Last night I hosted a dessert party for families that might choose our middle school. Students and parents, teachers and principal stood at my kitchen island and pitched our school. Kids talked about theatre and orchestra and sports. They raved about their STEM class and how they felt each teacher cared about them as people, not just as student ID numbers. The young math teacher glowed as she recalled a fight in her classroom…over the answer to a math problem. She interrupted her flash lesson to have the two pugilists stand at white boards (easy enough when the room is covered on all sides with 2 ft boards personalized for each kid) and plead their cases. The rest of the class looked on. I was only slightly more charmed by the story when I learned that Oliver was one of the combatants. Between the estimated 200 hugs she receives a day and the heated math battle she feels she has struck a balance between academic engagement and community connectedness. And I agree.
Yet our school is a “failing” school.
We received the lowest rank possible on the School Performance Framework. I will not go into the tangled web of numbers that got us there (although perhaps the honors math class might) but the ramifications are wide spread. Because of our ranking it will be an even harder sell to get kids to Hill. The fact that it is a sell at all is upsetting. The middle school shares a field with an elementary school that received the highest rank possible. Yet most of these kids and their parents who volunteer in classrooms and fundraise for extra para-educators are not going to walk the 200 yards across the field to join the broader community.
School choice emerged as an antidote to underperforming neighborhood schools. In the ideal version of this model every student has access to the same schools, and graduation rate and other indicators of success would no longer be limited to zip code. The Washington post asked this in their May 11, 2016 article:
But has it worked? Has school choice been able to interrupt the strong link between home environments and academic success?
Not yet, according to a new analysis of New York City high school graduation rates. Researchers found that — a decade after the city adopted a universal school choice policy for high school students — a child’s likelihood of graduating on time remains tightly linked to the poverty rate, household income and adult educational attainment in that child’s neighborhood.
“On this measure, the well-known link between a student’s neighborhood conditions and educational outcomes is as strong as ever,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps of Measure of America, which conducted the analysis and is a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council.
I believe in our a public school system that includes only limited school choice. At their best traditional schools are the hub of communities, kids first real practice at citizenship and supported settings to try and fail and try again. It is the place my son discovered he was tone deaf, and learned to laugh about it. It houses the cafeteria where I had a disturbing conversation about Trump with a parent who immigrated from Mexico. It was where I handed my extra pair of winter boots directly into the hands of the girl who would wear them and watched us both wrestle with the meaning of the gift. It is where my sixth grader gets into fights…about math.
This mixed education for mixed people can be undone by extensive school choice. According to Salon magazine back in 2012:
…there are a few serious problems with the school choice movement. Though it attracts mainstream conservatives like Cosby, as well as Democrats like President Barack Obama, it is not, at its core, a bipartisan endeavor. Its most important backers are rightwing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and other groups supported by billionaire rightwing ideologues like the Koch brothers. They want to dismantle public education altogether and run schools as businesses, judged as “successes” or “failures” based on abstract data taken from high-stakes standardized test scores.
Access to opportunity is replaced with demands for universal “excellence” and “achievement,” in which teachers are punished for student “failure.” This pits parents against teachers, and it ultimately sidelines already marginalized children of immigrant families, poor children and/or children of color.
We will see this punishment at our school as teachers take home next years checks. Our staff of the 200 hugs and after school art clubs will receive no bonus at all. Public school teachers have notoriously low salaries and many of them integrate their bonus into their calculation of their income. The theory makes sense. If their students perform well they get a bonus. In practice it incentivizes great teachers to leave the struggling school for ones that are already solid. It makes principals questions their policy of providing education to all students who “choice” in to their school. It instantly labels the students performing below grade level as a costly members of the community.
This morning I was reading about DeVos, Trump’s potential appointee for secretary of education who puts her ridiculous amount of money where her mouth is with school choice and the voucher system. I am treeing through articles while the peonies and wine glasses from the party still dot the counter. I am not sure I have the energy to clean them up. I am sinking deeper into the love seat as I follow her efforts (through the admittedly liberal media) to siphon public school money to funding Christian Right private school
The foundation for our public schools is already crumbling. I believe that expansion of school choice is not the answer. I am not alone in this belief.
Policymakers must realize that not all families will be able to take advantage of choice, whether because of family circumstances or limits on the capacity of schools to accept new students. Furthermore, policymakers should carefully consider the potential unintended consequences of reducing federal funding for schools serving large shares of the nation’s most vulnerable students. US NEWS
At an earlier pitch meeting the school principal made this point to potential parents. He was in tears as he explained that he could cap Hill’s numbers. He could limit class size and enroll almost exclusively close in neighborhood kids. Currently the entering class at Hill has 34% of kids performing at or above grade level. The average of the feeder schools? 84%. That would improve the school ranking in one fell swoop. But it would indeed be a fell swoop. The beauty of our back to basics middle school is the AND. Arts AND sciences. Music AND sports. Your background AND mine. Even though our kids have school choice they don’t have to choose. They can have have the AND.
One of the Denver charter schools has received national acclaim for its graduation rate. It is held up as a phenomenal socio economic equalizer. It has strict rules for behavior and dress. It has incredibly strong academics. After a few years of positive press things have changed at that school. Not its quality education but the population that is receiving that education, according to startclass.com this school is made up of:
“Mostly Caucasian Students
170 students, or 56.5% of the student population at Dsst: Byers Middle School identify as Caucasian, making up the largest segment of the student body. A typical school in Denver is made up of 27.9% Caucasian students, so (this) Middle School has a drastically different ethnic distribution compared to other schools in the city.”
My fourth grader walks in and eyes the leftover desserts on the counter. “I don’t want to go to Hill.” This is not exactly the conversation I am up for this morning. But here we are. “Why?” I ask him. “Because my friends aren’t going there.” “hmmm” I respond. “I want to go to the soccer school.” “Soccer school?” I ask him. “You know..” he muses “the charter school that specializes in soccer.”
It’s not so far off.
We have arts, sciences, outdoor learning, language…maybe by the time he is in sixth grade there will be a charter soccer school.
Sadly for him he won’t be going.