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.”

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.

Revisiting CTE

How a new career program has put these Indianapolis students to work as nursing assistants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Antonia Dove, left, and Shireah Washington are seniors at Crispus Attucks High School.

A few days each week, seniors Shireah Washington and Antonia Dove end their school day at Crispus Attucks High School at about 11 a.m. Instead of spending the afternoon in the classroom, they work as certified nurses assistants at a senior care facility.

The jobs, which come with both paychecks and school credit, are part of a program the high school launched last year to help prepare students for careers in medicine. Six seniors, including Washington and Dove, who trained as CNAs and passed the state exam last year, now have jobs. The program was so successful that about 40 students are studying for the certification this year, according to the administration.

Nursing assistants’ work is not glamorous. For the eight-hour shift, the students take residents to meals, bathe them, and help them change. Some of the labor is strenuous — Dove said it takes upper body strength. Sometimes it’s off-putting — Washington said it takes a strong stomach. On slow days, it can just be a little dull, they said. But ultimately, it gives students a chance to see up close what it’s like to work with patients.

“It’s like stuff you see on TV,” said Dove, who wants to be a neonatal nurse. “You’re just seeing it in real life.”

The CNA program is part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ effort to revamp education for high school students by creating specialized academies that allow students to choose their school and program based on their interests. The academies cover a broad range of areas, from construction to rigorous college preparatory programs such as International Baccalaureate. But the central idea is that high school should prepare students for the careers they want to pursue.

The strategy is part of a career and technical education trend across the state and nation. Indiana is increasingly focused on connecting education and workforce development by encouraging high schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers and pursue internships. And national politicians from across the political spectrum support career and technical education.

At Attucks, there are two academies: health science and teaching, learning, and leading. The CNA training is part of the nursing track, one of four paths in the health science academy. The others are physical therapy, health informatics, and Project Lead the Way biomedical sciences.

Career education sometimes has a negative connotation as a program for students who can’t perform academically, said Mee Hee Smith, career academy coordinator at Attucks. But the health science academy has rigorous programs, she said.

For students to qualify for the CNA program, they must have a 3.0 grade point average, good attendance, and no discipline issues. The state also requires them to pass criminal background checks and health exams before they can begin clinical work with patients.

In addition to allowing them to earn credentials in high school, the CNA program can help “catapult” students into a two- or four-year degree program, Smith said. When students are applying to colleges, graduate programs, and jobs, they will already have experience working with patients and a state credential.

“When Shireah goes and finishes her four-year degree and then applies to med school, she gets to put that on her applications,” Smith said. “The hope is that she uses this experience and uses that to her advantage and maybe gets ahead.”

It’s also a chance to make some money. Students working as CNAs are paid between $11 and $13 per hour, depending on whether they are working early or late hours.

Dove is saving up to pay for expenses at college, like what she will buy for her dorm. Washington has been a little freer with her spending, buying clothes and gear for volleyball. “I just feel like I’m rich,” Washington said with a laugh.

But Washington, who wants to be a pediatrician, also takes her job seriously. “If I was anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had this experience,” she said.

While CTE has been embraced by politicians in recent years, there are some concerns about students focusing on career-specific skills in high school. Some question whether the skills are taught as a substitute for broad knowledge and whether students will have the general skills needed to adapt in a changing workforce. Others raise concerns about whether students from economically disadvantaged families or students of color are being steered toward CTE.

CNAs don’t make great money — the median pay is $12.21 per hour, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. But if students pursue further education, it could open the doors to lucrative, in-demand occupations. Health care is projected to add more than 77,000 new job openings, including about 3,000 openings for nursing assistants, by 2026.

When principal Lauren Franklin took over at Crispus Attucks High School three years ago, the school was a medical magnet on paper. But there were only a few medical courses, and students could not take them until 10th grade, she said. Franklin set out to change that by adding more medical classes to the curriculum and helping students learn what medical careers would be like.

The nursing assistant program is part of that shift. It offers students the opportunity to work in medical settings with patients while they are still in high school. For some teens, it reaffirms their desire to go into medicine. But for others, it can change their perspective. Over the course of the first year, many students decided they didn’t want to continue the CNA training, said Franklin.

“I think people tend to romanticize it,” she added. “There were kids who … go to clinicals and they see blood for the first time, and it’s like, ‘thought I wanted to be a doctor, nevermind.’ ”

Ultimately, Franklin hopes the academies will give students a more concrete sense of what their future holds. “It gives kids that something to hope for and that something to strive for,” she said.