Unintended Segregation in Schools of Last Resort

Published by — Charter schools can be great for the kids who get in, but what about the kids who don’t?


An odd clatter of wheelchairs and colorful walking supports accompanies a little convoy of physically-challenged middle-school students heading to lunch.  Blind kids find their way using sticks with tennis balls on the end.  Others, quite ambulatory, also have obvious challenges.

Not among this sizable group are other students with such challenging behaviors that they’re entitled to Individual Education Plans (IEP), the designation for special education.  This middle school is in a district where urban poverty is so pervasive that kids are steeped in trauma and family chaos, which can result in behaviors that make learning hard for everyone involved.  A high-functioning learning environment depends on a critical mass of students who have somehow acquired middle class, generally cooperative social skills.  Together these kids model healthy, community-appropriate behavior to their challenged peers.

The urban middle school referenced above has far more special needs children (23%) than the state average (15%).  Almost every student is poor.

District schools are socio-economically segregated.

The tiny state of Rhode Island has a million people divided into 36 separate school districts, some densely urban and poor.  The cost of housing in any given district generally determines the class of the students attending its schools.  The U.S. has more than 14,000 school districts, so RI is not alone in creating legal segregation via the district system.  So first, wrap your head around state and national policies that support the socio-economic segregation, which correlates with racial segregation.

Secondarily and accidently, charter schools make some segregation worse.

Alas, Rhode Island no longer publishes the “type of schooling” by district, which might prove my suspicions that our urban middle school loses more students to charter schools than any other in the state.  Its higher-functioning families fill out applications and with luck, leave.  The application deadline disadvantages families who change their residence because of poverty, divorce, or other family issues.  And some families don’t bother with charters.  Their kids remain in the district school.

Mind you, this is no knock on charters.  They’ve been a huge boon to families and students desperate for alternatives to their local school.  In general, RI’s charters are all better than the schools in the district they reside, so you can’t blame the parents.  Nationally the number of kids on wait lists for charters can exceed the enrollment of the schools they’re trying to get into.  Charters are public schools, publicly funded, publicly accountable and subject to the same bazillion state regulations as district schools.

Especially in RI, charters have been huge assets.  Some specialize in hard-to-educate populations.  The International Charter School, a dual-language school, embraces new-immigrant, English-language learners as much-desired assets.  Other charters have social-and-emotional strategies for traumatized or disengaged students.  But generally, charters are too small to be all things to the full range of special needs students.

So, as families leave, charters create schools of last resort as an unintended consequence.  Our urban middle school above was already segregated and then lost a goodly portion of its higher-functioning population, further distilling the special needs.

The annual assault on charters. 

Every year, district employees, parents and local politicians launch new attacks against charters, as though starving charters would improve district performance.  This year, the General Assembly assembled a Legislative Commission to Study and Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula.”  Funding formulas are the state policies designed to distribute equitably state and local money via standardized per-pupil funding.  Charter supporters have been rightfully fearful because district advocates greatly outnumber charter supporters among local politicians.

The Commission produced a report, with no recommendations, made available only as a press release.  Actually, their conclusions were fair and surprisingly balanced.  And to their credit, they flagged the very real problem, noted above, regarding special education.

Solutions to schools of last resort will require honesty and creativity.

First, be honest.  The district system leads to segregation.  Charters only add proportionally to the problem.  Reducing the quality of education for the charter kids isn’t a healthy solution to the increased segregation of an already-segregated school.

Second, be creative.  For example, The Grace School, which is not a public school, specializes in educating high-needs students.  Some years back they opened their doors to “typical” kids on a tuition basis.  Like the English-language learners at International, Grace’s students with serious challenges are valuable assets mingled among “typical” students, with all learning deep lessons in empathy and life.  All students get small classes and the attentions of special educators who are experts in differentiating instruction for the challenged, the middling and the gifted.

In other words, if charter school kids seem to be getting a better deal, learn from their schools how we might give district kids a better deal, too.  Don’t even dream of turning back the clock and making anything worse for any kid, especially not those thriving in charters.  Focus on the kids…  All of them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Refuel Kids’ Attention with Short Movement Breaks

Published by — It makes no sense to take dynamic young bodies and insist they sit still for hours at a stretch.


In a technology class at the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI, second and third graders are learning to change fonts on their laptops.  They look droopy, so I ask how they like the class.  They love it!  “Computers are so fun.”  “So cool!”

But the languid body language doesn’t match.  It’s the end of a period; they’ve been glued to screens.  So they’re fine with putting the electronics away and quickly arrange themselves into a formation that looks like back-up dancers at the ready.

Cynthia Sime, their regular teacher, leads them through a one-minute “energizer.”  Together they do a spoken-word doo-wop with a made-up word that sounded to me like Aroostasha sha sha sha.  The kids use the last four syllables to mark beats, as their hands slice the air from left to right.  It repeats as Sime adds a new physical challenge prior to each four-beat chant.  “Hands together! (hands smack together in front of their bellies).  Legs out! (jump into wide stance). Elbows in! (elbows whip back).  Knees bent!  Bottoms up!” (butts stick out).  And the last challenge she adds is “Tongue Out!”  With that the nonsense word sounds like total garbage, so when they’re done, kids dissolve into giggling.

Then, without asking, they settle right back at their desks, alert and ready for math.  The buzz in the air is palpable.  When Sime gives a first direction, they’re on it.

One minute of movement, release and a bit of fun tees up high-quality attention for this happy teacher, who isn’t battling restless, fried kids.

Darlene Pugnali, ICS Assistant Director, notes that outsiders often notice and commend the school’s calm and quiet atmosphere.  The quick, structured releases of energy, like the one I just saw, help the kids use the rest of the time for concentrated learning.  Pugnali explains that the school is deeply committed to Responsive Classroom (RP), whose website proclaims, “Teaching students to stay focused.”  They’ve generously put online a large library of these one-minute fool-arounds designed to give kids a jolt of fresh vitality and fun as they transition from one subject to another.

The payoff?  Better behavior, better academic results.

Pugnali says, “We’re always looking for the root causes of misbehavior.  Under what conditions does it takes place?  Sitting too long is certainly one of them.”

Many teachers at other schools say they don’t have time for breaks, recess, or any other down time.  Social Worker Soraya Gomes suggests that if teachers added up the time they’re spending redirecting behavior problems, they’d see it’s a whole lot more than one minute invested in recouping the kids attention.  “The engagement is so much higher.”

Jean Cavanaugh, Occupational Therapist, bluntly notes that energizers get “so much more out of them in a shorter amount of time.”

In Ben Keefe’s class, fourth-graders sit on a rug studying literature.  Using a cue indiscernible to me, teacher and kids pop off the rug to do what looks like a squats exercise.  He sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” one syllable at a time, at irregular intervals, as the kids mirror his knee bends.  The rhythm gets faster, the squats more rigorous. It looks exhausting.  The kids plop down, ready to go back to examining their book.

Keefe is considered the energizer school champion.  He says that he himself went nuts trying to sit through his graduate courses for his Masters in Teaching.  “So here I am with 10-year-olds, thinking it’s got to be far worse for them.”  His class takes a break every 20 minutes, and if he goes over time, the kids tap their wrists to indicate to him that they’re due a break.

They’re not learning if you don’t have their focus.

While Keefe is the champ, everyone likes pick-me-ups for transitions.  Still, Pugnali says, “I remind them gently that if the transition is coming in 15 minutes, and you’re losing your kids, don’t wait.  If they’re restless, stop in the middle of a lesson for one minute to get them back again.  One minute of movement can buy you 13, 14 good minutes of attention.”

ICS’ big claim to fame is its dual language program with strands in both Portuguese and Spanish.  Teachers bring energizer-like games and songs from other countries as a way of immersing the students in their kid-culture — a totally fun lesson in social studies.

ICS’ academic achievement hovers just above and below state average.  This is a feat, given that 38% of the kids are fresh-off-the-boat English-language learners, as compared with 6% statewide.  Fully 60% are eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), compared with 47% statewide.

Too often schools just burn out their kids’ attention and then get irate when they misbehave, space out or resist.  Our education system takes dynamic young bodies, sticks them in a box called a school, and insists they sit for hours at a stretch.  It makes no sense.  It’s like a college professor teaching to a class of students checking Facebook the whole time.  The channel for learning is just not open.  Focus and attention need to be cultivated and used wisely.  ICS has it down.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Social Studies Project Lets Us Peek Through Windows into 3rd Grade Lives

Published by — At the International Charter School, in Pawtucket, RI, teachers and an artist help third grade students document their culture and lives using photographs.

The all-purpose room at International Charter School (ICS) crackles with excitement.

Along the walls are the final exhibitions for “Documenting Cultural Communities,” an annual third-grade social studies project. Each child has chosen three of their own photographs, a self-portrait and two others that document a moment emblematic of their family’s culture. Each wrote two pieces about what we see in the pictures, one in English and one in Spanish.

The displays open surprisingly clear windows into the kids’ hearts and homes.

The author/photographers are supposed to be stationed next to their work to answer visitors’ questions. But they can manage it only for a moment, trying to be official for a question or two. The gravitational pull to their swarm of friends is too great. They’re proud, excited. Their families are beaming. They’re mostly dressed to the nines. One twirls in her glittery purple dress, making the fringe fly.

ICS is a two-way bilingual school. Tonight celebrates the English/Spanish exhibition, but there will be another for the school’s Portuguese program.

After doing this project for three years, the teachers, Brooke Odessa and Rose Santamaria, no longer have the children write straight translations of their first piece because it’s too boring to read. The two writing pieces reveal different details.

While the quality of the writing varies, the sentiments are inspired. The children photograph whatever represents their culture, so the pictures only show what they care about. The school lends a digital camera to each child. Their families help them take excellent care of the equipment because this project is about them.

The pictures are intriguing. You’re drawn to the details.

One boy had himself photographed with his legs over his head in a spaghetti of limbs, and describes himself as “flexible.”

A girl photographed and wrote about the highly-decorated sea shell that had been used for her baptism in Mexico.

The pictures show us dads fixing cars, moms cooking, and backyard celebrations. We see a place set for dinner heaped with favorite foods. A dance band plays at a child’s church that looks to me like a hotel meeting room. The children in ICS’ Spanish/English classes are predominantly Hispanic, of course, so you can see how much closer Grandma, Auntie and Uncle are to the daily life of the households than you’d probably see in most Anglo families.

Most pictures show humble homes in Pawtucket, Providence and poor Central Falls, now famous for its bankruptcy. So one photograph of a grand, beachside outdoor space seems very out of place. The story explains that this child’s mother cleans this vacation home of wealthy people. He describes how the paper towels smell of Windex.

Several years ago, the teachers at ICS complained that typical social studies programs were totally lame as compared with what their diverse population could teach one another. The Rhode Island Foundation gave the teachers a grant to develop a school-wide curriculum of their own. Kindergarten begins, appropriately, with “me,” and each grade level expands the child’s social horizons outward to family, community, culture and finally to global citizenship.

The teachers explain that their curriculum is keyed to the national standards for social studies. But whenever possible, they ask the children to find examples of culture in their own lives and in the world around them.

As the third-grade teachers were developing their program, one of their parents happened to be Mary Beth Meehan, a professional photographer. Funded by another grant, she began teaching the children “narrative story-telling” in pictures. To prepare to make a picture, kids first walk about peering through rectangles cut out of black construction paper, learning to see the world as composed inside a frame.

Meehan laughs, “The first thing they have to do ASAP is to get over the posing thing. Here’s Mom with my sisters smiling at the camera. That’s fine, but it’s not a candid moment in a story.”

Meehan says, “My favorite part of the project is when the pictures come back.” She loads them onto her computer and prints out contact sheets. Kids start making decisions about which pictures to highlight. They work together editing.

A kid will passionately defend the picture of a beloved cat. With their new sophistication, the other kids might reject the picture as ill-composed. They decide together. Meehan herself didn’t much like a picture of a soda can from Colombia, but the kids talked her into it. “And they were right. It does represent a cultural artifact.” Its aesthetic is not at all American.

Head of School Julie Nora reports that at the four national conferences where they’ve presented this project, everyone loves it, but wants to know if it would work without a professional photographer. Well, sort of. But not at this level of quality. The kids get a full-on art lesson in the midst of rich social studies and writing. They won’t forget what it means to frame a composition or the difference between an authentic moment and a staged shot. They care to do their best work.

Since 2008-09 to 2010-11, ICS’ 5th-grade writing scores have improved from 36 to 57 percent, almost reaching the state average – in a school where by design, half the children are English-language learners. Not surprisingly, 59 percent are eligible for subsidized lunch.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have great riches in their lives to share with us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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