Wednesday, February 10, 2016

NY: Those Peoples' Kids

It doesn't get much plainer than this. The headline of the New York Chalkbeat piece is "Hoping to attract gentrifiers, a troubled school gets a makeover and new admissions policy."

The story is about Satellite West Middle School, a school redesigned to focus on science and art, renamed the Dock Street School for STEAM Studies. And it addresses this question posed by Patrick Wall in the article: How can middle-class families in gentrifying areas be convinced to send their children to local schools with less-than-stellar reputations?

Because District 13 runs on choice (parents can apply to any middle school), Dock Street must find a way to appeal to the now-increasingly-upscale parents in its community. And that means being more careful about who, exactly, they let in. Not just improving the quality of the education offered by the school, but by screening admissions. By making sure that only the Right Children get in.

It is an understandable dilemma for parents, and I'm never willing to say to a parent, "Look, you should put political and philosophical concerns ahead of your own child's concerns."

But the new development underlines two big lies about the value and benefits of charters to a city's education system.

First, it shows, once again, the one real trick that charter operators know and which some public systems have learned to adopt-- to get a better school, you need to swap out your old students for "better" ones. When a charter or turnaround specialist or state takeover district manages to improve a school with exactly the same student population that was there when the school was deemed "failing" in the first place, that will be noteworthy. But mostly they do what Dock Street is doing-- bar the door and only let in those students who will improve the school. That's exactly what Cris Barbic learned just before he gave up on Tennessee's state takeover district.

That's great for the school, and good for the newly acquired batch of students, but it still leaves a whole bunch of students in the wind, without a school intent on educating them.

Second, it shows that the power of charters and choice to "free" students from their zip code is an illusion. Charter fans will argue that wealthier parents exercise choice by sorting themselves into better neighborhoods, that housing choice is a version of school choice. So, the theory goes, we mix that up by allowing people to school outside their neighborhood. School choice can overcome the effects of real estate choice.

But there are two things going on at Dock Street. One is that school choice is struggling to keep up with real estate choice-- that affluent parents are moving into a gentrifying neighborhood and they want nicer schools to match. School choice as it emerges in District 13 is not about escaping real estate choice, but about keeping pace with it, reinforcing it.

Given the choice, parents want to make school choices that match their real estate choice, not override it.

While Dock Street plans to strive for greater diversity, [redesign team member Cynthia] McKnight said, many parents also made clear that they would not consider the school if it continued to admit any student who applied.

“A lot of parents wouldn’t send their children here if they didn’t have a screen,” she said.

More affluent people don't want to live next door to Those People, and they don't want to send their kids to school with Those Peoples' Kids. Uncoupling choice of school from choice of neighborhood just requires parents to make those two choices separately, but the notion that charter-choice systems somehow erase the class and race segregation effects of real estate-- well, that just doesn't seem to be how it works.

In fact, those non-gentry who still live in the neighborhood, who haven't been pushed out yet, now get to see their children pushed out of their neighborhood school because they just aren't the Right Sort of People.

Meanwhile, Those People and their children are pushed out of another neighborhood, and those that stick around are pushed out of their neighborhood school. And another choice system ends up pushing Those Peoples' Kids around like so many low-income hot potatoes.This is no way to run a public school system.


  1. I have a friend--an excellent teacher who tried to do just what you describe: re-open a school with exactly the same children, but mostly new teachers and new leadership, in Baton Rouge LA. I wrote about it, over two years, visiting in person three times. The entire culture of the school changed. Scores only nudged up, however. Although federal policy gave them 3 years to "turn around" the RSD announced the school was closing in the middle of year two. AFTER the school was disbanded and kids and teachers sent elsewhere, the second year scores came in--huge bump up. Sometimes, when you actually accomplish what policy-makers say they want, and turn a school in a new, better direction, they still want to believe in failure. Here's one of the blogs about Delmont School:

  2. While I am in full agreement with you on this, there is still a large elephant in the room. The reformers talk about it mainly in code and our side tends to avoid it altogether. This elephant is that portion of students who don't want to learn. At best, these kids will sit in a classroom, oblivious to and completely detached from anything going on around them. More often, they will be disruptive and interfere with those that are trying to learn. These non-learners aren't born that way, they are created. Created by poverty and social circumstances, by parental absence and apathy, created by an education system that labels a kindergartner as behind - a failure from the moment they walk into the school. There are many reasons for a child to become a non-learner, but once there, it is still a reality we must acknowledge. Many schools and classrooms have passed the tipping point where they have too many non-learners, consuming too many resources to effectively teach the rest. The school can be laser - focused on the intent to educate the child, but unless the student Wants the education, the effort will fail. Will an anorexic benefit from the intent of the great chef?

    Let's look at "those people" through a different lens. It is not a matter of race, economic status, or social background. The defining characteristic is "do you want to learn?" "Are you willing to work to the best of your ability every day?" If not, you are one of "those people". That doesn't mean you don't have value as a human being and doesn't relieve the rest of us of our social obligations to help where we can. However, it DOES mean that placing you in a conventional school setting is indeed a disservice to you and to those students who are there with the will to work and learn.