The big sort

Caught in the Upper West Side integration debate, educators at this middle school say test scores don’t tell the whole story

PHOTO: Mia Simring
An integration debate in District 3 has put schools like West Prep in the spotlight. Teachers and school leaders say their low test scores hide the progress many students make once they enroll there.

When Nicole Feliciano wrapped up a lesson this week on civil rights, she asked her eighth-graders at West Prep Academy to write down their questions about racism on multi-colored notecards. The social studies teacher was heartbroken when she came across one response in particular.

“What kind of person was that lady that talked about our school?” one student wanted to know.

The note seemed like an obvious reference to the viral news footage that has inflamed a present-day school integration debate on the Upper West Side. In the clip, a crowd of mostly white, middle-class parents protest a desegregation proposal that could mean their children are elbowed out of the most sought-after schools in District 3. One particularly angry mother said the plan was akin to telling hard-working students, “You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”

The footage doesn’t directly mention West Prep, a tiny school on the cusp of Harlem where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. But the implication was clear to parents, teachers, and school leaders there: Schools like theirs would not be acceptable to parents like those.

“You hear these things about our school, and that we’re a bad school — at the end of the day, you’re talking about the children who are here,” Feliciano said. “And there’s nothing bad about our students.”

The superintendent in District 3 has proposed to offer a quarter of seats at every middle school to students who earn low scores on state tests. Since test scores are tightly linked to race and class — 84 percent of the district’s lowest-scoring students are black or Hispanic — the plan could integrate schools racially, financially and academically.

The plan is still being debated so the outlines could change. As it stands, the proposal has plenty of backers. But it has also faced pushback from parents who worry that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — will no longer guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

Those parents have largely shunned schools like West Prep, clamoring instead for just a handful of others that reliably feed students into the city’s most competitive high schools. Compared to those schools, West Prep has much lower test scores and therefore doesn’t have a track record of sending students to in-demand high schools.

As far as Principal Carland Washington is concerned, those statistics don’t paint a full picture of what’s going on at West Prep. He acknowledges the school has challenges, but says the staff has been set up for those challenges through an admissions process that filters students into two tiers of schools: those that almost exclusively enroll top scorers, and those that enroll everybody else.

“I would much rather everybody call it for what it is: This is a school for the students who are lower performing because we took all the other ones, and put them somewhere else,” he said. “We serve whoever shows up at the front door.”

There’s no getting around it — West Prep’s scores are far lower than more competitive middle schools. Only a third of West Prep students passed state English tests in 2017, compared with 60 percent across the district. In math, 13 percent of students passed, compared with 54 percent districtwide.

Their unimpressive test scores, though, don’t show the progress many West Prep students have made since arriving there. Washington said about 90 percent of students start sixth grade already behind grade level. City data shows that 43 percent of students who entered West Prep with low test scores improved their performance on state math tests — about double the results of schools with similarly needy students. In English, 83 percent of students showed progress, compared to 53 percent.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘Well, they didn’t work hard. And my kid did.’ That kind of stuff, it really breaks my heart,” said Cidalia Costa, who helps recruit for the school. “Because we see our kids, and we see our parents, and we see them working hard. And they’re more than just a number that we attach to them.”

That’s why, when a recent New York Times story referred to West Prep by little more than its test scores, Feliciano dashed off a four-page defense of the school where she has taught for about six years. She is the social studies department chair and proud of her national board certification, which hangs on her classroom wall along with her degrees.

A main question from concerned parents is whether schools like West Prep can serve students with a range of academic abilities well in the same classroom. Feliciano says that’s already happening.

In her eighth grade social studies class, Feliciano is using a high school curriculum to teach students about the Little Rock Nine, who integrated an Arkansas high school back in 1957. The class moves briskly, with a large red countdown clock constantly buzzing: There are three minutes to brainstorm definitions of racism, another three minutes to write examples of how it remains embedded in society, and five minutes for students to discuss their ideas with each other. The students don’t need to be coaxed to raise their hands or contribute.

“Isn’t racism based on fear?” one student asked. “It’s, like, the fear of the unknown.”

Some of the students in Feliciano’s class are strong test takers and perform on grade level. Others have been placed there after showing enough progress in isolated special education programs to join their peers in a mainstream classroom. Everyone is learning the same content, but with little tweaks built into each lesson to help push the struggling students along. She may flash a checklist of instructions on the electronic board to help them stay on task, or give some a chart to organize their work while others tackle assignments independently.

“We’re not just showing up here, babysitting kids, and watering down the curriculum, and teaching the alphabet and phonics,” Washington said.

School staff say it’s unfair to divorce student performance from the way students are sorted into middle school. In District 3, there are no attendance zones assigned by address. Instead, families apply to the schools of their choice. Most middle schools in District 3 are screened, meaning they admit students based on factors such as test scores, attendance, or even a personal interview. West Prep is one of the few schools that is unscreened, meaning it accepts anyone who applies.

Every year, West Prep puts on a show at middle school fairs, where parents come to learn about their options. Costa brings fistsful of balloons and hauls in computer screens that flash the school’s selling points: It’s small and offers a full marching band, performing arts program, and Regents coursework to give students a headstart on their high school classes and credit towards graduation. And because many of its students come from poor families, it does this on a shoestring budget compared to schools that have powerhouse parent organizations — like Booker T. Washington, which raised about $600,000 last year, according to tax forms.

Costa sees that the district’s most selective middle schools don’t have to put nearly as much effort into recruitment. West End Secondary School, one of the district’s most sought-after, had almost 600 applications last year for about 70 seats. West Prep could take in 100 more students, if only they would come. The school serves about 200 students, taking up two hallways in a building shared with a pre-K and elementary school.

“It’s really hard to change or shape people’s hearts and minds when we have a population that’s really, very needy,” she said. “It just seems like we had the cards stacked up against us.”

Despite all the controversy, the District 3 proposal is not likely to change much for West Prep or most of the other local middle schools. A simulation of admissions offers, based on last year’s application data, shows that West Prep would admit three more students who passed state tests. Most of its new students, 74 percent, would still come with low test scores. Similarly modest changes are expected across the District, with most high-scoring students still packed into just a few schools.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, said Shamel Flowers, whose son is in seventh grade at West Prep. Overwhelmed by the middle school application process, Flowers settled on West Prep almost immediately after the principal welcomed her for a tour. She was looking for a place that would challenge her son academically, but also support him during what can be a tough transition in adolescence.

Since the debate has unfolded in District 3, Flowers said her son has come to her with questions.

“He’s wondered if this is a race issue. He’s wondered is it a class issue,” she said.

This year, 88 percent of District 3 students with top scores on state tests got one of their top three middle school choices. That was true for students with the lowest scores only 55 percent of the time. Taking the first step towards giving students more options would send a powerful message, Flowers said.

“Every child should have the right to choose a school where they want to be and that school should be open to having them,” Flowers said. “We need to break down the wall that’s there.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.