Wednesday, November 01, 2006

NAACP Organizing Effort & A Response

I received a notice of a NAACP vigil for this evening:



On Wednesday, November first, the NAACP is holding a candlelight vigil in front of the John Stanford Building in protest of the Seattle School Boards decision to close several schools. The anticipated closures will disproportionately impact minority group members and the poor. All of the schools slated for closure serve predominantly minority populations. Further, an overwhelming majority of the students that attend the schools that the School District is seeking to close receive either free or reduced lunch. Meanwhile, schools that are predominantly white and middle to upper income are virtually untouched by the School Board’s closure decisions.

Public Schools were intended to be the great equalizer. The Seattle School Board has clearly demonstrated that it is willing to sacrifice the educational opportunities of minority children and the poor. Taking a stand against school closure means taking a stand for educational equality. We are asking you to stand with us! There is power in numbers! We need as many people as possible to come out and stand up for the educational rights of all people.

The Candlelight Vigil will begin at 5:15 p.m. on November 1st in front of the John Stanford Building and continue throughout the duration of the School Board Meeting.


This notice generated some very interesting discussion on the Alternative Schools Yahoo group. One parent gave me permission to excerpt her response on this blog.

"...the NAACP movement is framing the closures as one that targets black and low income students. While the schools being affected are mostly schools that serve minority populations, I do not believe that they are being "targeted" by the district for these reasons. I think they are being targeted because they are underenrolled, and are in demographic areas of great excess capacity. The "white" north end schools were "targeted" in the last round of closures but nobody ever seems to mention that.

So, let me be clear, I do think that all people across the city should ban together to stop closure, I believe in our schools and I believe in uplifting them and making them better places that will attract more families to them. I have, and continue to fight to stop the closures, however, I will not be part of a movement that's main argument rests on racism. In my opinion the NAACP should be ashamed of using this as their defense, it is about as embarrasing as the districts closure proposal.

There are many other clear reasons to fight to stop the closures, without having to play the race card. I know we live in Seattle, and this is not PC, but it is how I feel. And, FYI, we are a family of color, so please know this is not coming from a white, elitist perspective."


Anonymous said...

While I can understand how frustrated this group might feel as being targeted, it is difficult for me to understand how they feel they are targeted because they are minorities when the schools in question have such large amounts of excess capacity. I'd also be curious what they suggest - close schools that are full with large wait lists because they don't target minorities and then do what with all the extra kids - bus them to the underenrolled schools on the other side of town?

It just frustrates me but not being a minority I find it difficult to completely understand where they are coming from and hesitate to make too much noise about it.....

Charlie Mas said...

There are two basic premises to the NAACP's position that require challenge.

First is the presumption that school closures are bad for the students. I don't believe that they are. The District cannot cost effectively provide services and programs to schools with fewer than 250 students. Public education funding is driven by enrollment at every level, and for good reason. Consequently, schools with fewer than 250 students lack the funding necessary for librarians, PE teachers, art teachers, music teachers, and nurses. Moreover, they don't have enough students to cost-effectively drive programs for students with special needs. Without enough students, the programs cannot assemble the critical mass necessary to be effective. Consolidating two small schools into a single school provides the enrollment necessary to fund services and the crtical mass necessary to establish viable programs. That makes consolidation a strong positive for the students.

In addition, these were not particularly effective schools that were consolidated. While I suppose that it is possible to find some statistical measure by which any school can be made to look good or look bad, each of these schools were, on the whole, underperforming. A strong indicator of school quality is the number of families that choose the school - and these schools were rarely chosen, even by families in the immediate neighborhood. Ask the people protesting the closures this question: "If this school is so wonderful, why did so few families name it as their first choice for assignment?" Moving the students from a school that isn't effective to one that is effective is a positive for the students.

These schools, because they were so small, often had only one class per grade. That means that these students had the same classmates every year. That is not what I would call exposure to diversity. It is far better for these students to meet new classmates from time to time.

There is a lot of talk about small schools and how effective they are. Not every school with low enrollment, however, is a small school. Small Schools, the ones promoted by education reformers, are small by design, not because few families choose to enroll children there. There are other hallmarks of a small school that these schools did not meet. Small schools are academically effective in ways that these schools are not. Finally, a small elementary school is one with an enrollment of under 500. All of the consolidated schools fall under that size. These students were not moved out of small, effective schools, they were moved out of ineffective schools with low enrollment.

Let's remember that all of the closed schools were consolidated into nearby schools, so the students, the teachers, and the families - the whole learning community - moved together. It's not like these kids are being thrown individually into a strange, new world. Their classmates, teachers, and broader community are making the move with them.

For all of these reasons and others, the change from the closed school to the consolidated school is, in fact, a net positive, not a negative, for the students who change buildings.

What is the negative? They have a change of building and the new building may (or may not) be a bit further from their home. I don't see the tragedy.

The second premise that should be challenged is the suggestion that these changes disproportionately impact minority students, students with IEPs, and students from low-income households.

Any claim of disproportionate results requires a benchmark. The benchmark most commonly used by those who claim the closures and consolidations create a disproportionate outcome is the whole district. The district, as a whole, is 60% non-white, 45% FRE and 12% SPED. That's indisputable.

What can be disputed is whether the district as a whole is an appropriate benchmark. The closures and consolidations were done to address excess capacity. I suggest that a more appropriate benchmark would be the demographics of the schools with excess capacity.

If you make a list of the neighborhood elementary schools that are more than 1/3 empty you will get twelve of them. If you make a list of those with more than 180 empty seats, you will get the same twelve. These are the schools with excess capacity. The demographics of these schools nearly matches the demographics of the students in closed buildings. It's little wonder, in many cases, the schools are the same.

These schools were not closed because they are half full of minority students, they were closed because they were half full.

Using the demographics of the district as a whole is a mistake; it is an inappropriate benchmark. Why not use the demographics of all of the schools in the county or all of the schools in the state?

The problem is excess capacity. It would be insane to address that problem by closing schools that didn't have excess capacity just so the race numbers would match those of the district.

That would truly be a race-based decision. How perverse is it for someone to demand that as an alternative to the decision that they claim (falsely) was race-based?

If the District freely distributed a vaccine against sickle-cell anemia, would the NAACP protest because the shots were given to African-American students in disproportionate numbers? This is no different. The cure (consolidation) was applied only in those places with the disease (excess capacity). And the cure is beneficial for the students.

Roy Smith said...

Charlie, you have made several statements on this blog to the effect that "the District cannot cost effectively provide services and programs to schools with fewer than 250 students." I think that that is an overly broad statement - a qualifier (even if it is just "generally, the District cannot cost effectively provide services and programs to schools with fewer than 250 students") seems necessary.

Elementary schools that decide to be small schools by design can be cost effective. They do that by recognizing the tradeoffs that have to be made and making a conscious decision that small school size is more important to them than some of the other things, such as full time music teachers, full time PE teachers, full time art teachers, or full time nurses.

The only school that I am aware of (there may be others) in SPS that has consciously decided to be a small school is AS#1, and I think that it is and will continue to be cost effective for the District. The prospective loss of foundation money for the schools is something that AS#1 is prepared to deal with, and it is not nearly the threat to the school's survival that the co-location proposal was.

I recognize that you probably agree, at least generally, with what I am saying in this post, but I wanted to make sure the point was made that intentionally small (or perhaps "very small") schools such as AS#1 do not automatically fail cost-effectiveness tests.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, thanks for summarizing the issues so succinctly.

I think it's interesting that the discussion about the Phase I merger/closures seems to stay at the "conventional wisdom" level and never delves to details that seem important:

1) the size of the schools. That's probably because people don't believe size is relevant, but when every school requires significant fixed costs regardless of size (at least $250K for principal, admin, etc) and there isn't enough funding to go around, size seems very relevant. As Charlie points out, the combined populations of the following 4 schools don't even constitute a moderately "large school" - (Oct 2005):

Martin Luther King - 103
TT Minor - 180
High Point - 155
Fairmount Park - 179

2) the fact that 2 of the 3 mergers were initiated before Phase I began, by the 4 principals involved - people you'd presume had insight into their students and communities as well as the best interests of the students in mind. It seems insulting to attribute their decisions to coercion - and I'ver never heard anything but favorable assessments of their character or leadership either before or since Phase I.

3) and as Charlie points out - that families as a whole had already voted on most of these and other Phase I schools, by not choosing them. I don't understand the argument that Martin Luther King's reference area size or design has been responsible for its low enrollment: since anyone can choose any school with open seats, it seems the only constraint would be transportation - isn't everyone in the 9 reference areas in the Central cluster, as well as the 6 reference areas in the NE cluster, eligible for transportation to Martin Luther King?

From Oct 2005 reference area residence numbers, that's 2,382 students in the Central cluster and 2,852 in the NE who would were eligible to choose and have transportation to Martin Luther King - and that's just K-5 students who attend SPS, not the significant number of children attending private schools in those areas.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - I shouldn't have counted all 2,852 SPS K-5 students in the NE cluster because only those who "are integration positive" for Martin Luther King (white?) are eligible for transportation.

And I shouldn't have counted all 2,382 SPS K-5 students in the Central area because only those who live more than a mile away from Martin Luther King are eligible for transportation.

Though that still leaves a lot of potential students and families to choose the school.

Anonymous said...

I spoke with James Bible who is representing the NAACP during a break at last night's Board meeting. I wanted to point out to him that in the SE, there is only 1 school that is less than 50% free and reduced lunch and it's nearly the same story in the SW. So no matter what, low-income children would be inpacted by school closures.

I also mentioned the closures previous to these and how at least 80% of those schools closed were in the north end. He said that was because of a Brown-type lawsuit in Seattle. I didn't get to ask him the name of it (but I will) because I hadn't heard about this before.

The tone of the meeting was good among the Board members and DeBell made an honest and heartfelt apology to a woman who he had mistakenly said something about at the last meeting (she accepted his apology). But it still felt like a very polarized meeting. I was dismayed at how there were many under-the-breath comments when white speakers got up. I called my friend, Don Alexander, on it when he called out, "thanks Doris Day" to a white, blond woman on the PTA Board from Ballard (she had been speaking about community making a school strong). I told him it wasn't worthy of him and he said she was too Pollyannaish and not getting the general tone of the public testimony. He and I enjoy each other enough to agree to disagree but the guy who started the fight last week came up and called me a racist. I walked away.

There were many speakers against the TAF Academy at Rainier Beach High School. I still have yet to fully understand this issue (I'll have to check out the foundation's website)but CAO Carla Santorno spoke before the Board about it. She first spoke about how the letter of intent was only to explore what was being offered to the district. But about two sentences later, she had moved on to a Memorandum of Agreement and what it might entail. I'm thinking maybe there hasn't been enough engagement with the Rainier Beach community. I think their fear is that TAF would take away Rainier Beach population (already underenrolled) and create a rift between the two programs. One suggestion had been for a technology elective be offered to Rainier Beach students from the TAF Academy.

This is a whole separate subject but the more the district moves into public/private agreements, the more it needs a policy so that it is clear, upfront, what the district will or will not do or accept.

Roy Smith said...

I know this is divergent from the main topic at hand, but since the topic of small schools came up, it is also worth pointing out that what constitutes a "small school" varies, sometimes significantly, according to what educational expert you talk to, and what measures of educational effectiveness are used.

It is also worth pointing out that in most of the research literature on small schools, an elementary school with over 350 students is hardly ever considered a small school.

Anonymous said...

"he said she was too Pollyannaish and not getting the general tone of the public testimony" - from Melissa's post - this irks me. I thought the point of the public testimony hour was for anyone to speak about anything they feel is important for the School District.

So if someone is deemed too naive, pollyanna-ish, uninformed, positive, optimistic, or earnest they should be disdained, and even publicly insulted? If that's the case, that people can only speak on a "prescribed agenda" or in synch with the "general tone", then the whole point of the public testimony is moot and a lot of people will stop showing up or caring.

Anonymous said...

Just to follow-up on Amy's point, I have been to many, many Board meetings. I don't intimidate easily and because I've been there so much I know most of the regulars. But if the tone doesn't improve, it may well drive out newcomers who feel unwelcome or intimidated.

Anonymous said...

I feel myself disengaging from the district because of constant comments like Mr Alexanders.

Because I could afford to move to (20+ years ago) industrial neighborhood north of the ship canal and am Caucasian, means I am privileged and racist according to some.

They don't care that I have been a volunteer in the schools for years, they don't care that neither I nor my partner has a college degree ( unlike many who argue that I am an elitist), they don't care that our income is lower than that of a teacher our age.

Arguing that inappropriate educational practices are race based takes us that much farther from a workable solution & prompts families who are aware enough to actively choose a district to enroll their children to look outside of Seattle.

I moved to Seattle after growing up on the Eastside, because I appreciated the diversity of its neighborhoods. But perhaps I should have stayed put, not only are the high schools able to offer more courses with less dollars per student than Seattle, but now we find that the community is more diverse as well.