Separate but equal? (redux)

My 7-year old son just started at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL) in Denver this fall.  It is, as the name indicates, an expeditionary learning (EL) school model that is been recognized as one of the top-performing schools in the state.  One reason so many families enter the competitive lottery is the whole-child approach to education that the school takes.  RMSEL students explore a rigorous academic curriculum through a project-based instructional model.  This is combined with a strong Outward Bound focus on leadership and character development.  Parents and older students speak appreciatively about ways in which the small school environment allows for individualized learning and the development of authentic relationships between all members of the school community.

It was against the backdrop of this school environment that I found myself in a discussion about school choice in Denver with Tasha, the African-American mother of my son’s new classmate, who works at a local detention center.  I mentioned wanting to explore the social justice issues involved in the current push to replicate college prep charter school models within areas of the city with concentrations of poor and minority students.  (My use of college prep in this blog refers to what some also call high-performing charter school models including KIPP, STRIVE and a handful of others here in Denver; and networks such as KIPP, Aspire and YES Prep nationally).  Tasha’s voice got a little higher as she mentioned one local school she had visited which had been highlighted by DPS as a strong college preparatory model for students through the 5th grade.

“I went to visit that school,” she exclaimed fiercely, “and I wanted to tell every parent of color there that they should pull their kid out!  They had a white line taped down the middle of the floor and when I asked them what it was they said it was to help the kids learn discipline – to walk in straight lines on one side of the tape when they are in the hallways.  That’s what we do at the prison.  Why is it that kids of color learn to be controlled by walking on one side of a white line?  That’s not how white kids and kids in better schools learn it.”

I share Tasha’s concerns about that school and some of the other college prep charter models I have visited locally and nationally; and I am not alone, for similar reasons.  The schools pride themselves on school climates that are structured and ordered – extremely so.  One well-known school model, KIPP, requires students to sit up straight, have hands folded on the desk and have eyes that “track” the teacher/speaker.  Some schools go so far as to issue demerits to students for small infractions like speaking out of turn or being a few minutes late.  All of them have highly teacher-directed and delivered content, as opposed to the project and internship-based approaches that many schools serving students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are adopting.

Proponents of college prep charter models argue that these school are meeting the needs of a specific subgroup of students who need support in building the foundational academic, social and executive functioning skills they need to succeed in school and life.  But it is exactly this approach that should be worrying us.  Parents from middle and higher socioeconomic backgrounds want these same things for their children; however, they aren’t sending their kids to college prep charter schools.  Admission to these schools is by lottery, and most of them tout the fact that 80-95% of their students qualify for free and reduced (FRL) lunch; of the remainder, it is a safe bet that most are barely outside the FRL threshold.  Walk into any of these schools and it is clear that the vast majority of kids being served are also kids of color.  This indicates that wealthier and white Denver families are not trying to choice into these schools.  Contrast this with huge waiting lists to get into schools like Polaris, Odyssey EL, and RMSEL.  Suburban districts such as Cherry Creek and Littleton whose demographics are higher income families are certainly not clamoring for these charter school networks to open new schools in their districts.

I don’t doubt that those who advocate replicating college prep charters are sincere in believing that these schools will best serve struggling students.  But I am concerned about district policies, funding priorities, and public advocacy campaigns that call for these school models to be scaled up and replicated as a primary strategy for improving urban district performance.  There are a few assumptions that seem implicit in such an approach:

1)   Poor students and/or students of color can best learn discipline and succeed academically by creating school climates, culture and policies that have highly stringent behavior policies.  This is at odds with the types of behavior policies at the schools more affluent students attend.  I would hate to see my wealthier friends’ reactions if their child received a demerit or detention for walking down the “wrong” side of a hallway or for once speaking out of turn.

2)   Rigor for poor or brown students means highly-directed learning and a disproportionate emphasis on literacy and math instruction.  There seems to be skepticism that these students can learn with more inquiry-based or project-based models; or that they can “catch up” with anything resembling a more progressive instructional approach.  (Watch for a post soon on this specific topic)

3)   It is acceptable to systemically create pipelines of K-12 schools in low-income regions of the city that primarily serve the poor students of color in those neighborhoods.  Many college prep charter networks began with middle schools located in high needs neighborhoods; many built out high schools to serve students longer.  They are now looking to expand into elementary schools and are trying to do so in a way that funnels kids through their whole K-12 pipeline.  For reasons related to geographic location and lack of transportation options these schools end up being the only “safe” and “high-performing” schools accessible to families living in the most low-income  and heavily minority parts of the city.

I read the above list and cannot help but be concerned that we are creating a soft and modern version of “separate but equal” that should give pause to those of us concerned with social justice.

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