Sorting the Students

Indianapolis writer wonders if ‘our discomfort was rooted in prejudice’ when he didn’t get his child’s first school choice

PHOTO: Robert Scheer/IndyStar
First graders work on coursework at IPS School 84, one of the Center for Inquiry campuses, Indianapolis, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. Ethnically, the Center for Inquiry School 84 is one of the least diverse in the IPS system, and enrollment priority is given to kids living near its Meridian-Kessler location.

When it comes time to choose schools for their children, many progressive families find their commitment to diversity is put to the test.

The tension between the desire to create diverse schools and the visceral fear of sending your child to an imperfect school is laid bare in a first-person piece for Indianapolis Monthly, in which writer Matthew Gonzales describes his own family’s struggle.

The school choice lottery didn’t grant his son their first pick for prekindergarten. Gonzales wanted his child to attend a highly coveted magnet program called the Center for Inquiry, which is often favored by middle-class families within Indianapolis Public Schools.

Unlike most of the urban district’s schools, enrollment at some of the CFI programs has skewed disproportionately white and wealthy, in part because the district placed those schools in higher-income neighborhoods and prioritized admission to families living nearby.

IPS has in recent years taken steps to reduce the preference given to families living near magnet schools and open more seats to other students, which officials say they hope will improve racial and socioeconomic diversity at popular and high-performing magnet programs.

But that may force middle-class families who don’t get in to decide whether they’re willing to send their children to other district schools.

Gonzales’ child got into their second choice: a Montessori school located in a poor neighborhood, attended mostly by students of color and students from low-income families. He wrote:

The more we learned about School 87, the less comfortable we were with the idea of sending our son there. And though we hated to admit it, we knew our discomfort was rooted in prejudice.

‘Prejudice’ is a harsh word, but it’s the right one: We had never visited School 87, and we had no specific reason to believe that our son would be unlikely to get a good education there. We simply saw a school with lots of poor kids in a poor neighborhood, and our parental instinct — impulsive, judgmental, illogical — kicked in.

Despite early apprehensions, Gonzales said his son loved the school and thrived. Still, the following year, the family enrolled the child at a CFI program in downtown Indianapolis after applying through the lottery again for kindergarten.

There, his son entered a classroom of mostly white students, and Gonzales wondered whether he had made the right choice after all:

Not only had I deprived him of valuable experiences with kids different from him, but in my own small way I was also helping perpetuate the racial segregation that has dogged our city, well, forever.

Read the Indy Monthly story here.

The big sort

To win back families, Detroit district plans a sweeping search for gifted students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Detroit’s main school district could soon dramatically expand offerings for gifted students in its latest bid to woo back families who have fled in recent years.

Under a proposed policy to “develop the special abilities of each student,” the district would start screening all second-graders for giftedness as soon as next year. A school board committee took a first look Tuesday at the policy, which could undergo changes before a vote by the full board.

Exactly how students would be identified hasn’t been decided. But according to the policy, the district will consider students gifted if they have abilities “above their peers” in three categories: academic strength, creativity, and leadership.

Students who meet the standards will be able to take special classes just for gifted students, according to the policy. The district says its goal is to create gifted classes in all subjects — including reading, math, science, social studies, and electives.

The move is part of first-year Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s push to restore special programs that were cut during years when state-appointed emergency managers controlled the district. Vitti said the cost-cutting moves had driven families from the district, which shrunk by more than 100,000 students — or two thirds of the student population — in the last two decades.

“Quite a few students have left the district who are identified as gifted because the district was not providing gifted services, so I think this is also a way to recruit students back from charter schools and suburban districts,” he said.

By trying to appeal to families of gifted students, Detroit is also wading into a national debate about separating students by ability. Gifted programs can be a popular option for parents whose children test into them, but in many communities, they also tend to exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation.

In Detroit, the programs could also face another challenge: a well documented teacher shortage that could make it difficult to staff the new classes. According to the proposal, teachers would need to have special certification to work in the gifted program.

Vitti said the district is putting together a plan to create a pathway for teachers to get their certificates.

“There are a likely limited number of teachers who have gifted certification, but that’s something we would work on,” he said. “A teacher could provide the services and work through courses to gain that certification.”

The district policy lists several goals for students in the new programs: academic growth; stimulating curiosity, independence, and responsibility; developing creativity and a positive attitude; developing leadership skills; and exploring different career options.

The initiative would also help the district comply with federal education law, which requires districts to understand and work to improve the achievement of all students, including ones considered gifted.

If the board approves the new initiative, Vitti and his team would start putting it in place. That work would include deciding exactly how to screen students and creating the program’s curriculum. The first gifted classes could launch in the spring of 2019, according to district officials.

Read the full proposed policy below.

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.