We Need Focus Schools But They Are a Risk

I support the idea of increasing the number of focus schools in the St. Vrain Valley.  As I have written in the past, I believe it is important that families with different needs and interests are able to find a home in public schools.  That’s why I support the idea of creating a Montessori , dual immersion language, fine arts, math and science, or another IB school.  A critical mass of demand should drive the specific choices.

Some people have pointed out that focus schools have the potential to further fragment and divide people along a narrow set of interests.

I also believe the public schools have the potential to play an important role in building community by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to learn from, with and about one another.  In fact, the potential to bring together diverse groups and build community is what sets public schools apart from other types of schools.

Some people argue that creating a portfolio of focus schools would undermine the potential of public schools to bring together diverse groups of people.

Are focus schools and building community antithetical?

People are right to be concerned that focus schools could further divide communities along education interests (or correct in pointing out the inherent conflict between two ideas I advocate).

It is often the case that public policy requires that we find balance between competing values and priorities.  That’s what makes public policy difficult, interesting and political.

How do we find that balance?

Some school districts have tried an approach of incentives.  These districts weight funding for students (typically based on income and other “at risk” factors) to encourage diversity.  Weighted funding, the thinking goes, will create the incentive for schools in open enrollment districts (such as exist in Colorado) to recruit a more diverse student body.

Some school districts use limits – for instance, no school is allowed to have more than 50% low income students – as a way to encourage diversity.  Based on what I have read, this approach is complicated.

Other school districts use a magnet school approach, placing focus schools in neighborhoods with high proportions of low income or minority students.  This was part of the idea behind placing the middle years IB program at Heritage.

These ideas are worth consideration.  However, they are only one part of the equation.

We also must do a better job of making sure diversity adds value to students’ learning experience.  Sharing space is of little value.  We must develop practices and structures that enable students to learn from, about and with one another, rather than allow students to operate in cliques.  There are many practical ideas we can employ to ensure that diversity does in fact add value to the learning experience.

St. Vrain high school students suggest that we are not proficient (to use a common education term) at this.  Some principals point out that adults – parents – actively object to efforts to “mix” students.

Which brings me to the most important piece of the equation:  Political will.  We will make slow progress toward reclaiming public schools potential to build community unless and until it is a public priority.  Right now, it is not.

Based on my experience doing focus group research on education issues, I would suggest that building community among diverse groups is people’s fourth or fifth priority for schools (at best).  We all know that when something is that far down the priority list it is easy to ignore.

I am not deterred.  There are some issues that are important enough to champion even if they do not rate high in terms of public opinion.  This is one of them.

Our nation is more diverse than it has ever been (in the 1950s our country was about 90% white; today we are only 67% white).  Diversity is only going to increase.  We must learn to work together in a diverse nation or we will suffer.  Any casual student of history knows this to be true.

Our children must learn to work in a global economy and will encounter people of different cultures every day.  Those who know how to work across boundaries are at an advantage.

We are foolish if we ignore the need to learn from, with and about one another.

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7 Responses to “We Need Focus Schools But They Are a Risk”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    Your goal of using public schools as an engine to build community is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think you acknowledged in your post that this isn’t exactly something that the schools are good at.
    Perhaps you have evidence that public school students turn out to be better citizens (less likely to commit crimes, less likely to go on welfare, less likely to get into fights with neighbors, more likely to join service organizations, more likely to serve society successfully in the private sector, more likely to donate money to charity, whatever) than private school. parochial school and homeschool students. If you have such data, please present it.
    Given that this is “people’s fourth or fifth priority for schools (at best),” should we not focus on higher priorities, such as teaching students to read, write, compute, reason, analyze and so on? Given that most sophomores flunk the lowly CSAP, it would seem that public schools have enough challenges as is.

  2. John Creighton Says:

    Brad, your list of citizenship qualities are good ones. I am not making the argument public schools promote these qualities better than other types of schools.
    My point is this: Over time separatism erodes the health of a democratic society. We will pay a price if we choose to live in enclaves. Consider Great Britain and other European countries as examples.
    Public schools are one of the few institutions we have to build bridges between enclaves. We should be careful not to casually discard this potential.

  3. Brian Childress Says:

    I did my dissertation work on Keith King’s proposal in 2005. HB-1248 didn’t pass, but it was designed to bring more market forces in to the public school realm. In interviewing superintendents and principals in 6 different districts, these administrators commented that weighted funding would increase segregation and create more disparity between wealthy schools and poorer schools. Without changing accountability measures or union constraints, interviewees commented that the mechanism of competing for “high dollar” kids would be passed up in favor of having a high performing school.
    I think the points that are being brought up around the mission of the public schools are salient ones. Participants in my study remarked that the public schools have been charged with being all things to all people. In a time of scarce financial resources, that just isn’t possible. So what is the real mission of the public school? What do we really value?

  4. Brad Jolly Says:

    I am heartened that Mr. Creighton acknowledges there is no particular reason to believe that public schools promote citizenship qualities better than non-public schools. The “enclaves” that cause Mr. Creighton concern are actually encouraged by public schools, which promote the “salad bowl” mentality, as opposed to the melting pot.
    Mr. Childress correctly points out that the lack of proper accountability measures and the constraints imposed by the teachers’ union are huge impediments to progress in public schools. The system is fundamentally broken.
    I would be interested to know what Mr. Childress means by “a time of scarce financial resources,” though. Public school spending is at an all-time high, even if one adjusts for inflation.

  5. Brad Jolly Says:

    Having looked at the SVVSD budget for 2008 (http://www.stvrain.k12.co.us/financial/budget/2008/adopted.pdf, page A-18), I now see what Mr. Childress might be talking about.
    As principal at Longmont Estates, Mr. Childress receives an “average cost per pupil” of $3,425, which is one of the lowest amounts in the district.
    On the other hand, the district’s failurist funding model gives $5,479 per student to Central, $4,874 per student to Columbine, $5,013 per student to Loma Linda, and $4,705 per student to Rocky Mountain.
    What makes the situation especially ironic is that Longmont Estates parents pay far more in taxes than parents in the other school attendance areas.
    What makes the situation especially tragic is that Longmont Estates students still blow the doors off the overfunded schools, providing redundant proof that a school’s culture matters a lot more than its dollars. Imagine what the Longmont Estates kids could do with an equal share of funding!

  6. John Creighton Says:

    I appreciate Mr. Jolly’s frequent and often thoughtful comments. As I have read his two most recent comments, however, I can’t help but be reminded of Marie-Antoinette.
    You may recall the French Queen for the notorious quote, “Let them eat cake,” when she was told that the French populace had no bread to eat. The phrase is now used to note obtuseness to people’s needs.
    There is a logic behind Marie-Antoinette’s thinking. Let people deal with their own problems. Why burden the rest of us? It is a logic that appears quite sound on the surface. We all value personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. It is a logic that has tempted nearly every generation of Americans.
    But, consistently generation after generation of Americans rejects this logic because, followed to its end, it rejects the United State’s unique commitment to provide egalitarian opportunities. Followed to its end, it repudiates more than 100 years of successful public policies that have made the United States the envy of the world. And, followed to its end, it is a logic that will widen the gulf between haves and have nots.
    (At another level, this logic denies the notion that different students have different needs. It is a logic runs counter to everything we’re learning about education, including differentiated instruction.)
    Alan Greenspan notes in his recent memoir, The Age of Turbulence, that we must take seriously the growing divide between the haves and have nots. He writes that, “The rule of law under which capitalistic institutions function must be perceived (my emphasis) as “fair” if these institutions are to continue to receive broad support.” (page 396)
    He goes on to explain that education is one of the key ways to address the divide between haves and have nots and writes: “I recognize that left to their own devices, market incentives will not reach the education of those children ‘left behind.’ The cost of educational egalitarianism is doubtless high and may be difficult to justify in terms of economic efficiency and short-term productivity. Some students can achieve a given level of education far more easily and therefore at far less cost, than others. Yet there is a danger to a democratic society in leaving some children out of sync with its institutions. Such neglect contributes to exaggerated income concentration, and could conceivably be far more costly to the sustaining of capitalism and globalization in the long run. The value judgments involved in making such choices reach beyond the imperatives of the marketplace.” (page 406)
    Thank goodness past generations have acted in ways consistent with Mr. Greenspan’s insights and not Marie-Antoinette’s. I am confident our generation will do the same.

  7. Brad Jolly Says:

    Let them eat cake? That is not at all what I am saying, and you know it. I absolutely believe that poor students should have the same kind of educational “meal” opportunity as rich students.
    In fact, I wish that all students could have vouchers, so they could escape the public schools, just like, say, the Kennedys and the Clintons.
    I fully support the egalitarian approach of providing equal funding for all. Nowhere have I said that the poor should only be able to have the kind of education they can afford. I have no problem using public money to fund education well beyond what the poor could afford on their own.
    Let them eat cake? Yes, and let them have a wonderful salad, entree and side dish as well! But let’s not overfeed some schools at the expense of starving others.

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