Is choice good or bad for neighborhood schools?

Dennis Danziger at Venice High warned me that his classroom would be” around 95 degrees.”  There is no air conditioning; a rotating fan buzzes vainly in a corner.  Sun streams through Venetian blinds hanging at a haphazard angle because the cords are inextricably tangled.  In the days since Dennis’ warning, the weather has cooled off a bit.  The room may not be 95, but still, it is warm. 

It gets even warmer when his 50 students come in, chatting, laughing, and squeezing into tiny desks, and when all the desks are full, onto chairs on the sides.   A tall skinny white kid with diamond stud earrings gives a low-five, palm-up greeting to the guys around him, a Latino kid with a hoodie over his head and a super-chatty African-American guy with spiral patterns shaved into his hair.  (Like Jennifer, Dennis doesn’t use a seating chart.  How can they pull this off?  I’m amazed.)

Dennis teaches a class as racially diverse as Jennifer’s, though he has more Latino and African-American students, less white students—about seven–and only one Asian student.  But Venice High is not a magnet school.  Well, it has two magnets and a gifted program.  But Dennis’ class isn’t in them.

Here’s where it gets confusing.  Ready?  Venice High school is in Venice, California, which despite being home to some of the wealthiest people in L.A., also has pockets that are gang-ridden and impoverished.  The wealthy kids tend to opt out into private schools.  According to the school’s WASC accreditation report, something you should definitely read if you are in need of a non-narcotic sleep aid, 57% of Venice High students come from families with an income below $30,000, though the administrators think that the poverty level is under-reported by the parents.  The school’s 4-year graduation rate is only 48%.  Only 36% of its graduates have completed coursework that would qualify them for a UC or Cal State college.  10% of the students reported that they did not feel safe on campus.  99 students were suspended last year for violence or drug-related incidents.  When presented with the statement “adults at this school know my name,” 62% of Venice High students said “disagree” or “strongly disagree.”

Parents who saw these statistics and yelled “over my dead body!” but could not afford private school very likely applied to one of the area’s several excellent local charter schools, something that is contributing to Venice High’s dwindling enrollment.  Again, whether you think this is good or bad is something of a litmus test of whether you think charter schools are the answer, as Whitney Tilson does, or the problem, as Kevin Welners does.  Parents who work 12 hours a day at factories or construction jobs or who do not have an internet connection may not have the wherewithal to find these statistics, which took me two hours of research and a familiarity with the terms “WASC,” “Title 1,” “A-G requirements” and a whole lot of other buzzwords.

Even if your parents don’t opt you out of Venice High, if you’re gifted, you can test into the SAS program, air-lifting you out of regular classes. Math-science junkies can get their fill in the STEM magnet.  The linguistically ambitious can convene in the World Language magnet.  But of course, you have to have parents who can navigate the incomprehensible magnet system.  And if you don’t, you’re in regular Venice High.

In other words, if you are in Dennis’ class, you are the kids who stayed in the main school when a whole lot of families chose to leave. Some would say these families made a choice, good or bad, and that families who stay must want what they get.  Others would say that the idea of “choice” is deeply entangled with privilege, because meaningful choice requires assets that families in poverty often do not have, like social networks with good information about the educational system, access to transportation and the time to sift through rafts of statistics, fill out applications and attend school tours.

This is what Dennis means when he talks about kids who don’t have aggressive parents.  His students may be similar in diversity to Jennifer’s students, but they may not be the same in terms of family resources, whether economic or social.  They are also, not coincidentally, at the heart of American’s achievement gap, our country’s most at-risk kids.  A tremendous amount of the argument right now in education turns on who, if anyone, is addressing their needs.  Will the market-based competition of local excellent schools “trickle down” to Dennis’ class eventually?  Some think so, like Jay Green at Education Next.   Others adamantly do not, like Diane Ravitch in her new book.

For this reason, I’m very curious to compare Dennis’ class to Jennifer’s.  I’m also, frankly, curious to compare it to my own experience teaching at a high-performing charter in a low-income neighborhoodMagnet, charter, neighborhood school.  How different are they in real classrooms, in real time?  What is the effect of choice on a local school?

I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.

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4 thoughts on “Is choice good or bad for neighborhood schools?”

    1. Thanks, John! Just to be clear, the room was not 95 on the day I was there. The week before, though, the weather had been in the nineties. Without air conditioning, I cannot imagine how anyone was able to function.

  1. I think the question whether choice is good or bad comes down to what do we expect schools to do, especially in low-income neighborhoods. And, how much stratification are we comfortable with? But I’ll hold my thoughts until the next blog post!

    This is a great blog. I believe it’s one of the first (or the first?) to wrestle with education policy and actual teaching practice. There are bloggers who write about their classroom experience, whether at a charter or a traditional, but they obviously can’t write about other classrooms since they’re, you know, teaching.

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