The District 65 New School Committee recommended in September that the District establish a new K-8 school in a triangular area between the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street, referred to as the “central core.”

While not weighing in on the configuration of the school, we support establishing a new school in the central core. One aspect of the New School Committee’s recommendation, however, gives us concern, namely that the school be a mandatory attendance-area school for students new to the District. In addition, we believe it is essential that an effective education program be implemented at the school, which, under some scenarios, may be 88 percent low-income.

Some ideas put on the table by the administration and the School Board may address our concerns. One idea is that the new school be an “optional attendance area” school, another is that the new school be a magnet school, with a certain percentage of slots set aside for students in the central core, and a third option is a charter school. These alternative will all provide parental choice.

The administration also convened a committee to brainstorm on ideas for the educational program for the proposed new school and is putting together the outlines of a proposed educational program.

Mandatory vs. Choice

Under the New School Committee’s proposal, students in the central core who are currently attending a District 65 school would be given a choice of either continuing to attend their current school or attending the new school. Siblings would be given the same choice. Students of families new to the District, however, would be required to attend the new school. Over time, attendance at the new school would be mandatory for all students in the central core (subject to their being granted admission to a magnet school or a permissive transfer).

As proposed by the New School Committee, the demographics of the school would likely be 93% minority (63% black and 30% Hispanic) and 88% low income. We oppose making attendance at the proposed school mandatory for three reasons.

First, we do not believe that a school board – a government body – should create a highly segregated minority, highly concentrated low-income school and then mandate that minority, low-income students attend it. This not only creates policy concerns, but, in our minds, legal ones.

Second, most households in the central core whose children attend District 65 schools say they should have a choice. At the District’s request, ECRA Group, Inc., research consultants, conducted a telephone survey of 569 households in the central core and an area surrounding the high school west of Dodge Avenue; 43% completed the survey.

ECRA reported that most parents “do not want to withdraw their children from their current school since they are happy with the quality of education their children are receiving in their current school and do not want to disrupt their children’s education or friendships they have formed.” The report said parents “would like additional information about exactly what is being proposed so they are in a better position to judge the likelihood of sending their children to a new school.”

The survey report also said, “The majority of parents feel they should have a choice as to whether to send their child to the new school” and parents feel the new school should have “more focus on ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and balance in the student population.”

One important reason for establishing a new school in the central core is to rectify historical events that have placed a disproportionate burden of busing on African American students in the central core and deprived them of a neighborhood school. While we think it is important to address these issues, care should be taken not to impose a resolution on households who may prefer a school that has a more diverse student population – ethnically or socioeconomically – or who may prefer a school with a track record of achievement. Most parents in the central core say they should have a choice. That should be honored.

Third, while some schools that have high concentrations of low-income students have succeeded, they are the exception.

In a research paper attached to the New School Committee’s report, “High Performance in High Poverty Schools: 90/90/90 and Beyond,” (2003) Douglas B. Reeves, president of Center for Performance Assessment, acknowledges that “economic deprivation clearly affects student achievement,” but adds, “demographic characteristics do not determine academic performance.” He lists instructional techniques that have been effective in high-poverty schools, and says new research “suggests that consistent application of the 90/90/90 techniques holds promise for improving student achievement and closing the equity gap in schools of any demographic description.”

Other researchers present a different perspective. In “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality” (2005), Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, at The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, discuss “the massive research literature showing the ways in which high-poverty schools are systematically unequal…” They say some of the challenges faced by high-poverty schools often include high percentages of children entering kindergarten lacking skills invaluable for school success, an absence of strong positive peer influence, a less-qualified teaching staff, higher teacher turnover, and lower educational aspirations. They add, “Students who are exposed to integrated educational settings feel much more comfortable about their ability to live and work among people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Drs. Orfield and Lee say, “Those who argue that because there are segregated schools that succeed we need not worry about segregation are engaged in a fallacy of using exceptions to the rule to prove a relationship.” From a policy standpoint, they recommend that “there should be a concerted effort to avoid the creation of more concentrated poverty schools.”

While District 65 will likely be able to overcome some of the challenges faced by school districts with fewer resources than it has, some challenges will remain. In light of the challenges presented by high-poverty schools, we think parents should be given a choice. If they think a different learning environment would be better for their children, they should be given that choice.

District 65 administrators and the Board have put on the table alternatives to a mandatory attendance-area school, including an “optional attendance-area” school, a magnet school, with a certain percentage of slots set aside for students in the central core, and a charter school. We favor options such as these that preserve choice. We also favor options that will reduce the percentage of low-income students in the school, thus making it more economically diverse.

Education Program

District 65 administrators also convened a New School Academic Committee to brainstorm on ideas for an education program for the new school. We applaud that effort and encourage the District to continue to find ways to partner with community groups, universities and other organizations to assist in developing creative, attractive, effective programs – both educational and social – that will ensure that students are ready for school when they enter kindergarten and that they are on track to college and career readiness when they graduate from District 65.

This is critically important.

We recognize there are cost considerations and that administrators and the Board will have to analyze the impact of both capital and operating costs, with input from the District’s Ad Hoc Budget Committee, which is expected to provide its recommendations in December.

If the Board approves a referendum, voters will have the say on whether to fund the school.