Posts Tagged segregation

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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The Diverse Schools Dilemma

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Michael Petrilli’s second son wasn’t even born when he was deep into researching where to send his boys to school.  But you know how the zealotry of parenthood can change a man.  He tells his personal story, peppered with much research, in a short, engaging new book The Diverse Schools Dilemma – A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. 

Such as education punditry has stars, Petrilli is one.  Now a VP at the Fordham Institute, he worked in the Bush-era Department of Education.  His opinion pieces regularly appear in outlets from the New York Times to NBC nightly news.  He’s young, smart and articulate.  He knows education.

When his first child was born, Petrilli and his wife were living in the fun, diverse neighborhood of Takoma Park in Washington D.C..  Ideally, the couple wanted to educate their kids in a diverse setting.  But their neighborhood schools had lackluster scores and mediocre reputations.

Speaking recently to a gathering in Rhode Island, he explained his fatherly dilemma:  Could his kids have both a great academic education while learning alongside children from richly-different cultures and classes?  It wasn’t obvious.

First understand what “diverse” really means.  Petrilli visited several racially-diverse private schools to weigh their plusses and problems.  Sidwell Friends is one such, where the Obama girls contribute to that school’s 40 percent students of color.  Such schools offer skin-tone diversity, but certainly aren’t educating kids from the ‘hood.

So the book’s dilemma narrows to socio-economic diversity, mixing middle and low-income kids.  Family income, especially poverty, does correlate with race, but less and less over recent decades. The real issue is kids’ class background.

In an interview for Petrilli’s book, Naomi Calvo, who wrote her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on Seattle’s controlled-choice program, was blunt:  “The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate.  I don’t know how you’re going to have a meeting of the minds on that.”

Petrilli adds, “Partly this is about structure — affluent parents want the school day to end early enough so there’s time for enrichment activities and sports practice, while poor kids need more learning time.”

To the local gathering, Petrilli said, “I come from a line of education reformers who support ‘no-excuses’ schools, with direct instruction, the sorts of places that are benignly paternalistic and highly structured.  Many middle-class parents hate these structured schools.  But there’s strong evidence that the progressive model works for middle-class kids, but has been generally disastrous for poor kids.”

Hmmm, separate school strategies for kids from the upper and lower classes.

Petrilli cites research done by Annette Lareau who studied the parenting practices and everyday routines of 12 families from a range of income levels.  She expected each family’s style would be somewhat unique.  In fact, the researchers found only two very distinct styles, divided along class and not racial lines.

The middle-class families super-schedule their kids.  And they talk with them — between dance and archery classes — enriching the kids’ vocabulary, verbal skills, and their ability to summarize, clarify and manage information.

But working class and poor families do not much encourage debate or negotiation.  Petrilli writes, “…the adults are more authoritarian — and use more physical punishment.”  These parents also “believed in letting their kids be kids — to have plenty of unstructured time to play, to spend long summer days or weekends without supervision, and to make fun on their own.  (Which, interestingly enough, is the polar opposite of the structure they want from their schools.)”

While a sweeping generalization, affluent kids are ready to rock academically, building on the cognitive skills and expectations already hot-housed at home.  Low-income parents appreciate rigid discipline at schools, and care far less about creativity and self-expression.

Liberal middle-class parents may think they want diverse schools, but they don’t want their kids neglected, nor distracted by the behavior of children who haven’t had structure at home.

And while the poor, ill-educated parents of Dr. James Comer and others are exceptions to these generalizations, lower-class parents prefer a relaxed home and tight discipline at the schools.

Many teachers would argue that parents want the schools to discipline their kids for them.

In the end Petrilli moves his family to an affluent suburb where his kids can continue their deliciously creative Waldorf education.  I totally get it.  No one sacrifices their kids on the altar of abstract ideals.  I don’t judge him or anyone making the best decision they can in the interests of their children.

And I give Petrilli credit for nailing the “dilemma” in the nation’s schools.  I have known it firsthand.  My own kids attended urban public schools, for better or worse.  Though it was sometimes a painful struggle, I’m not sorry I did it.

So I refuse to concede to segregation.  We don’t yet have scalable solutions.  But it seems unAmerican to accept different school strategies for upper and lower classes.  To be fair, Petrilli isn’t nuts about the idea either, as his book makes clear.

But his heart is only torn.  Mine breaks.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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