First Person

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

This is the latest entry in How We Got Here, a series where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see all of the stories here.

Unlike many of the other mothers I know, I’m not wringing my hands too much about where I send my children to school.

Now that our children are approaching kindergarten, women I’ve known for a long time are growing anxious. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, but our choices are limited by our finances and sometimes by school districts. Some of us also have concern for social and racial justice and how that is reflected in our schools, and want to make choices for our own children that contribute to a more just school system.

I’m an anxious person by nature, but as a teacher in the public schools in Nashville as well as a parent, I’m not nervous about where my children end up.

My surprisingly chill perspective comes mostly from a recognition of my privilege. My kids are little white boys with two married, employed, home-owning, college-educated parents. They have so much privilege. Every statistic there is says they will be just fine, no matter where they go to school. My students have very few of these advantages, and I see every day that they are people with intelligence, integrity, humor, and optimism. Accepting my students for who they are helps me to accept that my children will be OK, even if they don’t get every single advantage I had.

In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb. Actually, growing up in a less homogeneous community than I did will give them an important set of skills and dispositions that will help them in an increasingly diverse world. I hope they’ll grow up in a country where their privileges — their skin color and their parents’ status — matter less and less, while their skills and work ethic matter more and more.

Given all that, our plan is to enroll our kids in the neighborhood public schools — starting with pre-kindergarten this month for our older son. Our kids are 4 and 1, schools can change quickly, and I can’t predict the future, so I’m not promising now that my kids will eventually graduate from their zoned public schools. But I am saying that this will be our first choice, one we will only deviate from for very compelling reasons. Too many other families in Nashville and beyond don’t even give public schools this much of a chance, scared by reputation and rumors into opting for private, charter, and magnet schools before investigating the neighborhood public schools for themselves.

Sometimes during these conversations among parents, even after I say something about how my privileged kids will be OK and how diversity is good, the other moms continue their hand-wringing. Why? Sometimes it’s because their children have challenges mine do not; because they have less privilege than I do; or because they are afraid that even the privilege they have will not be enough to position their children favorably in a rapidly changing world.

These fears are understandable. But sadly, I’m also afraid that some of their anxiety is because of implicit bias that these good-hearted women don’t want to recognize within themselves. This is what’s usually buried under the surface of talk about “good schools”: so often, white parents define “good schools” as schools full of white kids.

My personal rule of thumb when assessing schools is inspired by This American Life’s 2016 episode “The Problem We All Live With,” which explored the troubling history of school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in communities like mine. When I evaluate schools for my kids, I look for them to be truly integrated — to have at least 25 percent students of color and at least 25 percent white students. In the episode, a quarter of the population seemed to be the threshold where minority students were no longer tokens, and where white parents were numerous enough to fight for the school to get the needed resources from higher up (because, sadly, school boards and districts often disregard the concerns of parents of color, while paying attention to their white constituents).

In diverse counties like mine, this 25 percent rule makes a pretty low threshold, a goal that should not be incredibly difficult to achieve. Studies show that students of color see their test scores improve in integrated classrooms, while white students fare no differently. In many ways, integration would be one of the easiest strategies for “closing the achievement gap.”

Liberal parents sometimes struggle when it feels like they have to choose between what’s best for their own kids in the short term and what’s best for the system as a whole in the long run. But I like the point that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the black journalist behind the This American Life episode, has made when discussing her own choice for her daughter’s schooling: Her child is no better or more deserving than any other child, so it’s wrong to say that a school isn’t good enough for her child, but fine for other kids. In a way, insisting on one’s own children’s right to attend “better” schools is a selfish choice if it results in the deterioration of schools that other, less fortunate children depend on. New York City teacher Jose Luis Vilson wrote a similar essay about his own family’s choices. My particular situation isn’t the same as these writers’, but I found their stories compelling and persuasive.

I wish our school system in Nashville didn’t have big pockets of de facto segregation — that might be my top wish as both a parent and a teacher, surpassing even my desire for higher teacher pay and better family policies. There are schools in our district that are over 90 percent African American that gain a reputation for being “bad schools,” even “dropout factories,” while the expensive private school down the road (not coincidentally founded soon after enforcement of Brown v. Board, the landmark school desegregation case) is over 90 percent white and has “Blue Ribbon” status.

Recently, most debates about school segregation in Nashville have been just a small part of a larger debate on charter schools, a topic that has dominated school board politics. One argument against the schools is that they intensify segregation in the district as a whole by targeting narrow populations; their defenders respond by pointing out that the racial makeup of charter schools is not significantly different from that of the other nearby zoned schools.

Meticulous number-crunching is necessary to try to adjudicate that debate. Personally, I think that whole argument is more pertinent to magnet schools, which screen students based on their skills, than to charter schools, and magnet schools certainly are not going anywhere. But the effect of any school or type of school on the district’s racial makeup seems a moot point when the fact is that the system as a whole is deeply segregated, and most individual schools reflect that.

This situation is only poised to get worse as our rapidly gentrifying city adds more expensive housing developments, potentially deepening the residential segregation that already exists (and has deep historical roots). I’m afraid that left to its own devices, the free market will intensify residential segregation and displace many longtime residents, especially people of color and the poor, with a side effect of intensifying segregation in schools. Mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods are so crucial because they make desegregated schools happen more conveniently, organically, and peacefully, without tortured debates or elaborate busing plans.

The education activist groups I’m in haven’t been talking much about desegregation and busing, though I know they care deeply about racial justice. I know and trust these people, and I feel confident that the reason this issue hasn’t come up is that we are fighting a war on multiple fronts. We’re teachers trying to protect our jobs, we’re working to elect a school board that hasn’t been bought and paid for by out-of-state special interests, we’re trying to keep charter schools from taking students away, and we’re fighting to keep standardized testing from taking over every minute of every school day. Also, I know I’m a relative newcomer to town (I moved here in 2008), and there may be a fraught history here that I’m unaware of. Desegregation is politically tricky, and it’s something we haven’t fought for. But I would love to see that change.

Mary Jo Cramb is a teacher and parent in Nashville. A version of this piece first appeared on the Nashville education blog Dad Gone Wild.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.