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Apr. 19 2010 - 8:38 am | 948 views | 1 recommendation | 16 comments

Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (Part 1)

True/Slant writer Michael Salmonowicz and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, so the two of us decided to bring our perspectives together on the issue of income diversity and school segregation.  You can read a portion of our conversation each day this week. If you’re interested in reading more of Michael’s work, check out his page here. Here’s my initial message to Michael:

Hey Michael,

So the Wake County (Raleigh, NC) school board recently voted to end its “income diversity” policy. Since the Supreme Court limited the ability of schools to assign students based on race, Raleigh has been assigning children based on socio-economic status in the hope of creating less segregated schools.

But no more, as you probably read. A new crew of Republicans took over the school board and scrapped the policy because parents didn’t like it. Instead of going to the school down the street, they were bussed 45-minutes away to a different school.

I swear—anyone in this country hears the word “bussed” or “busing” and it’s like we all break out into simultaneous rage, as if nothing could be worse than a long bus ride. Personally, I rode the bus for an hour to school and back, and it never hurt me any. It wasn’t because of any diversity policy—we just lived in a rural school district where a lot of people lived out in the boonies.

But for poor kids living in Raleigh, this policy may have been their best hope at getting an education in a school that’s not chock full of problems. Do you teach or have you ever? I do. I teach dance in the Chicago Public Schools. It’s not the same as being a regular school teacher, of course, but it does give you a taste of what they deal with.

One of my schools is in a working-class North side neighborhood. Not a bad neighborhood, but it’s not Lincoln Park or anything either. That neighborhood, like my own, is about 50 percent white, 45 percent Hispanic and about 5 percent black. But my two classes of fifth graders are about 90 percent Hispanic, 5 percent white and 5 percent black. Where are all those white kids that live in the neighborhood? Private schools because their parents can afford to send them.

And that means what’s left is poorer students. Many are just fine, but others are not. I have one kid who’s 10 and lives in a foster care group home. Ten years old and the kid lives on his own without parents. This kid takes up a lot of my time, and frankly, a lot of my patience. He can’t help it. He has a really rough life.

In many poorer schools, it’s not just a few kids out of seventy that have that kind of life baggage. I just read a book that said that in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, 25 percent of kids have abuse and neglect in their files, and that’s just the ones they know about. A quarter of a teacher’s kids are dealing with emotional and physical wounds that really interfere with their ability to concentrate and learn.

What the hell is a teacher supposed to do in that situation? You can be the best teacher on earth, but that’s an extremely challenging job. And yet, if we want public education to succeed, we must believe that every kid can learn, right?

It just makes sense to me to try to spread those kids out. It’s more fair to them–they get more attention and more access to services, and better for all those other kids who aren’t dealing with deep emotional wounds, but might not have a parent who’s home to read to them every night.

I got thinking about this when I read an article on San Francisco’s assignment system. It quoted some research that says poverty levels over 40 percent in a school population are bad news for its students. One of the stats that it quoted was about a public housing kid. Say you send a public housing kid to a middle class school with 20 percent poverty, compared with their neighborhood school with about 80 percent in poverty, their individual test scores go up 13 percentile points. Even more dramatic, if you send that kid to a school where kids score in the 80th percentile on their tests, you can expect a 32 percent improvement in their test scores.

So why aren’t we doing this? We throw millions at schools and public education. It’s clearly one of the best solutions, and yet we throw it away because it pisses people off.

And that pisses me off.

I guess that’s all for today. I await your intelligent reply.



Tomorrow, look out for Part 2, which will appear here. Check back all week to see our conclusions and share your responses and ideas.


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  1. collapse expand

    Obviously, more busing isn’t the worst thing ever. But more time on a bus is less time studying, less time sleeping, and less time for after-school activities.

    If there are poor kids who desperately hope to attend good schools, then we should be moving mountains to get them there. These kids are motivated and unlikely to cause trouble that will disrupt the other students’ growth. But I’ve found that most poor children don’t care deeply about their education. School to them is a form of jail or a forum for socializing. It’s nice to think that poor kids “hope” for a good school, but most live a life of ignorance and complacency. We need to fix this.

    A parent should strive to make sure his or her children get the best education possible. Reducing societal poverty and increasing community test scores are noble goals, worth devoting public dollars and energy to achieving. But it’s more than any one parent can handle. A parent should never sacrifice his or her own child’s potential.

    Narrowing achievement gaps shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be fostering the smartest individuals in the world. We need educational systems that will produce our future scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers, artists, and visionaries. Stifling the growth of some children so that others can catch up isn’t going to solve our economic, political, technological, and security concerns.

    Improving the education of poor children will increase the pool of smart, capable talent. This will happen by creating a culture that celebrates education. We’re going to have to work hard at creating a societal framework that simulates the dedicated, caring “parents” that most poor kids don’t have. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the bright kids we already have. Busing kids across cities will only increase the appeal of private schools that are more focused on academic excellence than on nebulous social equity goals.

  2. collapse expand

    Yep, send the rich kids in the white house out to mingle with the poor kids

  3. collapse expand

    I think the San Francisco Unified School District is the prime example of good diversification intentions fraught with unintended consequences. In the attempt to create diversity and equivalent educational opportunities for the city’s school kids, it has instead created a nightmare situation in which kids are not just taking one bus, but sometimes two or three connections on MUNI to get from their neighborhood to their assigned school. And the lottery system parents must sign up for when the kids enter kindergarten is mandatory; it’s not an opt-in program. So, more often than not, young middle class couples with children end up leaving the city for the suburbs and decent schools they have vetted before they move. Which means that San Francisco has a very polarized family community–the very rich who can send their kids to private school, and the very poor who have no choice but to participate in this mess.

    Don’t get me wrong–we live in a community in suburban SF in which kids from East Palo Alto (a tough neighborhood with rampant gang violence) are given the choice to attend our schools if they wish. Many do and I think it’s a terrific opportunity for both for their education and for diversifying the school environment. Sadly, however, I don’t know that these kids are getting the support they need at home to truly take advantage of that opportunity and instead are participating in a “school within a school”. By that I mean many are in remedial classes with no ambitions to seek higher education, if they can even pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

    So, while I think the intent behind busing is correct, the methodology may not be. What I think might be more important is (a) making sure these kids have access to qualified teachers and (b) giving them the support for higher education ambitions at school that they’re not otherwise getting at home.

  4. collapse expand

    Schools are not day care centers. They only function if a large enough percentage of students actually buy into the learning process. Sadly, too many parents, including my own, viewed the primary purpose of school as providing a respite from their own kids. They just assume that their children will become educated along the way. This is more social dysfuntion than education.

  5. collapse expand

    The idea sounds great in principle. My “little sister” at 13 was, on paper, eager to get to college. But her family didn’t give a rip. She had nowhere quiet to do her homework and no one seemed to care if she did it anyway. If the family does not have whatever it takes to “get it” — the kid MUST work really really hard — you can bus them across the nation and it won’t make any difference. I don’t envy any teacher trying to “make a difference” when a kid’s parents don’t care or are emotionally or physically absent. Education is not what happens only within a classroom but 24/7 around your family and friends. When it’s cool to me smart, you’ll want to achieve that…but for many poor kids, being book smart (not street smart) is derided, so what’s their motivation?

    For my “little sister”, college seemed like Disneyland, somewhere nice she’d like to visit — with no clue how to do so or anyone with a road map.

  6. collapse expand

    Short answer, yes!

    I went to an inner city art high school in Philadelphia, and we had maybe one student in a class of 130 from the suburbs, and he had to pay tuition to attend.

    I believe that a program of allowing poor kids to attend richer charter and private schools is a must, otherwise we’re still feeding two divergent societies in America.

    There is absolutely no ethical reason to pack in 35-50 kids in one classroom in North Philadelphia, and 15 minutes away there’s a private school with not only top-notch facilities but a teacher student ratio that you would think would be in every school.

  7. collapse expand

    In theory, it would be great if rich and poor kids could mingle and learn each other’s ways. In theory.

    In practice, I don’t have the foggiest clue how to make that work. The children whose parents have any means will send them to a private school or move away to a place where public schools are less mixed.

    People stratify themselves by their own actions. The rich usually mingle among the rich because the like to mingle among the rich. The middle class mingle among the middle class because, despite any protestations to the contrary, they probably feel ill at ease among rich people. And the poor do the same.

    Bring them to a school, and you’ll see the same thing happen all over again –with brief experimental forays in to the other’s community, just to see what it’s like.

    The Rich have their own problems. Money doesn’t fix stupid or lazy attitudes. In fact, upper middle class parents often are too busy acting professional to spend much time with their kids.

    This is sad, but all too true. We stratify ourselves. There is probably an interesting series of social science papers to be written on the subject…

  8. collapse expand

    I think it provides something irreplaceable to the poor, but I don’t agree that it is fair to the better off, and there is the problem- finding a benefit for both.

  9. collapse expand

    Maybe could find a grant to set up a long term study to see what would make a difference here. Maybe this has already been studied somewhere.

    One of the things frequently seen in underprivileged children is a history of exposure to toxicity in the womb. Sitting next to a rich kid in class isn’t going to improve fetal alcohol syndrome. It isn’t going to cure your lead poisoning.

    Maybe by starting before birth and testing for exposure to smoking, drugs,and alcohol, then following the children developmentally from birth and selecting the children who hit their developmental milestones above the 50th percentile we could find candidates for our study.

    Then you would need to select for environment. In Britain children in start boarding school around age 8. The study could compare mixing the poor kids with the rich kids in a controlled environment such as boarding school from Monday thru Friday. Then compare this to children in a school where some go home to wealthy neighborhoods and some go home to poor neighborhoods.

    We may find out that mixing poor kids and rich kids might help the poor kids if we saw that the children involved were otherwise normal and bodily removed the poor kids from dysfunctional homes. We may also find that as long as the poor kids went home at night to the stress of poverty that mixing with rich kids didn’t make much difference.

    If we did, would we want to institute a citywide program of Monday thru Friday boarding schools in poor areas, but only for the developmentally normal children?

    At that point would you even need the rich kids?

  10. collapse expand

    This is the reason why residential schools are desperately needed. Now, before anyone says they are too expensive, think of the dollars we throw away on “innovative” school improvement programs such as teacher certifications, classroom technologies, and yes, bussing – to no avail. The environment makes the person. If a child comes from a bad environment, the chances of him or her becoming academically successful is slim. These kids spend only 6.5 hours out of 24 hours with positive role-models. Now imagine the same kids in a nurturing and structured environment. The cost to society, of shying away from this idea, is higher compared to the cost of embracing it.

  11. collapse expand

    It is clear that you are writing on a subject you care about deeply. But it is also clear that you are not very familiar with the issue here in SF. SFUSD does try to diversify its student population. That has been the thrust of its student assignment systems (SAS) for 3 decades. It hasn’t worked.

    In order to diversify schools you have to establish a system in which socioeconomic classes move in both directions. But middle class families do not migrate to poor schools, while SFUSD has bused low SES kids to better schools. As a result the schools in the “bad” neighborhoods are underenrolled, with middle class families taking flight instead.

    The point being, the middle class opts out of the diversity experiment and that is why less than a quarter of SF’s whites go to public school.

    Also, there is much debate over the link between diversity and achievement.SFUSD’s administration has one take on it. There are others.We have been busing and diversifying for decades and the achievement gap is still with us.

    You said – “It just makes sense to me to try to spread those kids out. It’s more fair to them–they get more attention and more access to services, and better for all those other kids who aren’t dealing with deep emotional wounds, but might not have a parent who’s home to read to them every night.” The problem is that it may do low SES kids good, which is debatable, but how does it benefit the higher SES kids when all the problems of poverty arrive in the classroom. Diversity has its own benefits,but the enrollment numbers tell that most middle class families pick achievement over diversity.In other words, they don’t want their kids participating in a social experiment that has questionable benefits for them.

    Because it makes sense to you is hardly a rationale to send kids across town. You are going to have to make a better case than that. For that matter you may have heard during your research reading the newspaper that SFUSD cannot afford to bus kids. Under the newest SAS they are giving low SES families a preference to get into better schools – a preference most will likely not utilize. This preference is based on living in a low performing censes tract. So if you happen to live in the up scale gated condo within the tract and your parents are lawyers you get the preference. Or if you have a cheap rented studio you get the preference. That system is a joke.But I diverge.

    To have diversity you have to keep the middle class in public schools. Forget the upper class. They left years ago. SFUSD is 55% free and reduced lunch. Tell me, how are you going to get the right mix socioeconomic with those ingredients? Requiring families to enroll in schools they don’t want may seem egalitarian to you, but it is literally driving away the last hopes of retaining a strong middle componenet to our school population.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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