Julia Steiny: Our System Segregates, But Schools Can Learn


By Julia Steiny

An odd clatter of wheelchairs and colorful walking supports accompanies a little convoy of physically-challenged middle-school students heading to lunch.  Blind kids find their way using sticks with tennis balls on the end.  Others, quite ambulatory, also have obvious challenges.

Not among this sizable group are other students with such challenging behaviors that they’re entitled to Individual Education Plans (IEP), the designation for special education.  This middle school is in a district where urban poverty is so pervasive that kids are steeped in trauma and family chaos, which can result in behaviors that make learning hard for everyone involved.  A high-functioning learning environment depends on a critical mass of students who have somehow acquired middle class, generally cooperative social skills.  Together these kids model healthy, community-appropriate behavior to their challenged peers.

The urban middle school referenced above has far more special needs children (23%) than the state average (15%).  Almost every student is poor.

District schools are socio-economically segregated.

The tiny state of Rhode Island has a million people divided into 36 separate school districts, some densely urban and poor.  The cost of housing in any given district generally determines the class of the students attending its schools.  The U.S. has more than 14,000 school districts, so RI is not alone in creating legal segregation via the district system.  So first, wrap your head around state and national policies that support the socio-economic segregation, which correlates with racial segregation.

Secondarily and accidently, charter schools make some segregation worse.

Alas, Rhode Island no longer publishes the “type of schooling” by district, which might prove my suspicions that our urban middle school loses more students to charter schools than any other in the state.  Its higher-functioning families fill out applications and with luck, leave.  The application deadline disadvantages families who change their residence because of poverty, divorce, or other family issues.  And some families don’t bother with charters.  Their kids remain in the district school.

Mind you, this is no knock on charters.  They’ve been a huge boon to families and students desperate for alternatives to their local school.  In general, RI’s charters are all better than the schools in the district they reside, so you can’t blame the parents.  Nationally the number of kids on wait lists for charters can exceed the enrollment of the schools they’re trying to get into.  Charters are public schools, publicly funded, publicly accountable and subject to the same bazillion state regulations as district schools.

Especially in RI, charters have been huge assets.  Some specialize in hard-to-educate populations.  The International Charter School, a dual-language school, embraces new-immigrant, English-language learners as much-desired assets.  Other charters have social-and-emotional strategies for traumatized or disengaged students.  But generally, charters are too small to be all things to the full range of special needs students.

So, as families leave, charters create schools of last resort as an unintended consequence.  Our urban middle school above was already segregated and then lost a goodly portion of its higher-functioning population, further distilling the special needs.

The annual assault on charters. 

Every year, district employees, parents and local politicians launch new attacks against charters, as though starving charters would improve district performance.  This year, the General Assembly assembled a Legislative Commission to Study and Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula.”  Funding formulas are the state policies designed to distribute equitably state and local money via standardized per-pupil funding.  Charter supporters have been rightfully fearful because district advocates greatly outnumber charter supporters among local politicians.

The Commission produced a report, with no recommendations, made available only as a press release.  Actually, their conclusions were fair and surprisingly balanced.  And to their credit, they flagged the very real problem, noted above, regarding special education.

Solutions to schools of last resort will require honesty and creativity.

First, be honest.  The district system leads to segregation.  Charters only add proportionally to the problem.  Reducing the quality of education for the charter kids isn’t a healthy solution to the increased segregation of an already-segregated school.

Second, be creative.  For example, The Grace School, which is not a public school, specializes in educating high-needs students.  Some years back they opened their doors to “typical” kids on a tuition basis.  Like the English-language learners at International, Grace’s students with serious challenges are valuable assets mingled among “typical” students, with all learning deep lessons in empathy and life.  All students get small classes and the attentions of special educators who are experts in differentiating instruction for the challenged, the middling and the gifted.

In other words, if charter school kids seem to be getting a better deal, learn from their schools how we might give district kids a better deal, too.  Don’t even dream of turning back the clock and making anything worse for any kid, especially not those thriving in charters.  Focus on the kids…  All of them.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny