Wake Up Time

Thanks to Eduwonk for the chance to guestblog over the past week.  And thanks to the many commenters on the posts: you’re keeping us on our toes. 

Since you’re all so smart, let’s hear what you have to say about this big story near where we live.  Today’s school board election in Wake County (Raleigh) has shaped up as a referendum on the district’s nationally known policy of integrating all of its schools based on socio-economic status.  Some candidates want to keep the system; others want to scrap it in favor of neighborhood schools.

We both went to public elementary schools in southern cities still in the heat of integration battles (Emily-Charlotte, Bryan-Nashville).  It’s hard to exaggerate the moral weight the integration issue carried, and still carries, for us and others in our generation.  But now, almost 40 years later, what’s best?  What’s best in particular for low-income kids who, despite some progress, still face yawning achievement gaps in our schools, integrated or not?  We’re not sure either side in the Wake school board fight has the answer.  We’re hoping you do!

—Guestbloggers Bryan and Emily Hassel

16 Replies to “Wake Up Time”

  1. As a principal in a district that uses a Student Assignment Plan centered on a right to attend neighborhood schools, with options for Magnets using a lottery weighted for SES, I cannot fathom an end to busing without a new plan for enticing students to leave their neighborhood. In our district, such plans and fighting among the urban (mine) and suburban districts pushed the state legislature to create a Learning Community of two counties with integration goals using SES and focus, nee Magnet, schools to attract students to move. We have achieved successful diversity based upon choice and strong magnet schools. It is is imperative that schools remain symbolic of more than their neighborhood, but the country at large. The surrounding districts are still fighting the plan to “protect” their schools placing the value of children based on locale above and beyond the equality of all children to benefit from strong educational surroundings.

  2. I cannot fathom abandoning a system of integration for neighborhood schooling. Whose interest would a move like this serve? Quite obviously only those with the most resources living in the best neighborhoods. The benefit of having people who have political, social, cultural, and plain old regular capital mixed with disenfranchised students is that the demands of these “rich” parents are more likely to be met and will lead to benefits to all students.

    I grew up on Long Island where excessive districting and extreme localism has led to huge racial and economic disparity between districts in a very small area. As a result we see disparity in quality of schools and student achievement, disparity in per-pupil spending, and a generation of students who live next to, but never interact with, people who are different than they are.

    Integration, where successful, is something to be celebrated, and coupled with effective policy, can truly serve as a “tide that lifts all boats”. Segregation, a sure outcome of strict neighborhood schooling, always leads to increasing disparity.

    I fear that the new legal justification which requires we are “race-blind” has led us to forget that “race-blind” is not “race-neutral”. The former is only the ideal if the latter is accomplished.

  3. As a student of neighborhood schooling it is my strong opinion that schools balancing socio-economic students are definitely the way to go.

    My school was in a low-income neighborhood. Therefore all students in the school were from low or lower-middle class families. Students basically became victims of their surroundings. Because public schools are funded by property taxes in the area (and additional government funding at times) the resources for my school were low, giving students less opoprtunities than those students of high-income neighborhoods.

    There has to be a balance. Students regardless of economic status should be provided with the same opportunities and quality of education. Also, intergrating schools allows for more diversity which is definitely a need in our educational system.

    I agree with the article piece that says schools become grouped between the haves and the have nots. That is basically what neighborhood schooling does. In schools of one neighborhood are students who have plenty of resources, and then there are those who have very little resources, all because of socio-economic status. It simply is not just or what our educational system should be about.

  4. As a society, I feel that in this day and age we should be building upon the acceptance of others. By supporting neighborhood schools, we are taking a step backwards. Children need to grow and learn in a community built on diversity. It gives all children, regardless of race, a chance to learn not only academics but also about the world that surrounds them. We will never rise above the socioeconomic status and break the cycle for children in low-income communities if we permit schools to be grouped by neighborhoods. Teachers are working hard to close the gap. We, as educators, have a responsibility to help all children succeed but we need funding and support. Teaching in a low-income neighborhood would create unnecessary challenges if a bordering “rich” neighborhood could be joined to create one school. The progress in achievement gaps may be slow and small but it is significant. We are making progress and we need to continue to stay on that path.

  5. Well I am completey blown away with this issue. I suppose since I was raised in the Islands (Hawaii and Guam) I never really experience much racism, that or I was oblivious to the issue. I also never realized that there were socioeconomic disparities which result in a difference in the type of educational opportunities I was receiving. Call me sheltered, but also as a teacher I have had the opportunity to teach in the Islands and a little in California. However I was awakened to the reality of such a need for intergrating and finding an equilibrium of opportunities for all children when I recently relocated to Texas. There is a much more obivious difference in the quality of education and educators that the lower socio-economic areas receive. Since I am still relatively new to this educational system I am not sure how they are attempting to rectify the situation. I think that discontinuing programs which have been implemented to change the imbalance of education is a very serious mistake. If anyone also has any information regarding this issue and what the great state of Texas is doing to rectify it please let me know.

  6. I do not agree with “neighborhood” schools. I was raised in a majorily white area of Georgia but also an area with increasing poverty. We had students from all backgrounds of socioeconomic status. Research has shown that children who are raised in a lower socioeconomic environment are more likely to have trouble reading and writing. By putting those children in a “neighborhood” school, you are only adding to the struggle. By interacting with children of higher socioeconomic status on a day to day basis, they are getting educated by their teachers as well as their peers. Neighborhood schools with students of higher socioeconomic backgrounds will prosper much more than those with low socioeconomic backgrounds. Why not give all students a chance to learn from each other and therefore decrease the amount of racism and judgment that will be rendered through neighborhood schools?

    From what I also understand, we have been working for many years to create an “equal education” environment for all students; even the government mandated the NCLB Act to insure this equality. Why should we throw away all that hard work to segregate the system again?

  7. These are all very interesting comments. As a new teacher in public schools, I have not had much time to think about neighborhood schools vs. schools districted based upon socioeconomic lines. I agree with the opinion that neighborhood schools increase the gap in educational opportunities among the different socioeconomic groups. A blended school district would provide many more opportunities to those students who come from a lower income area.

  8. I have mixed feelings regarding this issue. I question the change from Neighborhood schools to socioeconomic based schools. As a teacher in a low socioeconomic school, we find it difficult to have parent involvement. Many families with a low socioeconmic status do not have access to private transportation and would find it difficult to attend meetings, conferences, fun literacy or math nights and to pick up their child if they are sick or injured. I strongly feel that the change needs to come at the school level. Bring in mentors, volunteers, train the teachers in better methods, change the attitudes and behaviors of teachers, students, administration and parents. Make an effort to go into the homes and neighborhoods and bring the families into the school community. Reach out and educate the entire community instead of just the children. This creates a sense of pride and accomplishment that will stick with them. If they are told they are failing and we have to bus you to the “smart” or “rich” section to learn, what message are we sending? I feel that we are telling them you can’t educate your child and we know what is best. In a war, the battle is not won in the general’s office, it is won on the front lines. The battle isn’t moved when it can’t be won, it is fought right then and there. We can do it.

  9. I believe that there are many things at play here. And all of them need to be taken into consideration in order to craft a policy that is equitable and effective in the long run. (In the short run, there’s just going to be a war.)

    1. Wake Country is notoriously “under-schooled”. That is to say, the shortage of schools in Wake is so dire that many assignment and scheduling tricks have to be cooked up just to fit all the kids in. Wake had population projections many, many years ago but deliberately chose not to tax itself sufficiently to build the number of schools it needed. More schools could give both sides what they want: more opportunities for economic diversity as well as more opportunities for neighborhood schools. A little intelligence in the school sighting process and much of this current debate could have been alleviated.

    2. Wake is too big. The ideal size for school districts is probably between 10,000 and 20,000 kids. Wake has 137,000. The district is simply too large to manage efficiently — and interest groups are now quite large, too — so significant conflict is inevitable.

    3. Assigning kids by socio-economic status is about the only diversity-oriented assignment strategy the Supreme Court will allow. Recent cases regarding race-based assignment in Seattle and Louisville, were deemed unconstitutional.

    4. Over the years, I’ve been in several schools that ended up with de facto socio-economic school assignment simply through boundary re-draws. As a teacher, I personally enjoy the mix. Of course, using the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop model as I do, it’s pretty easy for me to differentiate instruction when I have a broad range of skill levels.

    5. People who plan their lives out rather intentionally have a reasonable right to expect that when they buy that house next to that elementary school, that their kids will get to go there. It is ridiculous and a colossal waste of time and resources to bus kids (often more than an hour a day) when they have neighborhood schools they could walk to.

    6. Again, as a teacher, I have no problem teaching a whole class of low-socio-economic kids either. I just spent a day working in a charter school where every kid was black and almost every kid was poor. We had a terrific time and got a lot of good learning done. Their school currently performs around state average but will be moving up dramatically in the years to come owing to the acquisition of a very talented and dedicated new principal. I love schools like these. But, again, that’s just me. (PS The least satisfying teaching I have ever done has been in wealthy suburbs around the country like Grosse Point, MI or Mercer Island, WA. The schools are far too conservative, the kids are disrespectful, and the parents are often telling me how to teach.)

    7. Diversity of any kind is no guarantee of success for all students. The quality of teachers and principals is a much better predictor. Of course, we know that poor schools tend to get poor teachers. But I think our policies need to reflect reality rather than compensate for it. If a district has, over many years, loaded down its poor schools with poor teachers, is it not the district’s responsibility to rectify that situation directly, by improving the quality of teaching and leadership, rather than indirectly through assignment?

    8. While there’s reasonable evidence to show that poor kids do better around rich kids, I haven’t seen any evidence that supports the corollary assumption. So, when we desegregate by socio-economics we are, in all honesty, asking many students to deal with what we know to be an inferior education. I know the argument in favor of this but I personally it is not one that I can feel good about.

    Like so many issues in education, the two-sided situation in Wake County presents a false dichotomy. Neither solution could be said to actually work well. Therefore, the only way I can see of handling things is through a variety of well-coordinated policies that take full account of the realities. Here’s what I would propose:

    1. Break Wake into 4-6 districts and draw boundaries thoughtfully to improve economic diversity.

    2. Build the needed number of schools and sight them carefully so that less advantaged neighborhoods receive more new schools.

    3. Put forth an aggressive targeted teacher and principal training program to improve the quality of the adults in schools from low-socio-economic neighborhoods.

    4. Limit busing as much as possible and derive a thoughtful policy regarding route selection so that no kid spends an inordinate amount of time on a bus and that the fewest number of kids need to be bused.

    5. Use careful magnet school planning in an attempt to draw more diverse groups of students to individual schools outside their neighborhoods. But these schools have to be “real” magnet schools with minimum 5-year district commitments, not the typical throw-together magnets districts attempt and then re-organize two years later. The majority of magnet schools should be geared toward advanced academic achievement, technology, college prep, and at the high school level, the Arts.

    No single policy is going to keep Wake County from blowing apart at the moment. But a range of policies like those I’ve listed here (and probably others as well) could create a district (or districts) where school assignment is much less of an issue in years to come.

  10. I attended one of the large arts magnets in wake county and I found it to be the opposite of what the commenters have suggested.

    The school was great for me. I got great teachers, and got an amazing education. For students not on the magnet/AP/IP/Honors track the school was a disaster.

    Hard to disentangle personal experience from science, but I thought the arrangement benefited people like me, rather than low-SES students. I got the experience of meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds and a great education. Everyone else got to meet some smart-weathy kids, but you’d better believe that the school did everything in it’s power to keep ‘them’ out of ‘our’ classrooms. We had separate hall ways, I KID YOU NOT.

    I’m not against the wake system. I think it does a lot of good, but lets not assume putting a diverse group of students into the same school means they’ll actually be in the same classes.

    That said, perhaps there are other benefits to mixing populations, like teacher retention. Any thoughts?

  11. Teacher retention: In my school, considered low socioeconomic in status, our staff is probably one of the most stable and educated group of people I have ever worked with. We enjoy the work we do, we make a visable educational and a powerful emotional impact on the students and the families.

    I certainly found Steve’s insight interesting. I fully agree with his thoughts on the bussing issue which ties in with my point about parents. A successful school involves the community, the families and the staff in learning and teaching. We have Family Literacy and Family Math nights which are well attended and are beneficial to the students.

    The Wake school district is too large to manage. There is no absolute solution.

  12. Having gone to a neighborhood school I honestly did not realize that schools bused children around to help create diverse classrooms. When reading the story and comments I could see both sides of the arguement. Having a diverse learning community would help to increase test scores and help to desegregate schools. At the same time I can see how having neighborhood schools would be better. As another poster pointed out some poorer families would not be able to travel to a school out of there area thus preventing them from participating in their child’s education. Instead of spending money to bus students around why not invest that money in improving the neighborhood schools. If improvements were made to neighborhood schools families and students could take pride in their schools, thus encouraging education.

  13. As a former teacher of low-income students at Locke High School in Los Angeles, I remain a tremendous advocate of neighborhood based schools. Schools should be the center of a community. Parents, whose lives are often even more complicated that those of our students, need access to schools and need to know that the school is a friendly, as opposed to hostile, place where they can serve as advocates for their children or at the very least, ask questions and have them answered by people who understand their needs and the needs of the community.
    Schools are more than curriculum; they have a pulse and ideally, should be places full of life, safe havens that beckon children to a pursuit of self-improvement through the attainment of knowledge. They should beckon parents as a place to meet other parents and interact with their students’ teachers. Schools should be the heart of a community at the forefront of improving and enriching the neighborhoods they are in. Yes, this is idealistic but the ideal is not served by removing children from their community and sending them to someone else’s.

  14. I wonder how many folks reading this blog came from a low-income neighborhood and were bussed to a “high quality” school so they could enjoy the privilege of being around those wealthy white kids. There is something so deeply wrong with the assumptions that drive the blind commitment to “diverse” schools.

    Our policies should universally focus on providing the educational resources to the students that need them. Period. If that were actualized, it could mean that you have schools that are predominantly attended by neighborhood children – poor children of color – and are successful! [Conspiracy theorist alert: maybe that is ultimately what folks that advocate so vocally for diverse schools are afraid of? What if the black kids can be successful WITHOUT the white kids??! It would throw worldviews completely off kilter.)

    Steve says, “Diversity of any kind is no guarantee of success for all students.” This gets at the heart of it: what ends are we trying to achieve? Don’t we have to begin to evolve our understanding of Brown v. Board? Surely Jacob’s separate hallway experience is not the “diversity” we aspire to. Or is it?

    The fact is that when the focus is on success for all students, districts can and do create positive working conditions in schools for talented effective educators, as in Meg’s experience.

  15. I will have to agree with Nicole Soussan. Schools should be neighborhood based. Having to bus students around is not very convenient to the student or the parent as there is traveling that has to occur on both ends. Neighborhood schools form a sense of community. As Nicole said, there is more to a school than curriculum.

  16. Theoretically, making schools as socially diverse as possible helps children to become more tolerant of others, especially those outside of their socioeconomic status; however, to pull children out of their neighborhoods and away from their friends and family, to put them in schools that do not necessarily reflect what their needs are, seems counterproductive. If parents want their children to be exposed to humankind as a whole, that is their choice. Allow schools to deliver the best possible education to the students and allow parents to decide how open minded they want their children to be.

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