Friday, December 30, 2011

Thinking about School Choice in the Context of the Lynn Public School System

Reading this guest commentary by Mary Levy posted on the blog All Things Education served as a catalyst for thought about the desire for school choice within the Lynn Public School  (LPS) system, a district which has been deemed to be under performing by the state of Massachusetts. While this particular topic locally has been sensationalized (and somewhat racialized), there is a real need for discussion about the  want for more educational choices in "low performing" Lynn and the factors that contribute to the burgeoning push for school choice among parents in the city. Most salient was the point by Levy that in the Washington, D.C. public schools there have been many determined parents who sought to improve their neighborhood schools, but were mostly "ignored or rebuffed." Perhaps, this is (a major) part of the problem in Lynn as well. As local education blogger Stanley Wotring notes, LPS, either through their actions, tone, or overall unresponsiveness (real or perceived), may actually discourage parents from actively being involved in their child(ren)'s education despite the school system's call for an increased parental presence.

More importantly, however, there may be a disconnect between how parents and community members view the Lynn public schools and how the school committee/superintendent/mayor view them. At the superintendent's evaluation on December 21, 2011, the majority of school committee members praised the superintendent and the current state of the Lynn public schools. One statistic that many of the school committee members keep reiterating is that, among similar districts in terms of size and demographics, Lynn is ranked first. This statement has been held up as a positive indicator of Lynn's academic quality given certain contextual factors (high poverty, substantial English Language Learner/Limited English Proficiency population) despite what some may call sub par standardized test (MCAS) scores  (51% of students proficient in English language arts, 41% in math in 2011). Additionally, the dropout rate in 2009-10 was indeed not the worst in the state at 5.4%. Though these numbers may be the best among urban districts, it is debatable whether or not the Lynn citizenry should accept this as adequate or "not that bad" as there is the potential for great improvement. The fact that even high performing communities like Marblehead and Weston are actively trying to improve their test scores further underscores the need for Lynn to follow suit in light of its much lower standardized test scores. It does, in fact, appear that many parents do not accept that Lynn's current academic performance as the best the city can produce. While some parents  are less critical and simply want the district to progress in a positive fashion, other parents/community members hold very negative opinions about the school system, regardless of where it stands in comparison to other districts. Unfavorable sentiments about LPS from a less than satisfied faction of the Lynn population have appeared on the message boards/comment sections of various blogs and media outlets.

One parent, whose son was placed in an out-of-district placement, remarked:
"Would I go back? Would I move him to a Lynn middle school? Not on your life. If I can help he'll never be in another Lynn school." [source: Lynn School Watch]
Another parent moved away from Lynn in order to avoid having to send her child to public school in the city: 
 "I own multiple properties in Lynn and the sole reason I moved...was because of the horrific schools in Lynn. It was a wake up call to me as a parent when I actually first hand toured schools in the city. There are no gyms and outdoor areas at many of the schools. The class sizes are large. Police even need to be present! I hope someday things change. Until then most people who can will send their kids elsewhere." [source: Lynn-Side Edition]
 Of one particular elementary school, another parent said that was
"No discipline where needed, no organization and appropriate supervision of students. There is no adequate communication between teachers and parents. In process of trying to move my child out of that environment."[source: greatschools.org]
While another said
"There is no communication directly with the parents - until it's too late to correct a problem. My personal experience with this school was very unpleasant and stressful and I will NEVER recommend this school to anyone. The tone used to communicate with parents is offensive. Not to mention it's an under achievement school-extremely under achievement [sic]." [source: greatschools.org]

So, in the context of Lynn, what is school choice really about? Certainly the want for more school choice in the city is partly due to low test scores, questions about academic rigor, a higher than average drop out rate and concerns about bullying/school safety. The other, potentially more important factor, however, is a system that does not seem to be responding in tangible ways to parental concerns about the school system; refer back to  two of comments included here which cite a lack of communication among the parent's criticisms. Thus, the combination of negative sentiment toward LPS and an administration/elected school committee who is thought to be failing to address the schools' "poor" academic achievement while simultaneously appearing to invalidate parental concerns has resulted in a growing push for easily accessible school choice.  Here I specifically mention 'easily accessible' school choice as those with means have long been able to send their children to private or parochial schools like Sacred Heart, North Shore Christian or St. Mary's while low income parents have historically been left with their local public school which may be of poor academic quality. At the national level, the growing movement for 'school choice' has come to specifically mean charter schools or sometimes publicly funded vouchers given in order for low income students to attend private schools. In Massachusetts, there are 79 charter schools with six charter applications currently being reviewed by the state. With the advent and increase in tuition free charter schools in Massachusetts some of which produce high test scores when compared to the local district, parents with less resources in cities like Lynn are now also able to seek alternative educational environments for their children like their more well-off counterparts. In Lynn, parents can enter their child(ren) into the lottery for placement at KIPP Academy Lynn which currently serves grades 5 - 9 or the Phoenix Charter School (Chelsea) which serves grades 9-12 (other charter schools in the area do accept Lynn students if there is space available). KIPP, in particular, fills a significant need as an educational alternative because of the grades it serves (middle school level) especially when one considers that two of Lynn's three middle schools are currently among the bottom 20% of schools serving common grades statewide.

Particularly with regard to the city's lowest performing schools, it seems as though the topic of Lynn's educational quality has long been discussed without any real positive change or publicly stated plan of action. How many unflattering articles have appeared in The Daily Item and the Lynn Journal about LPS and, yet, some in positions of power still claim to not know of any dissatisfaction with the school system. Therefore the issue of school choice in Lynn may actually stem the fact that many parents may feel ignored or rebuffed when it comes to their concerns as Levy notes in her piece about the DC public schools. A fundamental partnership or alliance between the schools and parents (generally speaking) does not appear to exist in LPS due to negative experiences some have had with teachers, principals, the school committee or the school administration. Moreover, if LPS was under performing, but people had faith in the schools' leadership and future trajectory and also felt as though their issues/concerns/criticisms were not falling upon deaf ears then the desire for choice would likely not be as strong as it currently appears to be. As commenter Victoria Young states "The single biggest issue we face in this country...is the failure to listen to people." So while School Committee member Rick Starbard may hope to hold off another charter school in Lynn, in the current climate in which LPS does not appear to be progressing to the general public's satisfaction and parents do not feel heard, this may not be possible as parents continue to seek, and possibly demand, schools that will adequately respond to their needs.

4 comments:

  1. Let me be the first. Good job pointing out some basic facts that seem to go unacknowledged by the majority of people, including most notably, those on the school committee. You tell it like it is. I have one small bone to pick. I don't think you can lay all the blame for racializing this issue on the media. They are only reporting, after all, on the actions and attitudes of, in this case, a group of parents.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. After re-reading that statement, I would agree with your remark particularly with regard to the article cited there. I changed the sentence a little in order to not place all the blame on the local media.

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  3. Great article Cleo!

    But I disagree that Tricia O'Malley is sensationalizing or racializing the issue. She's right, school choice shouldn't be based on the color of your skin. The LPS is making this a racial issue. What if black students showed up at Pickering, Sission, Lynn Woods, and Shoemaker and they were told, "Sorry, you're black - you can't come to school here"? Stanley Wotring has bi-racial kids and he was able to get one into Pickering and one had to stay at Marshall. It doesn't seem like race played a factor.

    Honestly, I think LPS is just hanging their hat on race, because they are too embarrassed to say, "Our school is too full and too run down to handle the kids we are ready have." If the schools pits races against one another, we'll be so busy fighting each other that we wont be able to stand up to the schools. The same thing happens with Sped versus Regular Ed. Divide and conquer.

    The bottom line is we need better schools through-out Lynn, so parents wont have to battle to move their children to better schools. We wont get better schools until the LPS listens to us, they wont listen until we have four school committee members that are going to vote for the children, families and teachers of Lynn. Right now the only ones who are voting for us are Rick Starbard, Donna Coppola and Maria Carrasco (though I don't know what Maria was thinking voting to extend Dr. Latham's contract). We need to change that and soon.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Melissa.

      I am not placing blame for the sensationalizing or racializing of school choice on those who raised the issue (Tricia O'Malley). The issue is already racialized based on how the current rules regarding school choice are written. Furthermore, while the Item was reporting the sentiments of a few parents, I think that their coverage of the parents' particular concerns (which I did agree with) put an unnecessary tone on the topic which attracted the wrong kind of attention and did not result in a real discussion of the underlying issue (i.e. that many Lynn schools are under performing). The Item has a nasty habit of printing "race based" articles in such a way that lead to a lot of views on their website and hundreds of comments which is beneficial for them but does a disservice to the stories they are covering.

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