Making change

What role should parents play in promoting integration? Nikole Hannah-Jones and two other public school parents weigh in

PHOTO: Photo by Theodora Kuslan / Courtesy The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR

Talking about segregation “should necessarily be uncomfortable, it should necessarily be a place a conflict because it isn’t just finding common ground. It’s giving up ground, frankly, for white folks.” That’s what New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said last week when she joined WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll and novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld for a panel discussion about what it would take to integrate city schools.

Read some of Chalkbeat’s recent coverage of the issue here and here.

Here are some other highlights from the panel:

On growing up:

Carroll: I grew up in New Hampshire in an all-white environment. I was the only black kid in all 12 years of my schooling, more or less, and the first time I remember the n-word was on the fifth grade playground … I had no context, I had no sense at all of what that meant. I knew that it was not, you know, “You’re really cute.” But so, that was one of the things, among many, many others of my own experience, that informed our decision, my decision, to send our kid to a school where not just he would have black and brown peers, black and brown teachers, but that if and when he heard that word or any other kind of racial slur, he would have a sense of context. As it happened, he did.

On choosing a school:

Rosenfeld: I began looking for a kindergarten for my daughter six years ago … I went to our zoned school and I saw general education classes with no white children in them. And the only white children in the school were in the gifted and talented classes, which is a whole other issue. And I have an extremely blond daughter, and I thought, like everyone thinks to themselves, I think, “I don’t want to be the only one.” Nobody wants to be the only anything. And I felt uncomfortable there.

Hannah-Jones: I think it is very hard to be “the only,” period. I knew from being bused, when we were like five black kids in the school, that I was never going to put my daughter in that situation, where she was one of a handful of black kids. I do think that eventually it will be hard and that is why I say, the changes have to be individual and systemic. That, we have created a system full of schools that we know we cannot integrate, because if you’re depending on a single white parent to go into a school, it’s almost never going to happen.

On being a white parent in a diverse school:

Rosenfeld: As a white person, there was a learning curve for me. … I had never affiliated myself with an institution where demographically I was in the minority before. I had never done that. Like many white people, my only experience of institutions was majority white. And so there was a learning curve for me. I was a little uncomfortable the first day of kindergarten. I saw black families – I didn’t see individuals. I saw Hispanic families … It took me a while to see past race, in a way, if that makes any sense, and to see that these were potential friends for me, these were potential allies, mom friends.”

On gentrification:

Carroll: [Our son] was at a different preschool, which was predominantly Hispanic but very quickly being gentrified and sort of changed and curated in such a way … But I remember having conversations with white parents on the playground and I would say, and I sort of ended up feeling like a zealot, but I would say, “Does it not occur to you that in the next year or so, this school is going to look totally white … You don’t mind that?” And I did have parents say, “No, not really.” And that I find baffling.

Hannah-Jones: Schools will start to integrate and then very quickly lose that integration because we know that white parents are attracted to other white parents. I mean, that’s a fact. When you hear that a school is good, I can almost always promise you that that school has a large percentage of white students. Because that’s the language – it’s racialized – good means one thing and bad means something else. And when you talk about a “bad” school, we can close our eyes and we know what color the kids are in those seats.

On achieving integration:

Hannah-Jones: This problem will never be fixed on a school-by-school basis. You need leadership from the top, it has to be systemic. You’re going to have to pull in parents who, frankly, don’t want it. And you’re going to have to find a way to do that.

As long as you’re doing it on a school-by-school basis, there are going to be some schools that are beautiful, beautifully diverse, all the things that we all would want for our children, and then there are all these other children who get none of that. And black students in the city, in particular, even though they are not the largest racial group, are the most segregated. So what that tells you is it’s not just a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of a particular group of children that other parents have decided that they don’t want their children around.

Hannah-Jones: [Achieving integration] would actually require a fundamental shift in, one, our views on race, and two, how we run and operate public schools. Because what the research shows is that white parents will say that they are choosing schools based on test scores, but when you actually look at where they’re clicking online and how they’re making their decisions, they’re actually making decisions on the demographics of the school.

We have to disentangle, somehow, 400 years of racial history and what automatically comes into well-meaning white folks’ minds when they think about a good school.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”