Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How a ‘New Secessionist’ Movement Is Improving school standards in the South

Sixty years after Brown, whiter, wealthier communities are breaking away from racially and economically diverse school districts.

A new secessionist movement, anchored in the South, provides yet another reminder that “separate” still means “unequal” when it comes to the racial dynamics of the nation’s public schools.

The small middle-class town of Gardendale, Alabama, outside Birmingham, voted on November 12 to secede from the Jefferson County school district and then to raise taxes on themselves to finance the solo venture. Then, in March, Gardendale’s 14,000 residents finally got their own Board of Education. Soon after his appointment, one new board member, Clayton “Dick” Lee III, a banker and father of two, said he aspires to build a “best in class” school system “which exceeds the capabilities of the system which we are exiting.”

As Gardendale officials try to construct that “best in class” system in their prosperous community, they’ve relied on advice from their neighbors to the east in Trussville, a wealthy white suburb that broke away from the county schools in 2005. Gardendale, where about 86 percent of residents are white, is the fourth district since the late 1980s to secede from Jefferson County’s schools. About half the students in Jefferson County’s schools are either African-American or Latino, and 57 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the standard marker for poverty in public education.

With 36,000 students, Jefferson County’s shrinking catchment area is emblematic of a new secessionism in which cities, towns, even unincorporated areas renounce membership in a larger school district to strike out on their own. A trend befitting our individualistic times, secessionism, in many cases, cracks apart well-established, broadly defined educational communities into ever more narrow and ever more racially homogeneous ones. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, new break away districts threaten to exacerbate resource disparities between wealthy and poor communities and sweep away any remnants of desegregation.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an organized group of residents from an unincorporated, predominantly white, relatively affluent area with a strong tax base are trying to form an entirely new eighty-five-square-mile city for the express purpose of separating from the East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, which, by the way, enroll a majority of black and economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, a bill that would create four semi-autonomous school districts in this same southern section of Baton Rouge is being considered by the Louisiana legislature. The proposed new city, St. George, would not be the first secession from East Baton Rouge Parish schools. In recent years, three municipalities have created their own school districts, though not all were particularly affluent or predominantly white.

Next fall, the rapidly growing, predominantly white Alabama community Pike Road, with only 6,500 residents, will open its first K-8 school post-divorce from Montgomery County Public Schools, where 83 percent of its some 32,000 students are either African-American or Latino and 76 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Since the mid-2000s, six suburban, predominantly white unincorporated areas outside Atlanta incorporated and became cities. A bill being debated in Georgia’s legislature would amend the state constitution to give the new municipalities authority to secede from county school districts to create their own systems.

Secession efforts are not limited to the South, with efforts cropping up recently in Malibu, California, and in northeast Pennsylvania. But the movement is centered in the South because the region’s districts tend to be larger, often enrolling students who live in cities and towns throughout an entire county as opposed to a small municipality.

Several years ago, Memphis, Tennessee, briefly appeared to be going against the secession trend. In 2010, the cash-strapped city school board voted to dissolve its mostly African-American urban district and merge with Shelby County’s racially and economically diverse public school system. After the vote, the Shelby County School Superintendent John Aitken welcomed new students from the city, telling reporters, “My family just got bigger.”

“A lot of people did see this merger as a foundation on which to build something better,” said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who grew up in the city and attended racially diverse magnet schools there. “We looked at as a first step for bridging racial divides and economic divides. We thought maybe we had a place from which to begin creating something more cohesive.”

But not long after Memphis entered the county system, six predominantly white, relatively affluent suburbs promptly voted to leave it. Then, in 2013, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that lifted a prohibition on creating new school districts. In turn, each suburb created its own school district last summer. The new school board in one of those suburban districts, Collierville, hired Aitken, the Shelby County superintendent who had spoken such welcoming words, to be its superintendent.

“Within these movements, you hear a lot about a desire for local control and academic excellence. No one is going to say, ‘We don’t want to share our schools with poor black people.’ But the effect matters, no matter the intent,” said Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And the effect will not be positive for the families in the larger system. The damage to school communities of color is very real.”

New municipalities and neighborhoods take a variety of resources with them when they leave bigger systems. Most obviously, they take students on which tax dollar distributions to schools are based. In most cases, newly created districts capture all taxable property within tighter boundary lines, cutting off the larger district from revenue that had been shared. Rapidly developing or well-developed suburbs, thus, have a huge advantage over older communities that typically suffer from declines in population and shrinking tax revenue. The creation of St. George, one study estimates, would result in a $53 million shortfall for East Baton Rouge Parish. According to a report from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, the incorporation would impede economic development by “the interjection of sales tax competition between two cities currently considered one community.”

Other losses are more difficult to measure. Student test scores are closely correlated with students’ socioeconomic class. If a new district enrolls a large share of affluent students, that district’s aggregate test scores, now the default measure of “quality,” will likely be high. Immediately, the new district will appear far more “successful” than the nearby larger district. For example, Louisiana publicly awards A to F letter grades to its school districts. In 2011, East Baton Rouge earned a D, but by 2013 had brought that grade up to a C, though secession advocates still routinely refer to it as a “failing” district. Meanwhile, the more affluent districts nearby, Zachary and Central, which not long ago were part of the East Baton Rouge district but now enroll relatively small shares of students from low income families, earned As from the state in 2013.

“It’s a form of branding,” said Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Nowlin, who publicly opposed Gardendale’s efforts to secede from his district. “The idea is that more affluent school district can attract businesses, increase property value, bring in a certain type of resident who can lend economic stability and enhance a particular image. I can respect the interest in that and their right to do this. I just worry that we’ve gotten away from thinking about the larger community.”

The desire for “good schools” drives people’s decisions about where to live. And as research by Professor Jennifer Holme of the University of Texas–Austin has shown, white people’s presumptions about “good schools” are driven by “status ideologies” formed by race and class biases. Secessionism makes it even easier to act on such prejudices because it creates school districts that are starkly identified by the race and social class of students. Home values, tied to a school district’s reputation, will likely go up or go down accordingly, further aiding a community’s ascension or decline.

Parents and educators fighting against secessionism in their communities caution that the phenomenon shouldn’t be seen only as a manifestation of white people’s desire to avoid sharing classrooms with African-Americans. In many places—Memphis, Baton Rouge, much of Alabama—housing segregation is so extreme that post-desegregation, individual schools tend to be racially segregated even if a school district as a whole enrolls a racial mix of students. Beginning in the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions made it easier for school districts that had been under desegregation orders to be freed from judicial oversight. Post-desegregation, many school boards in the South went on to redraw school attendance boundaries coterminous with racially segregated neighborhood configurations. The proposed new city of St. George in Louisiana would be nearly a quarter African-American, according to some estimates.The city of Baton Rouge is about 55 percent African-American.

Nowadays, it may be tax dollars, benefits of economic growth, or power on school boards that secessionists would prefer not to share. Perhaps secessionists don’t want to be associated with a lower-status school district that posts lackluster test scores. Even if we assume non-racial motivations, secessionism could still undermine the hard-won racial diversity lingering in some schools.

East Baton Rouge provides a case in point. Like a lot of other big districts in the South, it operates several well-regarded racially diverse magnet schools. Originally created under desegregation, the popular programs were retained even after they were released from court supervision. East Baton Rouge Parish’s school superintendent Bernard Taylor has said that magnet schools may not survive under St. George’s incorporation. The new district would siphon a large share of the district’s white students and a chunk of the tax dollars that pay for the specialized programs.

“I very strongly prefer that my children attend racially diverse schools,” said Tania Nyman, a white mother of two, who is trying to prevent creation of new districts in Baton Rouge. “I believe that a public school system that is truly public and welcomes all children in the entire community is a really, really important foundation for democracy. But I suppose that sounds very old-fashioned. Doesn’t it?”


Fit To Print?

Something is wrong when a family newspaper won't publish in this space a book passage that public schools assign to fourteen-year-olds. Last week, a father was arrested at a school board meeting in Laconia, New Hampshire for "disorderly conduct" for exceeding the board's two-minute speaking limit when commenting on the passage in question. Someone videoed the incident and posted it on YouTube with text of the passage superimposed on the screen. Otherwise I couldn't have known what it was to which the father, William Baer, so strenuously objected. If you want to read it, you'll have to watch it:  (Warning: Video has text from book)

Hence, the dilemma. Most people won't ever read it and therefore won't know what the salacious passage describes: rough sex between a teenage boy and girl. As a teacher and columnist, I was frustrated several times by just this kind of conundrum. Because newspaper standards didn't allow it, I couldn't show parents and taxpayers what schools were actually doing with both their children and their tax money. In the book I'm writing, however, I've been able to describe appalling examples to which I could only refer obliquely in columns. Once, an editor was ready to dump my column after I wrote a critique of "The Vagina Monologues," showings of which are paid for by taxpayers at hundreds of public colleges. I considered the column quite restrained compared to the play I was describing.

During his turn to speak, Mr. Baer seemed surprised by the two-minute rule, which he claimed was just for that meeting. Eventually, he passed out copies of the licentious passage to school board members and challenged them to read it, but by that time, the chairwoman, Sue Allen, told him his two minutes were up. He sat down, but after a subsequent speaker accused Baer of wanting to dictate what students could or could not read, Baer spoke up again from his seat claiming the man's comments were absurd. "No one's talking about censoring the book. No one's talking about banning the book or burning the book or anything..." he said. Chairwoman Sue Allen talked over him to ask that he be respectful of other speakers, none of whom had the floor at that time. Baer continued talking and a police officer walked into the seating area and asked him to leave. Baer remained seated and the officer took him by the arm, led him out of the room, then handcuffed him before taking him outside to a cruiser.

Never having seen a police officer at numerous school board meetings over the years when I was teaching in nearby western Maine, I assume the board arranged for the officer to be there for that night. The Laconia Daily Sun had reported two days before the meeting that Mr. Baer intended to ask the board members to read the passage in question and quoted him saying: "I'd like to see them read this. To see them squirm." However, the video shows him asking the superintendent to read a copy of the notice that went home to parents indicating that the book "depicts high school relationships, some of them unhealthy."

Baer considered that insufficient warning and after reading the passage, I have to agree with him. He would have been better off using his two minutes to read the passage aloud himself, but maybe he was too embarrassed. It's that graphic.

Media from all over the United States and Europe reported on Baer's arrest but none that I read printed the salacious passage. I can't help but wonder if he'd still have been arrested for reading it aloud without exceeding the two-minute limit. Perhaps not, but most if not all present would have been uncomfortable listening to it.

No one can make a judgment about the whole incident without first reading the passage, but it can't be printed or recited in polite company. Baer had asked the Laconia Daily Sun to print it but, according to the Sun's article: "Editor Ed Engler declined, saying he thought some of the description[s] rendered were not suitable for publication in 99 percent of daily newspapers in America, ‘Maybe 100 percent.'"

Baer claimed the Manchester Union Leader also refused to print it, and asked: ‘It's not fit to print, but it's okay for my daughter to read it and discuss it? My goal is to have everyone in the United States read what's on page 313 of that book ["Nineteen Minutes" by Jodie Picoult]," he declared, ‘except my daughter.'"

Teaching fourteen-year-olds for most of my career, I saw many girls reading books by Jodi Picoult. Book critics claim the rough sex act described in "Nineteen Minutes" is not gratuitous but integral to the story line about a fictitious school shooting. I'm not a novelist and I haven't read the book, but I doubt the scene was necessary.


Harry Potter stardust helps boarding to keep its sparkle

Until Harry Potter started waving his wand in the late 1990s, and reminded people that the right sort of school could be far more fun than home, it looked as if the days of the old-fashioned English boarding school were numbered. The idea of sending children away from home for months on end ran so contrary to the zeitgeist that even parents able to afford boarding-school fees shrank from taking that course.

From 1987 to 2000, the number of pupils boarding at independent schools in the UK fell steadily – from just over 110,000 to just under 70,000, according to the annual census compiled by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents more than 1,200 schools. But since then, confounding the pundits, the figures have flat-lined. Around 13 per cent of pupils in ISC schools are now boarders, and there seems little prospect of that percentage changing.

What has changed, dramatically, is the number of overseas pupils at UK boarding schools. There is still a significant tranche of British-born boarders whose parents work overseas, perhaps in the services or the banking sector, but it is the boarders with non-British parents who are really changing the educational landscape.

Pupils with foreign surnames at English schools used to be exotic figures, the object of curiosity and, in some cases, a little light teasing. But at ISC schools, there are now more than 25,000 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas. The overwhelming majority of them board full-time, many at schools within striking distance of Heathrow, for obvious reasons.

In terms of countries of origin, China and Hong Kong lead the way, accounting for 37.1 per cent of the total, followed by Europe, with 35.3 per cent. But the pupil profile is changing the whole time. In 2012-13 alone, the number of Russian pupils at UK boarding schools rose by 27.4 per cent, the number from Nigeria by 16.3 per cent and the number from China by 5.4 per cent. Even factors that might have been expected to cause a fall in numbers – such as the recent stricter rules for student visa applications – have not dampened the enthusiasm for the British boarding-school product among wealthy parents, from Lagos to St Petersburg, from Dubai to Singapore.

Different schools have risen to the challenge of internationalism. Some of Britain's best known independent schools have set up teaching outposts abroad – for example Sherborne in Qatar, Harrow in Bangkok and Dulwich in China. In fact, there are now nearly 20,000 pupils being educated at overseas "branches" of UK independent schools.

Others have invested in facilities – for example, individual bedrooms, rather than dormitories, and state-of-the-art IT facilities – that a teenage boarder from abroad, perhaps coming from a wealthy family, would regard as acceptable.

The kind of Spartan conditions for which British boarding schools used to be associated are passing into history. Today's boarding schools boast of creating "a home from home environment", a warm human space where children are nurtured; and many of them are as good as their word, offering a high standard of pastoral care and zero tolerance of drugs and bullying. But although beatings and cold showers no longer go with the territory, most British boarding schools, even the best endowed, bear only a fleeting resemblance to five-star hotels.

Stories abound, not all of them apocryphal, of daughters of Russian oligarchs expecting the sheets on their beds to be changed every day or assuming a cross-country run would be cancelled because of light drizzle. Some schools have also reported clique-ishness: overseas pupils mixing with pupils of their own nationality rather than spreading their wings.

It would be fair to say that some English independent schools have welcomed overseas pupils more out of necessity – to compensate for falling revenues – than positive choice. But others – for example, Sevenoaks School in Kent, where around a quarter of the pupils now come from overseas – have made a virtue of internationalism.

Who would have guessed that learning Mandarin would one day be compulsory at Brighton College? Or that there would be so many Chinese pupils at Harrow that English is now taught as an Additional Language?

For expats and wealthy parents in Hong Kong or Moscow or Qatar – parents with the ambition of giving their children an international education in English – the choice tends to be between the best local international school and a reputable English boarding school.

Weighing the pros and cons of each can be a delicate exercise. There are good international schools all over the world, particularly in cities with a high proportion of wealthy parents and a multinational workforce. They can be great places to learn, network, grow in confidence, get into a good university and generally develop a world view that is not overly shaped by the cultural values of one country.

Some academic subjects, notably maths, are taught far better in other parts of the world than Britain. Earlier this year, a cadre of English-speaking maths teachers from China were flown into the UK to impart their superior knowledge to arithmetically challenged British pupils. It was a wake-up call for an education system that often seems more fixated on the past than the future.

But if British independent schools are far from perfect, the best of them continue to tick most of the key academic boxes. In recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) findings by the OECD, UK independent schools came out as the top-ranked in the world, alongside the improbable pairing of New Zealand and South Korea.

"In Singapore, there is a perception, both among expats and locals, that the standard of education is higher in UK schools than here," says Donna Brereton, Singapore editor for Good Schools Guide International (www.gsgi.co.uk). "I know one Cambridge-educated Singaporean who has sent his son to Millfield, hoping he will follow in his footsteps."

It will not have escaped the attention of ambitious parents abroad that, when it comes to getting pupils into top universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, the leading British boarding schools, such as Eton and Cheltenham Ladies' College, have a formidable track-record.

Nor will it have escaped such parents that girls who have attended top co-ed British boarding schools have done themselves no harm in the matrimonial stakes. Marlborough College alone has not just educated the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron, but the wives of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Governor of the Bank of England.

"There are many reasons, both academic and non-academic, why parents might want to send their children to board in the UK," says Harriet Plyler, the editor of Good Schools Guide International. "Even if their local international school is first-class and academically the equal of an English boarding school, parents think their children are more likely to learn to speak fluent English, with all the benefits that brings, if they are immersed in the language at a relatively early age."

Montse Domenech, who lives with her husband and three children in Barcelona, is typical of the kind of parent to whom a British boarding school naturally appeals. The couple are planning to send their eldest child to an English school in the sixth form and, hopefully, to an English university as well. They hope to send their two younger children on the same path.

"Increasing globalisation has made English the key language," explains Mrs Domenech, "but unfortunately Spanish schools are not very good at teaching other languages. There is also no real culture of boarding schools in Spain. Children at day schools work to a very tight timetable whereas, under the British boarding-school system, there is the time and the flexibility to do art, drama, music and a wide range of sports."

As recently as 20 years ago, the idea that parents in Russia and Africa and the Far East would be straining every sinew to get their offspring into institutions that reached their heyday when Queen Victoria was on the throne would have seemed ridiculous. But, like the British monarchy, those institutions have proved far more adaptable than their critics expected. A boarding-school education is never going to suit all children, but the British version on offer in the 21st century can easily become a stepping-stone to higher things.


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