sam Park

Meanwhile, some districts, such as St. Vrain, Westminster, and Mesa County Valley, house teen parent programs within larger alternative high schools and others, such as Aurora, serve teen parents with mobile teams that visit multiple schools. In both cases, state enrollment counts don’t distinguish teen parents from other students.

Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the national organization Healthy Teen Network, which promotes teen sexual and reproductive health, said there’s no clear-cut national data on teen parent programs either. Still, she’s heard plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to a shrinking footprint.

Some teen parent programs, she said, closed down even before dramatic declines in the teen pregnancy rate, in part because federal funding streams dried up.

“Support for the teen parent in general has really waned over time,” Paluzzi said.

As separate programs for teen parents have dwindled, support for such students at traditional high schools sometimes ramps up, she said, but it varies widely by school and district.

For 16-year-old Alexia Alvarado, who became pregnant in September of her freshman year at Longmont’s Skyline High School in northern Colorado, it was a tough slog.

She said while her teachers were extremely supportive, her classmates were “weirded out” by her pregnancy.

“It was definitely awkward. I felt like a wild animal,” she said. “I get it they were curious, but the staring every day was very unnecessary.”

Alvarado, whose son Gabriel is now 15 months old, stayed at Skyline through her freshman year and transferred to the district’s teen parent program at the alternative Olde Columbine High School for her sophomore year.

It wasn’t her first choice, she said. She initially wanted to enroll in online classes, but soon realized her tendency to procrastinate and the distraction of her baby while she studied would derail her.

Although Alvarado had heard Olde Columbine was for “troubled kids,” her advocate at a local agency convinced her to give it a try. She has no regrets.

Alvarado likes having Gabriel in the same building — until January when he’ll age out of the on-site nursery — and loves the supportive vibe from staff and students. Occasionally, she’s had twinges of interest in returning to a mainstream high school so she can participate in time-honored traditions like prom, but she pushes those aside.

“To me the most important thing is my future,” said Alvarado, who wants to go to a four-year college and become a neonatal nurse.

“If I went to regular high school I would just be another student. At Olde Columbine, teachers you don’t even have know your name.”

End of an institution

For nearly two decades, Montrose had a stand-alone school for pregnant and parenting teens, Passage Charter School. It closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Montrose Superintendent Stephen Schiell said, “The bottom line was they didn’t have enough students to stay open … It wasn’t feasible.”

He said there were fewer than 10 students at the school when it closed.

Sarah Fishering, who is on the Montrose school board but spoke to Chalkbeat as a private citizen, was initially upset because the school’s closing meant the loss of sorely needed child care spots in the rural community. At the end, her two young children were among those enrolled at the school’s nursery, which served both teen parents and community members.

Fishering worries the program’s demise leaves a massive void for teen parents in the region.

“I kept on hearing from people, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t need Passage Charter School anymore?’” she said. “However, in Montrose … and also in our neighboring county of Delta, there are particularly high rates of teen pregnancy.”

Credit: Sam Park

Both counties have rates well above the 2017 Colorado average of 16 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rate was 32 births per 1,000 women in Delta County and 26 births per 1,000 in Montrose County. Last year, 58 babies were born to teens 15 to 19 in the two counties.

Even in Colorado’s populous urban areas, some teen parent programs have contracted in recent years.

Banning said until about 2012 Florence Crittenton High School served 300 or more pregnant and parenting teens a year. These days, it’s around 220.

As that dip occurred, she said, the school began advertising on bus benches and through spots on the Spanish-language television station Telemundo.

At New Legacy, which opened in 2015, school officials have seen a growing number of non-parents enroll — often siblings or cousins of teen parents.

Last year, about 30 of the school’s 100 students were neither pregnant nor parenting, up from about a dozen two years earlier, said Sarah Bridich, chairperson of the New Legacy board.

She believes interest from students who aren’t teen parents stems from the fact that New Legacy is a small non-traditional school that offers lots of personal attention — and isn’t a sign that there are too few teen parents to fill its seats.

Like Banning, she said it’s important for the school to actively recruit prospective students.

“It would be a great problem if we closed [because] there weren’t pregnant and parenting teenagers,” she said. “I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.”

Evolution and expansion

In some districts, declining enrollment in stand-alone teen parent programs has spurred officials to try something new. That’s how Boulder Valley leaders see the shift in their program, which was down to one student last year.

Joan Bludorn, principal of Arapahoe Ridge High School where the teen parent program used to be housed, said besides decreasing teen pregnancy rates, changing cultural norms have contributed to the evolution of the district’s teen parent programs.

“Many of the students want to stay in their home high school,” she said. “Pregnancy is not looked upon as it was 20 to 30 years ago when you [left] your building.”

Starting this year, the teen parenting class that used to be taught at Arapahoe Ridge will be available online, with the course’s longtime teacher supervising participants. While the high school’s nursery for teen parents has been repurposed as a staff child care center, Bludorn said there will still be spots for children of students if needed.

Mary Faltynski, coordinator of Boulder County’s GENESIS home-visiting program for teen parents, said when stand-alone programs shrink, it’s important for districts to think differently.

“We have to say, ‘OK, maybe we don’t have a school’s worth of students who need a special program, but we have to look at how to help students individually in their own schools.’”

In the Aurora school district, the teen parent program became stagnant several years ago, after the high school where it was housed relocated to a new building, shifted to an expeditionary learning model, and shed its alternative school reputation. Only a handful of teen parents remained in the program a couple years into the switch, said Anne Burris, a nurse who leads the district’s Young Parent Support Program.

That’s when the district created a mobile team that works with pregnant and parenting teens — both mothers and fathers — connecting them with child care, advocating for them in their schools, and helping them prepare for college or jobs. The team, made up of Burris and three advocates, served 261 students across the district last year.

Across the state in Grand Junction, the teen parent program continues to be housed in the alternative R-5 High School, but two years ago got a much-needed ingredient: more nursery space.

Before the expansion, “We’d start off with 30 parents and we were losing eight to 10 young parents because they didn’t have a place to put their toddlers,” said R-5 Principal Don Trujillo.

In 2016, the school relocated to a new building and added eight spots for toddlers on top of the eight it already had for infants. Now, more teen parents are staying at R-5 for the whole school year, he said.

The Fort Collins-based Poudre School District has similar plans for its teen parent program, which last year moved from one of the district’s comprehensive high schools to a K-12 hybrid school called Poudre Global Academy. There, students take on-site classes two days a week and work online the rest of the time. District officials plan to open an on-site nursery at the school as soon as next year.

talking SHSAT

Fair and objective or useless and biased? A Chalkbeat guide to the case for and against New York City’s specialized high school test

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for admissions changes at specialized high schools.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for New York City’s vaunted specialized high schools, he led supporters gathered in the gymnasium of a Brooklyn middle school in chants of “The test has to go!”

Just days later, protesters flooded the steps of City Hall to defend the Specialized High School Admissions Test. “What do we want? SHSAT!” they yelled.

The pushback against de Blasio’s plan hasn’t stopped. In the more than two months since he launched a push to overhaul admissions in an effort to admit more black and Hispanic students, former allies have backed away, political opponents have put forth their own proposals, and the mayor has contended with a steady stream of protests.

The debate gets emotional quickly, and facts can be hard to find. Here’s our guide to the arguments against de Blasio’s plan and the most common alternatives proposed: what’s true, what might work, and what probably won’t.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it will cause the quality of students’ education at the specialized high schools to suffer.

This argument hinges on the idea that the students admitted under de Blasio’s plan will be less prepared academically. To judge it, we need to know how the academic profile of students admitted to specialized high schools would change. The city has some answers: Under de Blasio’s proposal, which would offer admission to top middle school students across the city, the projected average grade point average and state test scores of the incoming classes would remain about the same as they are now.

The education department says that students’ state test scores would slip slightly: incoming students would go from an average level 4.1 to a 3.9 (out of a possible 4.5). The grade point average of admitted students would hold steady at 94.

Then, there’s the question of whether those are appropriate metrics for judging who is prepared for the specialized schools. Research suggests that GPA may be a better predictor than the SHSAT of how students will perform in specialized high schools, at least for those who are admitted with lower scores on the entrance exam. But some argue that the specific kind of rigorous preparation typically required to succeed at the SHSAT helps students do well at the demanding schools, too.

Integration advocates have pushed back against this argument because it suggests that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who now fill specialized high schools.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it is a fair and unbiased way to select students.

Defenders of the SHSAT say it is an objective way to determine merit: If you do well enough on the test, you’re in.

The exam is particularly appealing to Asian parents, who have said they worry that more subjective measures, such as interviews, would be biased against their children. Case in point: the recent controversy at Harvard, where Asian students vying for admission were consistently assigned lower scores on personality traits, according to legal documents in a suit claiming the university discriminates against Asian applicants.

A recently released study also found the SHSAT generally predicts which students are likely to be successful early in high school.

There’s no doubt that the exam is a clean-cut way of making admissions decisions — and clarity is rare in the New York City high school admissions system, where sought-after schools can all have different criteria and students are eventually admitted by an algorithm.

But we also know that not all eligible New York City students are taking the SHSAT, and its use shuts out lots of students who can’t afford test prep. Students also have to know how and when to sign up to take it. (The city has tried to address some of those issues. It hasn’t worked.)

Researchers say the recently released study doesn’t do much to settle the debate around the SHSAT, either. “It tells us something we already knew: Kids who do well on the SHSAT do well in high school,” Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Columbia who reviewed the study, recently told Chalkbeat. “But it doesn’t tell us what is the best combination of factors that predict who might do well in an exam school.”

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because the proposal is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — a lack of diversity.

The debate around specialized high schools is complicated by the fact that they are already full of students of color: enrollment is about 62 percent Asian.

Some argue that changing the admissions system to admit more black and Hispanic students would come at the expense of Asian students, who have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in specialized high schools (but not citywide). At the eight schools that use the SHSAT for admissions, 63 percent of Asian students come from low-income families, according to data provided by the city.

“What’s so frustrating about the mayor and City Hall’s narrative is that it seems to, at best, deny that Asian Americans are people of color too,” Ron Kim, a state assemblyman who represents heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens, recently told Chalkbeat.

But the disparity between the specialized schools and the city is wide. Only 10 percent of students at the high schools are black or Hispanic, even though those students make up 70 percent of public school enrollment citywide.

Specialized high schools fall short on a range of other diversity measures, too.

Citywide, about 74 percent of students come from poor families. About half of all students in specialized high schools come from low-income families. At High School of American Studies at Lehman College, a small specialized high school in the Bronx, the poverty rate is only 20 percent.

The specialized high schools also enroll a tiny number of students with disabilities, and almost no students who are learning English as a new language.

Research has shown that integrated classrooms can benefit all students. Studies have found that racially and ethnically diverse classrooms can reduce prejudice, improve critical thinking, and lead to high levels of civic engagement.

“Learning doesn’t just involve balancing multiple extracurriculars, enrollment in several Advanced Placement classes and acceptances at Ivy League institutions,” Bo Young Lee, an Asian-American graduate of Stuyvesant recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “It’s also having a perspective challenged and broadened by others who look and live differently.”

Argument: Admissions to the high schools shouldn’t change because they’re already producing successful students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students of color and those who come from poor families often lack access to schools with experienced teachers, advanced courses, and strong graduation records. Specialized high schools offer all that, plus a reputation for sending graduates to top colleges.

But research suggests that the stellar results of specialized high schools have more to do with the students themselves.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently reviewed two studies on specialized high schools in both New York City and Boston that were conducted by other academics. She summed up their question like this: “Do the exam schools produce academically outstanding graduates, or do they simply admit stellar students and enjoy credit for their successes?”

Two studies suggest the latter, at least for students who were admitted to specialized high schools with lower SHSAT scores. They found that specialized high schools had little effect on whether those graduates went on to college, were admitted to a selective university, and whether they earned a post-secondary degree. (There could be other benefits, outside of academic measures or later in life, of attending the selective schools.)

“While the exam school students in our samples typically have good outcomes, most of these students would likely have done well without the benefit of an exam school education,” researchers wrote in a 2014 report on Boston and New York.  

One counterproposal: Increase access to the test — and to test prep.

Rather than scrapping the SHSAT, many have called on the city to expand test prep to level the playing field. Others argue that prep courses should be more widely available — and better advertised — so more students have a chance to actually take them.

The city has already tried to tackle those issues, and it hasn’t made a dent in changing the demographics at specialized high schools.

The city has begun to offer the SHSAT on a school day at some middle schools in underrepresented communities, and boosted public test prep programs and outreach to increase the number of test-takers. Those efforts haven’t resulted in many more black and Hispanic students passing the exam.

Another counterproposal: Focus on improving elementary and middle schools first.

Some SHSAT defenders say the key to helping more students do well on the exam is to make sure they get a solid education earlier in their schooling. Rather than scrapping the test, the city should do more to make sure students can reach that bar — and that means investing in schools that have long been under-resourced.

“The results of the SHSAT are merely a reflection of the failure of the city to properly educate our black and Hispanic students,” Tahseen Chowdhury, who attended Stuyvesant, recently wrote in an op-ed.

Integration advocates call this argument a red herring since it suggests that unless everything can be solved at once, nothing should change. It also suggests there aren’t more black and Hispanic students already in the system who are capable of doing well in specialized high schools.

The reasons why schools struggle are complex, and often tied up in issues relating to segregation and poverty. Educators and policy makers far beyond New York City have grappled with how to improve academic outcomes for the country’s most vulnerable children, but there has been slow improvement in test scores and graduation rates for black and Hispanic students.

Meanwhile, the existence of New York’s robust test-preparation industry reflects the reality that many families turn to outside help — regardless of the quality of their child’s school — to prepare them to win a spot in specialized high schools.

A third counterproposal: The city should expand gifted and talented programs so more students are ready for advanced academic work.

Many alumni and elected officials have called on the city to expand gifted programs, which are seen as a reliable pipeline into specialized high schools. At the Anderson School in Manhattan, which has one of the most selective gifted programs in the city for elementary school, 76 percent of eighth-graders who took the SHSAT got an offer to a specialized high school this year.

“If we do that, we would not have a diversity problem,” Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said at a recent rally at City Hall. “We need to meet the needs of children who are above grade level.”

But only 22 percent of students in city gifted programs are black or Hispanic. Absent specific integration measures, experts say that an expansion of gifted programs probably won’t help more of those students get in. The city has already expanded a new kind of gifted program in a few neighborhoods, resulting in more diverse classrooms.

Still, just like specialized high schools, admission to gifted programs usually hinges on the results of a test. Few children take the exam in poor neighborhoods, where schools often enroll more black and Hispanic students. An even smaller number score well enough to get into a program, which many experts attribute to extensive test prep.

“As long as gifted and talented program admissions are based on a single test, advantaged families will be able to game the system by prepping for it,” researchers Allison Roda and Halley Potter, who have both studied gifted programs in New York City, recently wrote in an op-ed.

There’s also the unanswered question of whether gifted programs serve as a funnel to specialized high schools simply because they admit students who do well on tests and come from savvy families — or because of the impact of the schools themselves.