demanding action

City Councilmen Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres sign on to letter calling for citywide plan to desegregate schools

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Councilman Brad Lander at a parent forum on school diversity in June 2014.

A coalition of advocates is calling for action to desegregate schools.

In a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña, first reported by Chalkbeat last week, a group of parents, students, educators, researchers and elected officials demand a “comprehensive citywide plan” that includes public input and sets measurable goals towards integration.

“We believe that all children in New York City have an equal right to quality public education, and that segregated schools are plainly antithetical to that right,” the letter states.

The city is expected to release a “bigger vision” plan by June to encourage school diversity.

The letter was sent May 26 and includes the signatures of Councilmen Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres, and representatives from New York Appleseed, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Center for New York City Affairs, among others.

An education department spokesman confirmed the letter had been received.

“We know that students learn better in diverse classrooms, and increasing classroom diversity through both systemwide and localized approaches is an ongoing priority for the DOE,” spokesman Will Mantell wrote in an email. “We have met with many of these signatories and welcome their continued engagement, advocacy, and partnership.”

Read the full letter below:



Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

 

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”

Education Gap

For Michigan’s 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs, ‘it’s hard’ to find a place to learn

PHOTO: Daniel Jones
Nicole and Shaun Maloy want their son, Alexander, 3, (sitting on his dad's lap) to have the same access to education as his five siblings.

Nicole Maloy has been trying to get her son Alexander into a preschool that can address his speech delay since the day he turned 3.

When he was younger, he was in a program called Early On that works with babies and toddlers who have special needs. When he’s older, he’ll be in a kindergarten program where teachers will be required by law to make sure he gets what he needs.

But right now he’s 3 and, in Michigan, there’s no clear path for parents trying to get special services for their 3- and 4-year olds.

That’s because the state’s lumbering process for transitioning 3-year-olds with special needs and disabilities into early childhood intervention programs is rife with miscommunication, lack of easily accessible information, and a shortage of spaces for 3- and 4-year-olds.

For the state’s estimated 13,000 preschoolers with special needs, it’s more difficult for parents to find places that will accept their children than it is for other preschoolers, said Richard Lower, the state’s director of preschool education.

In fact, there is a shortage of spots for all the state’s preschoolers. But “when you have a subset of 3-year-olds with disabilities, it’s even harder for them to find care,” said Lower. “It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.” Early On is the state’s early intervention program for children with special needs from birth to 36 months.

Parents often are confused by the options, or they just don’t know what the options are.

Experts and advocates call this time between Early On and kindergarten a gap – the lack of adequate seats, services, and widely available education for 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs.

There is no one program in Michigan that will accept all 3- or 4-year-olds regardless of the severity of their disability. Depending on eligibility and availability, parents can opt for the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, and the federal Head Start program, which accepts 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs regardless of income.

The local district can help evaluate a child with special needs, obtain a diagnosis, and place the child.  

Parents are desperate for better resources to figure out how to best help their children obtain the critical early education they need to be kindergarten ready. Studies show that the impact of early education extends through their lifetime, determining kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency, school attendance, high school graduation rates, and even income-earning potential in adulthood.

As they grow older, children with special needs who successfully receive early intervention services may not need to be in special education classes in school, studies show. Early On, at its best, reduces the number of children who need special education services when they reach school age.

A recent annual federal education report ranked Michigan among the nation’s worst for serving children with special needs starting at age 3, and said the state “needs intervention,” the second lowest ranking in the report. That, combined with a special report from Lt. Gov. Brian Cally’s office last year that found schools are shouldering $700 million a year to pay for services for children with special needs that are not funded by the state, contribute to mounting evidence that Michigan is failing children with special needs.

Although  Gov. Rick Snyder successfully pushed to include an extra $5 million for Early On in next year’s state budget, no new funds were added for children older than 3.

“This is a statewide issue,” said Marcie Lipsitt, a parent advocate and consultant who helps families in southeastern Michigan navigate the complex special education system.

“There just isn’t enough support or funding for families of children with special needs,” she said. We need more capacity and more outreach for families.”

Lipsitt and other advocates said although systems already are in place, obtaining a transition plan from Early On or a local district often is where the system breaks down.

If a child is enrolled in Early On, district staff called coordinators help parents develop a transition plan to enroll their children in preschool, but it’s up to the parents to make sure the meeting happens.

The meeting is crucial, because coordinators also work with parents to set up appointments with therapists, doctors, and specialists.

Caryn Ivey, a parent advocate and co-director of Michigan Alliance for Families, said an array of issues may arise during the process that leave parents confused.

Some parents skip the transition meeting because they don’t understand its importance, she said. Parents may not understand the plan. Others don’t act quickly enough after the meeting; waiting for benchmarks like a formal evaluation and a diagnosis can take time, sometimes months.

If the child is not enrolled in Early On, parents should contact their local or intermediate school district. The process is similar. The district would help create an IEP, or an individualized education program for the child. The IEP describes  any services, accommodations, or therapies the child may need. District staff would also help get a diagnosis for the child, and then take steps to enroll the child in preschool.

To prevent delays, Ivey advises parents to speak to their home school district as soon as possible.

“That could be as simple as writing a letter to the home school district and asking a question: ‘My child just finished Early On, what should I do?’ ” she said.

This helps explain why Maloy’s struggle is not unusual. Before it was time for Alexander to graduate from Early On, she met with a transition coordinator in Detroit’s main district — a meeting all parents in the program should expect to happen six months before the child’s third birthday.

Alexander doesn’t have a formal diagnosis for his suspected autism and delayed speech. But Maloy’s coordinator scheduled appointments with specialists to evaluate him, and set up his education plan to accommodate his special needs. Maloy followed through on the appointments and received his individualized plan, but the Detroit school district doesn’t have a summer preschool program.  Maloy must wait until fall to enroll him, leaving at least a five-month gap in his education.

Also, to enroll him, she needs a diagnosis, which so far she said she hasn’t been able to get. Although some specialists she spoke with were hesitant to diagnose Alexander before his fourth birthday, others shared he could have been diagnosed as early as 18 months.

In the midst of this, Maloy feels her son is losing valuable time.

“I really want him to go somewhere as soon as possible so he can get the help that he needs,” she said.

Maloy thought the process would be faster and her son would be in school by now. While she waits for school to start in the fall, she is homeschooling Alexander and investigating other options for care.

She, like many parents with children who have disabilities, didn’t know Head Start was an option.

Head Start, a free federally funded program for children from low-income families, will accept children with special needs no matter their income. That means it may be a good choice for families who need a slot for their young sons and daughters.

In Head Start, children with special needs attend classes with other students, and they are given a formal assessment and a diagnosis soon after they apply for admission. While other parents may wait indefinitely, it typically takes up to two months at Head Start, saving parents time, and ensuring that necessary steps aren’t overlooked.

“We want to serve those children,” said Kate Brady-Medley, director of Head Start and Early Head Start for Starfish Family Services. Starfish is a social service agency that leads a collaborative of Detroit Head Start providers. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

“We have a federal mandate, and we’re trying always to have at least 10 percent of the children in our program have an identified, documented disability,” she said.

Children can miss valuable early intervention in school for a variety of reasons.

Stephanie Onyx successfully enrolled her daughter, Alexa, in preschool in her home district of Madison Heights with no disruptions, right after she graduated from Early On.

Alexis gets tickled by parents, Art and Stephanie Onyx, with brother Drew behind them.

But she pulled Alexa out of the program after the first year because she was dissatisfied with its quality. Onyx was confident it would be easy to enroll Alexa in another program.

It wasn’t so easy.

Several districts turned Alexa away because they considered her disabilities — cerebral palsy, low muscle tone, and inability to speak — too severe.

“Nobody would take her, and it was heartbreaking in this day and age,” Onyx said. “They had special education programs that had openings, but they wouldn’t take her.”

By law, school districts within the same county have to accept children with special needs – no matter how severe the disability is – but when parents don’t know the law and can’t afford an attorney – this happens often, advocate Lipsitt said.

“When a parent makes a request, legally the school district has to request the parents consent for an evaluation or give the parents a reason they are refusing an evaluation,” she said.

If Onyx had made a formal written request for an evaluation and allowed a district to deny her in writing, Lipsitt said, she could have taken legal action.

Making the request is as  simple as saying in a note to the district: ‘I am the parent of this child, and I am requesting a special education evaluation,’ ” and there is a 10-school-day time limit on that, ” she said.

When Onyx wasn’t able to get her daughter into a preschool, she gave up and homeschooled Alexa. The disadvantage of missing precious preschool time with other children became evident when Alexa, now 7, finally was accepted into kindergarten in the Troy district.

After a year of being homeschooled, she was not socially or emotionally prepared to attend school with her peers.

“That first year was a struggle — the entire year,” Onyx said. “We had a lot of meltdowns when she couldn’t get her way.”

Now, after just completing first grade, Onyx said Alexa is doing better and has fewer tantrums, but she still needs more time to catch up.

“She is able to learn and grow. She is able to progress,” Onyx said. “I knew that once in a program, she would progress, and I also know that she would be even further ahead had she been given that opportunity.”

New options could be opening for parents of 3-year-olds with special needs in the future, said Lower, the state’s director for preschool.

For the past few years under the Snyder administration, Lower said he’s researched and discussed with state legislators the possibility of expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, including possibly expanding it to 3-year-olds.

But it all comes down to money, he said.

If all the state’s 68,000 3-year-olds who fall at least 250 percent below the federal poverty level were included in such a program, and funding was calculated at the current per pupil rate of $7,250 for a 6- to 7-hour school day, the annual cost would be at least $493 million, he said.

That figure doesn’t factor in additional costs, including a required 1-to-6 teacher-student ratio, time for meal preparation, brushing teeth, and other activities throughout the school day that add costs to providing care for 3-year-olds.

Lower said a bigger investment in education is needed to increase the number of 3-year-olds in school.

“It’s a complex system that is not as fully developed as K-12, and it’s still being built in early childhood education. There are pieces that are great and high quality, and other pieces that are not as highly developed.”