Gifted on the South Side of Providence and Finally Getting the Chance to Show It

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If there is one thing that has haunted me over the years as an educator (now former) and as a mother, it is the disparity in expectations for students that glaringly breaks down around race and class. And Rhode Island is no exception. While students of means are often pushed to write thesis statements (and defend them!) in the early grades, black and brown children are far too often consigned to years of book reports and worksheets that don’t push their thinking or provide them with the opportunity to prove how incredibly smart and capable they are.

Well, cue the confetti and hallelujahs because Roger Williams Middle School is changing that. That’s right. Sixth grade students on the south side of Providence are part of a pilot program designed to offer advanced coursework — The Advanced Academics Program — and they are proving to be more than up to the task. In fact, the demand is greater than the number of seats available. Students are selected for the program based on attendance, teacher recommendation, and standardized test scores and there are currently more qualified students than there are spots in the program.

Shaking off that Deficit Mentality

The South Side of Providence is known as a depressed area where poverty is the norm and the school system has been plagued by decades of academic under-performance and high drop out rates.   Wikipedia describes the South Side this way:

The area continues to struggle with poverty issues; the South Side’s median family income is $23,379 as compared with $32,058 for the city as a whole, and more than one out of three families lives in poverty. 52.3% of South Side residents are Hispanic, 24.4% are African-American, 12.2% are white, 9.1% are Asian, and 2% are Native American. 64% of public school children under the age of six speak a language other than English as their primary language. Nearly one in four children has been exposed to unsafe quantities of lead.

It’s nothing like Providence’s East Side where the Who’s Who of Rhode Island choose to live and where income and education levels are high, a majority of residents are white, and a large percentage flock to private schools to avoid using the city’s schools.

So while tragic and wrong,  it’s no surprise that advanced coursework and gifted programs have been virtually non-existent on the south side of Providence, despite it being the area of the city in which a majority of Providence Public School students currently live. Until now.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the drive has been to move low-performing students to grade-level proficiency. Gifted-education programs have largely been the purview of middle-class schools, where students, many of whom were already high-performing, passed a standardized test to enroll in more challenging classes.

Now that more than half of all public school students are coming from low-income families, urban districts like Providence are beginning to rethink who should have the opportunity to participate in advanced academic classes. (Providence Journal, 10.25.16)

And the kids are embracing the challenge and finally able to feel proud of the work they’re doing.  According to the Providence Journal, students in the gifted STEM class  love being able to say that as sixth graders, they are doing 8th grade level work.

“We get to do higher-level thinking,” said Raymond Mejia, age 11. “I’m in a higher-level group.”

“If you’re bored, they’ll come up with something”,  said Hunter Maloney, age 11. “The teachers make it so much fun.”

Math teacher Jeff Glantz celebrates the move from focusing almost exclusively on remediation to providing the higher end students with what they need.

“We’ve been so focused on the kids who need remedial help,” said Jeff Glantz, a math teacher. “It’s nice to add classes on the higher end.  Now we’re asking, ‘How can we help these other kids excel?'”

Jonathan A. Plucker is an education professor who specializes in gifted and special education issues at the University of Connecticut, and he agrees with Glantz.

In no way am I saying closing achievement gaps isn’t important; 3rd grade students should be able to read at a 3rd grade level. My concern is so many of these kids in low-income settings in 3rd grade ought to be reading at a 6th grade level. So much of our policy, interventions, education system treat proficiency as the end zone, when it ought to be a yard marker. (EdWeek, 5.19.15)

The pilot program at Roger Williams Middle School is a start. And worthy of celebration. But the reality is, Providence serves over 23,000 students and common sense tells us that so many of those kids are capable of much higher level work than they are getting. The sixth graders now doing advanced coursework on the south side are shattering stereotypes and helping to push back against a generations old deficit mentality when it comes to poor kids of color in America’s schools.

When I asked Providence Superintendent Christopher Maher for his thoughts, he had this to say:

At Providence Public Schools, we know that our children thrive when they are actively engaged in learning. The Advanced Academics program offers high-performing middle-schoolers new opportunities for in-depth study beyond the basic curriculum. Challenging our brightest students is just one way we create individualized learning experiences for Providence students.

While Advanced Academics has been in existence for many years at Nathanael Greene Middle School, this year we were able to expand the program to a location on the city’s south side,  Roger Williams Middle School. Our hope is that this expansion, and further expansion of the program in the future, can provide Providence middle-schoolers with more options for high-level, personalized learning.

I applaud Maher and all on his team who pushed to bring the Advanced Academis program to Roger Williams Middle School. It shows leadership on what is perhaps the most important issue of all: equity. This first step just may be the catalyst for change that we so desperately need if we are to ever achieve true equity of expectations in our schools.

This post first ran here at Good School Hunting.

Boston City Councilor Bought and Sold, Kids Be Damned

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Boston City Councilor, Tito Jackson

Boston City Councilor, Tito Jackson (Photo credit: Boston Herald)

There is something insidious about Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson growing up in Roxbury, being afforded the unique privilege of attending Brookline schools, and now leading the charge against school choice for families in the very same neighborhoods he is supposed to represent.

Jackson wants to be Mayor. I’m pretty sure that’s not a secret. And he has strategically embedded himself in the blood sport of education politics, working alongside union backed organizations, encouraging students to walk out of school to attend city council meetings, and now championing a resolution to keep the current charter cap and vote no on Question 2. It’s hard to find him anywhere without a giant “Vote No” sign nearby.

Tito’s repeated comments about charter schools demonstrate that he is either totally misinformed as to how the schools work or, the more likely scenario, that he has sold his soul to special interests because winning elections is more important to him than ensuring that the children in his district have the educational opportunities that he did.

One has to ask, how can Tito even be serious with his rhetoric? How can he look at the Boston Public Schools budget that rose every year from $737M in 2011 to over $1 BILLION today and still spread the lie that giving parents quality choices siphons money from the traditional system?  Perhaps his mistakes in budgeting are explained  by a Boston Globe analysis that Tito only appeared for slightly more than a quarter of hearings for the Ways and Means Committee.

No Choice for You

Tito Jackson’s family exercised school choice. And no one begrudges Tito for the excellent education he received in Brookline.

We do, however, take issue with his hypocrisy. He has become a poster child for the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do” and sadly, his constituents, both parents and children, are the victims of his double standard.

Black and Latino parents overwhelmingly support school choice both nationally and locally. A national 2015 survey conducted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options shows that 70 percent of black voters support having more educational options in their communities. Recent polling of Boston parents finds that 75 percent of them support lifting the charter cap with support highest among Black and Latino parents. Tito Jackson is an elected official in the black community. But he isn’t listening.

When we see reading and math score declines in both 4th and 8th grades in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we know that change is needed.  And when we see 70% support for more parent choice options such high-quality traditional public, public charter and scholarship programs, it’s a strong indicator that Black voters know what they want for their children and are engaged in the education reform process.               -BAEO Director of Policy and Research Tiffany Forrester

The Real Subscription to Poverty

Before voting to give himself a $20,000 raise, City Councilor Tito Jackson lamented his current salary of $87,500 and said public service should not be a “subscription to poverty. (Boston Globe, October 8, 2014)

Meanwhile, Tito Jackson is known for working hard to vote in raises for himself and his fellow councilors. He is so disconnected from reality that he fails to realize that denying kids educational opportunities is the real subscription to poverty.

Without a strong educational foundation like Tito got in Brookline, children in his community can only dream of making $87,000 a year; from the floor of Boston’s City Council chambers, Tito argued that salary constituted poverty, for him.

The reality for Tito’s constituents in Roxbury is much different – the federal poverty line is $24,000 for a family of four.  Can he really argue that a household with three times the income and three less people is equally impoverished?

Tito Jackson has lost his way. Let’s not let him take our kids with him.

Propaganda and Politics on the First Day of School

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When I think of being ready for day one of a school year, tables of political buttons and campaign propaganda isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But in Newton, Massachusetts this year, that’s what returning teachers found in their midst as they reunited after the summer. And there is something very wrong with that.

Newton has high quality schools. Many children living just miles away can’t say the same. Newton recently built a $197.5 million high school. No one else in the state can say the same. And yet, despite the absolute privilege that exists in Newton where the average home price is $910,000, the powers that be (at least the union ones), think getting pumped up to block poor kids from accessing quality schools is a noble way to spend their first day back at school.

And according to their Twitter page, the Save Our Public Schools folks think this is just great. Something to show off with pride.

It made me want to throw up.

But Newton isn’t alone. In Walpole, teachers were forced to spend a half hour of their first day back listening to union reps talk about how important a No vote is on Question 2 (and it’s likely this happened in districts all across the Baystate.) Walpole is also an expensive town that is unlikely to ever be impacted by Question 2 because they, like Newton, are nowhere near reaching the cap. The vast majority of children and families directly impacted by the charter cap could never afford to buy a house in Walpole. Or in Newton.

The level of disregard for other people’s children is truly indefensible. It’s as though the guarantee of safe quality schools that teachers and families in these towns already enjoy isn’t enough. Now they are expected (and in some cases eager) to turn their attention and energy to fighting against poor kids getting an education that’s comparable to what their own children and students already take for granted.

Oh, and did I mention that these communities are not in compliance with affordable housing mandates either? Perhaps they would be but as is always the case, the residents don’t want affordable housing to come to their community and so they fight it at every turn. Boston Magazine described it this way in Newton:

Well-heeled progressives champion liberal ideals, ­including housing the homeless. Just don’t try it in their neighborhood.

So if the union leaders and reps have their way, low income children won’t be able to attend quality schools anywhere. Turns out that any reputation these premier zip codes, especially Newton, have for being “enclaves of progressivism” is more about what they say than what they do.

I get that the collective bargaining agreement guarantees the union a half hour to meet with their members. But that doesn’t erase the absolute ‘ick factor’ of teachers spending their first day back in a school building focused on how to keep poor kids, mostly of color, out of high performing schools.

During my teaching days, I expressed displeasure with the union from time to time over seniority based layoffs and work rules that were bad for kids. But this? This would have had me apoplectic. It’s already bad enough that the fate of children in Dorchester, Mattapan, Lawrence, and Holyoke will come down to whether or not white suburbanites check yes or no on their ballot in November. But to know that information – well, misinformation actually – is being disseminated during the work day on school property is really just too much to take.