The Pillaging of America’s State Universities

America’s great public research universities, which produce path-breaking discoveries and train some of the country’s most talented young students, are under siege. The result may be a significant weakening of the nation’s preeminence in higher education. Dramatic cuts in public spending for state flagship universities seem to be at odds with widespread public sentiment. Americans say they strongly believe in exceptional educational systems; they want their kids to attend excellent and selective colleges and to get good, well-paying, prestigious jobs. They also support university research. After 15 years of surveys, Research! America found in 2015 that 70 percent of American adults supported government-sponsored basic scientific research like that produced by public universities, while a significant plurality (44 percent) supported paying higher taxes for medical research designed to cure diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, many state legislators seem to be ignoring public opinion as they essentially starve some of the best universities—those that educate about two-thirds of American college students.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ recently completed Lincoln Project report, between 2008 and 2013 states reduced financial support to top public research universities by close to 30 percent. At the same time, these states increased support of prisons by more than 130 percent. New York City’s budget office reported in 2013 that incarcerating a person in a state prison cost the city roughly $168,000 a year. California apparently does it on the cheap: It costs roughly $64,000 annually for each prisoner—a bit more than the cost of a year at an Ivy League university (average tuition is $50,000) and far more than at the University of California, Berkeley, ($13,000) or at CUNY ($8,000).

The withdrawal of state funds is often one of the direct causes of increased college tuition—not necessarily an increase in faculty size, spending on construction, or administrative costs. Yet, many state policymakers attribute the increased tuition to wasteful spending by the universities. To fill the financial hole, state universities are going national and international—admitting many more out-of-state and foreign students, who sometimes pay as much as three times the tuition of state residents.

Today, families pay more than half of the cost of a public-university degree. In 1970—a period during which middle-class wages stagnated—they paid about one-third. The tuition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, this year is roughly $7,000 for the first two years; $9,000 for the second two, according to school officials, (not the $55,000 commonly attributed to Ivy League universities). And these figures represent the sticker price, not the discounted price after taking into account financial aid.  At the two largest public systems of higher learning (the City University of New York and the California system), the average tuition runs from about $8,000 to $13,000 a year—the price tag at UC Berkeley. For example, fully 60 percent of City University undergraduates pay no tuition after taking into account financial aid, such as Pell grants and state support.

And again, as student tuition and fees rise, the United States spends between $60 billion and $80 billion a year on its incarceration system. Meanwhile, it charges interest on student loans that yields roughly $66 billion off of six years of federal student loans, and $51 billion in 2013 alone, according to the Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Some argue that college-student debt could be reduced dramatically if the government charged students the same interest on their loans as it charges banks to obtain money. And if the United States reduced or eliminated the unnecessary hundreds of thousands of people (predominantly minorities) who wallow in jails for multiple non-violent misdemeanors, perhaps it could invest in the higher education of a great many more of its young people—and thus create many more productive members of society.

A type of delusional thinking seems to convince American policymakers that excellent public colleges and universities can continue to be great without serious investment. As the former Secretary of State and Stanford University provost Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, wrote in a Council of Foreign Relations report, higher-education investments are a form of national security at least as important as direct investments in bombers, military drones, missiles, or warships. In other words, these education investments have a very high payoff for states, the nation, and the larger world.

All this amounts, arguably, to a pillaging of the country’s greatest state universities. And that pillaging is not a matter of necessity, as many elected officials would insist—it’s a matter of choice. If Wisconsin’s governor and legislature succeed in eliminating or emasculating tenure for faculty members at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, they can say goodbye to the greatness of that institution of higher learning. If Florida’s governor asks students in the humanities or arts to pay higher tuition than those who major in business or STEM subjects, Florida’s universities are apt to deteriorate in quality. And just so it doesn’t seem like I’m cherry picking, consider what North Carolina’s governor said not long ago: “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” The consequence of such policy choices, it seems, is that tuition will go up and access for kids from poorer families will go down.

But such outcomes can be prevented. Those in the voting public who believe that they can get something for nothing or that quality will simply materialize out of the ether can revisit their assumptions. Governments can increase the marginal tax rates on substantial incomes so that those who have benefitted most from the nation’s prosperity pay a fair share of taxes that enables both access and educational opportunity for talented young people. The United States currently has one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the industrial world. Transferred resources from the very rich (less than 1 percent of nation’s population controls more than 25 percent of its wealth), corporations, and from lower-priority institutions could build a more robust educational system in our country. There are important positive consequences in economic growth from such investments at the state and local level, as has been demonstrated in studies of Silicon Valley and in the area surrounding Boston.

In short, today essentially everyone who attends Berkeley pays a maximum of around $13,500 a year—even if his or her parents are billionaires. At Stanford or at Ivy League  universities that same student would pay (and could afford to pay) the full sticker price of tuition (around $50,000 a year), but the youngster from a poorer economic background might well go free. There is not enough differentiation in tuition pricing between those who come from very wealthy background and those whose parents can barely make ends meet.

Are Public Universities Going to Disappear?

Higher education also needs more political leaders who are willing to risk their jobs by committing to ostensibly risky investments in K-12 and higher education. Every elected politician should have quitting issues—in short, be willing to resign or risk reelection when others undermine his or her core values. Take the former Connecticut Governor and Congressman Lowell Weicker, who was willing to sacrifice his leadership positions in defense of his tax policies. It’s time for the states and the federal government to step up to the need to invest creatively in education and raise public awareness about the wisdom of these investments. And it’s time for more members of the voting public to support candidates who meet this description.

Finally, it’s up to the federal government to become an even more active player in supporting the quality of and access to higher public education, just as it did in 1862 when during the Civil War it passed the great Morrill Act that established the land-grant universities—and as it did after World War II when it passed the G.I. Bill. As Benjamin Franklin, who gave a good deal of thought to higher learning and founded the University of Pennsylvania, once said: “An investment in knowledge pays the best dividend.” This investment is a choice that the country must make if the United States wants to maintain a leadership role among the community of nations in the 21st century.

When Lead Affects Learning

Parents in Newark are wondering whether their children have been exposed to dangerous amounts of lead. Since early March, more than half of the 67 district schools have tested positive for high lead levels in the drinking water, and documents shows that the school administration knew about the problem for more than a year.

Last month, Ivelisse Mincey received an automated phone call announcing that lead had been found in the drinking water at Abington Avenue School in Newark, where her 12-year-old son Adam attends. “I put down the phone in an absolute panic,” Mincey said. “My son drinks water from the fountain all day long and now I have no idea whether he is going to have health problems.” Like other Newark parents, Mincey wants to know why the problem wasn’t fixed sooner. “I feel betrayed that the school district didn’t come to me to let me know about this,” she said. “They should have protected my son.”

Next America: Early Childhood

Raising the most diverse generation of Americans ever
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The lead problem is part of a pattern of school district administrators ignoring the safety of students, according to some residents. For years, parents and community leaders have struggled to ensure the school administration addresses a range of health issues including violence and contamination by asbestos and mold. The district’s students are predominantly African American and Hispanic and some residents say that a lack of political power may have contributed to the failure to address the lead situation and other problems. “The fact of the matter is that people of color don’t have enough political representation to make sure things like lead poisoning don’t happen,” said environmental activist Kim Gaddy, whose 11-year-old son Julian attends Harriet Tubman Elementary School. “We need to make sure that minority students count just as much as white students.”

Newark’s lead problems come as the city of Flint, Michigan is coping with a widespread lead crisis, and schools around the country are testing their water for the substance. The CDC says that no amount of lead in the bloodstream is safe and exposure has been linked to decreased IQ scores and a range of other problems. Newark’s lead contamination likely comes from old lead-lined pipes. Many school districts nationwide struggle to pay to modernize aging infrastructure that can result in lead problems. However, the state of New Jersey is obligated to fund infrastructure improvements in Newark to remediate the lead problems, said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group in Newark. Court decisions have ruled that the state must pay to create a safe environment for Newark students, he said.

In decisions stemming from a case which started in 1985, known as Abbot v. Burke, courts have issued a series of rulings that direct 31 urban school districts, including Newark, to provide a “thorough and efficient” education. The Abbott rulings spelled out a set of education improvements, including K-12 foundational funding and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds. Sciarra cited the rulings as proof that the state has an obligation to fix the lead problem in Newark schools. He said his group would consider legal action if the lead issue wasn’t quickly addressed by the state.

Mayor Ras Baraka, who was a principal in a Newark high school before taking office in 2014, has said that he was not aware of the lead problem when he worked in the school system. But a memo dated August 2014 from Keith Barton, the director of operations for the district, instructed all Newark district schools to flush water fountains by running them for two minutes every day before students arrived to “reduce the risk of possible lead contamination.” Cafeteria workers were also told to run cold water faucets before preparing food. School officials apparently knew for years that some schools had high lead levels because filters to remove lead were installed in some schools.

But the Newark Teachers Union last month released photographs showing that the lead filters had not been changed in years and may have been ineffective because of their age. “If school officials didn’t know, they didn’t want to know,”said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “There was enough evidence out there for at least the last four years that more action should have been taken to deal with the situation.”

Steven Morlino, who served as the district’s executive director of facilities between 1999 and 2013, said that the district was aware of the lead problem for more than a decade. The federal Environmental Protection Agency warned the school district in 2003 that due to lead contamination various remedial actions would have to be taken including installing water filters. However, Morlino said that the school district did not order new water filters after he left the district in 2013. Morlino provided a December, 2011 email to The Atlantic from then district superintendent Cami Anderson to school principals advising them of procedures to reduce possible lead contamination. “Principals are reminded to instruct students and staff to run each fountain or faucet for at least thirty seconds before drinking,” the email reads. Anderson was replaced last year as superintendent. Gaddy said school officials were “negligent” by not acting sooner. “It’s clear that the school administration wasn’t concerned about the health of the children,” she said.

Current school superintendent Christopher Cerf said that he moved to shut off any contaminated water and inform parents as soon as he learned about the situation in March. Referring to previous school superintendents, Cerf said they “are all responsible people who care about the wellbeing of children. I don’t doubt their intentions and their policy made sense at the time. We have had a collective consciousness raising since Flint.”

In early March, annual district testing found elevated levels of lead in the schools’ drinking water and officials announced the results. Water fountains and kitchen faucets were ordered be turned off in schools where at least one in 10 samples showed lead levels above the federal standard. Schools that are affected are using bottled water and students are being offered blood tests for lead. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection said that lead had not been found in the Newark Water Department’s source water. Lead in water usually leaches from “either lead pipes, household fixtures containing lead or lead solder,” the agency said.

Lead is not the only issue facing Newark schools. Donna Jackson, president of the United Parent Network, a New Jersey-based parent support and advocacy group, said that violence is a common occurrence in and near the city’s schools and that the school administration is not doing enough to provide security. She is among residents who have asked for more security guards and said that the administration has been unresponsive, citing budget issues. “The administration is doing a terrible job handling issues with violence,” Jackson said. “Parents have to worry about their children’s safety every day.” Superintendent Cerf said that the level of violence in Newark school is “better than most” other school districts and that other school districts have dealt with asbestos problems. “Singling out Newark as being an outlier in any regard is completely not consistent with the facts and reality,” Cerf said.

Activists also have had to fight to ensure that Newark’s schools are free of mold. Many of the district’s older buildings are leaky, creating a moist environment for mold to grow, Abeigon said. After Hurricane Irene flooded part of the Wilson Avenue School in 2011, the school was infested with mold. Morlino said he had to “fight with the school district to come up with the money to make the necessary repairs.” Wilson Avenue students were ultimately bused to another school outside the city for nearly a year while repairs were made.

Newark schools are also continuing to deal with asbestos contamination problems that stretch back more than a decade. In 2005, the EPA reached a settlement under which the district would spend $2.25 million to finish identifying and fixing asbestos-related problems in school buildings. The district is required to inspect the buildings three times a year, Morlino said, adding that under his tenure “it was a constant struggle to get the money” to do the inspections.

The city’s school district is mostly made up of people of color. The student body was 55 percent African American and 43 percent Hispanic in 2013, the last year for which the district made figures available. By contrast, New Jersey’s population statewide is 13 percent African American and 17 percent Hispanic. Sciarra said the city’s schools “suffer from intense racial isolation.” He believes the minority population does not have the “political clout” to ensure that issues like lead cleanup are carried out.

Like other lead contamination problems in schools around the country such as in Camden, N.J. and Boston, Newark’s issues stem from its older infrastructure. Many school buildings date from the 19th century and have aging pipes lined with lead, said Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local social services nonprofit. “The lead problem is just a symptom of a crumbling, neglected school system that desperately needs more attention,” Della Fave said.

Among the schools that tested positive for lead is South Street Elementary, a hulking, brick structure erected in 1883. South Street is in Newark’s Ironbound district, a working class, multi-ethnic neighborhood named after its former role as a center of the iron working trade. One recent morning, students filed through narrow corridors past water fountains that had been shut off due to high lead levels. Signs taped above the fountains read “Do Not Drink.” Cases of bottled drinking water were stacked nearby. A recent survey by the Education Law Center found that South Street’s facilities are in “very poor” condition and that the school is overcrowded. The school’s roof frequently leaks and administrators struggle to find extra sources of funding for classroom necessities, said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The lead crisis is the latest in a long series of challenges for Newark’s school district. After decades of struggles with poor academic performance and crumbling infrastructure, the state seized control of city schools in 1995, citing corruption among the system’s problems. Ironically, the state control that was intended to help Newark schools may have contributed to the lead problem. Abeigon said that state control led to an administration that is out of touch with the needs of the schools and failed to fix infrastructure, including old pipes with lead. “Local control would give more oversight,” Abeigon said. “The people running the schools now are people operating out of Trenton who put the traditional needs of the students way on the back burner,” he said.

Cerf rejected the idea that state control played a part in the way the district dealt with lead contamination. He referred to Marion Bolden, a previous Newark school superintendent who dealt with the lead issue and who was a state employee. “To say that Marion Bolden’s response had anything to do with the fact that she was a state employee is deeply insulting to her and it’s just not accurate,” Cerf said.

Steven Marcus, a medical doctor at the lead poisoning program at University Hospital in Newark, has seen thousands of cases of lead exposure in the city his during his decades-long career. He called the lead situation in Newark an “urgent problem” that needs “immediate remediation.” Treatment for patients suffering from lead exposure can do little, Marcus said, adding that the best remedy is to make sure people are not exposed to lead in the first place. State money intended for lead remediation isn’t being spent for its intended purpose. New Jersey puts aside money from the tax on the sale of paint that is intended to remediate lead exposure. This fund generates about $10 million a year but the money isn’t getting to the right places. The New Jersey government has diverted more than $50 million away from the lead health fund so routine state bills and salaries could be paid, according to report last year by a local newspaper, the Asbury Park Press.

While Newark school officials try to come up with a plan to fix the lead contamination, state leaders are scrambling to figure out the extent of the lead problem across New Jersey. A bill proposed in March would require all schools in the state to immediately test their drinking water for lead. But Marcus said that testing drinking water is just the start and that the state needs to move quickly to make sure more children aren’t exposed to high levels of lead.

Reviving a Hollowed-Out High School

Austin High School on Chicago’s struggling West Side is a proud school with a bad reputation and too few students. It likely has just one more shot at survival.

Austin has hollowed out in recent years, as have dozens of similar schools across Chicago’s poor and mostly Latino and black neighborhoods. With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full. Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.

These schools face a set of woes that make a turnaround all but impossible. A citywide school-choice system leaves these mostly open-enrollment schools with some of Chicago’s most challenging and low-achieving students. Deeply strained budgets fueled by declining enrollment hurt staffing levels, teacher retention, and programming. Mix in a stubborn reputation for violence at many schools—unwarranted in the case of Austin and some others—and these schools are in a death spiral.

Kate Grossman

In a high-school universe defined by choice, these schools and students are the clear losers. Chicago’s neediest students are clustered at the bottom of the pecking order of the district, in the most under-resourced and embattled schools.

Chicago has a poor track record of delivering for its weakest students but this latest chapter, arguably an inevitable and predictable consequence of school choice, may be a new low. Students who need the healthiest and most stable schools are segregated in the most unstable institutions, often with the most troubled classmates. Victims of a set of powerful and destructive forces that have undermined their schools and neighborhoods, these students and their schools face an increasingly bleak and uncertain future.

Despite that, Austin’s loyal supporters believe they can come back from the brink. They recently launched a plan to save their beloved school that hinges on a counter-intuitive strategy: reopening next fall as an old-fashioned comprehensive high school, a place that takes—and works for—all comers from the larger Austin neighborhood, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

Nearly 76 percent of Chicago’s high schoolers this year opted against attending their assigned neighborhood high school, CPS data show, accelerating a trend since the early 2000s of students bypassing their default school.

At Austin, only four families came to a well-planned open house in March, despite sending 430 invitations to students admitted to Austin’s manufacturing-technology program for next fall. Certain schools deserve to be shunned because of violence and poor academics, but many like Austin, though relatively low achieving, never get a chance to show what they have to offer. Once saddled with a bad reputation, changing the minds of parents, students, and elementary school counselors—who hold great power in dictating where eighth graders go—is a Herculean task.

Austin was once a storied school that served students of all abilities, but its run as a neighborhood school ended poorly, as happened in other increasingly poor and violent communities. Austin was phased out beginning in 2004 because of weak performance and chaos in the building—a legacy that still haunts it today. Austin was part of a wave of school shake-ups starting around 2000 as the city grappled with weak and chaotic high schools and flight to the suburbs. New school openings, as well as greater choice in a system traditionally built around neighborhood schools, were central to Chicago’s turnaround plan.

The Austin campus reopened in 2006 with three small schools, available to anyone in the city, though nearly all came from the Austin community. The academies, focused on business, manufacturing, and technology, attracted students early on to a safer and more academically rigorous environment than at the old Austin High, though achievement remained low. But then enrollment fell off steeply, by 400 students between 2012 and 2015. And, most troubling for plans to draw primarily from the Austin neighborhood this fall, just 8 percent of 712 eighth graders in Austin’s attendance boundary chose Austin in 2014. That’s common among Austin’s peer schools: 14 schools enrolled less than 10 percent of eligible neighborhood kids this year, CPS data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune shows.

The Austin High School building is
designed for nearly 1,700 students, but now holds just 391. (Kate Grossman)

Like other schools hanging on by a thread, Austin can’t seem to catch a break. Each school has its own story: Austin was hurt by staff turnover and its location in a rough neighborhood. The foreclosure crisis as well as a big drop-off in the 15- to 19-year-old population in the Austin community—a 17 percent decline between 2010 and 2014—also appear to have hurt Austin’s enrollment.

But a common set of themes connects all hollowed out schools. Most are open-enrollment neighborhood schools and nearly all are on the city’s mostly black South and West sides, which suffered major population loss between 2000 and 2010, though the number of children in some areas hasn’t changed. The black population dropped by 181,000.

Meanwhile, the city since 2000 has opened dozens of schools to offer more choice and retain the middle class. Most are public charter schools that admit by lottery but a bevy of test-based schools and programs also launched. Chicago now has 101,000 students in 140 high schools, excluding alternative schools. In 2000, CPS had 93,000 students in 86 high schools. That’s a 63 percent increase in schools against an 8 percent increase in students. For neighborhoods like Austin that have lost population, this seats-students mismatch is particularly devastating.

* * *

School type defines the pecking order in Chicago’s choice system. Open-enrollment neighborhood schools are at the bottom, especially in low-income communities. All rising ninth graders are assigned to one of these neighborhood schools based on their home address, but any student can bypass by applying elsewhere. The options include lottery-based charters, selective schools that admit based on test scores, neighborhood schools outside a student’s community with space, or magnet and specialty schools that draw citywide. Accepted students inform their elementary counselors. For the rest, the neighborhood school is the default. This sends the message that neighborhood schools are for the leftovers.

Choice works well for many kids, especially those at CPS’s 11 selective-enrollment high schools that admit based on student grades and test scores. And choice is most prevalent in neighborhoods with weak schools, with many students seeking out the charters that have opened in recent years. Students assigned to the lowest-performing schools are most likely to avoid their zoned school, according to a 2015 analysis by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

the school’s dropout, graduation, and attendance rates in recent years. “The cream of the crop is together at selective enrollment schools. The second tier, with involved families, is at charters and magnets. Then the ‘rejects’ end up in neighborhood high schools.”

Her read on school choice is backed up by a 2014 analysis of CPS’s choice system—aptly titled “The Big Sort”—by Chicago’s public radio station.

And for many kids in the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, the choices are illusory. Research by the Northwestern sociologist Mary Pattillo found that issues of safety, financial and travel limitations, as well as the complexities of the application process significantly limit the education options for poor and working-class black Chicago parents.

Chicago’s choice system reinforces perceptions, many formed years ago, that neighborhood high schools are unsafe, low quality and not worth considering. “I heard this school was horrible, but it was from people who never stepped inside,” Jervon Adams, a senior at Austin, explained during a discussion this winter in a wood-paneled library at the school. “We want to be able to tell younger kids about the good things at our school.”

Students who end up at low-enrollment neighborhood schools also suffer because their teachers are challenged with educating some of the city’s neediest students on an ever-shrinking budget.

Among the 10 most under-attended neighborhood schools on the South and West sides, the average ACT score is 14.3 compared to the city average of 18.2 (out of 36). Many students arrive several grades behind and the schools deal with stunningly high annual mobility rates—students who transfer in and out in a year—of 57 percent on average. The citywide average is roughly a third that. The average percentage of special-education students is 28 percent compared to 15 percent citywide. Every school has a poverty rate above 90 percent, most above 95.

“You only have the most vulnerable kids left,” said Maurice Swinney, the principal of Tilden High School on the South Side. “There are nearly 40 percent of our kids who in some way have a learning disability that need support, but there isn’t real support around that. It creates this big problem with schools with little money serving the most at-risk students.”

Low-enrollment Chicago schools have always suffered budget-wise, but the burden has grown worse since 2013 when CPS switched to a per-pupil budgeting system where a set dollar amount is attached to each child. The lower a school’s enrollment, the smaller the school’s budget. There are advantages of being small—it allows for more personalization—but money woes often outweigh those benefits.

Tilden, for example, lost nearly $200,000 this year because of enrollment declines and other budget cuts in a city grappling with huge deficits. That’s on top of the expiration of a three-year, nearly $6 million annual federal grant meant to help low-performing schools turnaround, stripping the school of key clinical staff to help the most troubled students.

Wells, on the city’s gentrifying Near Northwest Side, lost $450,000 this year when enrollment dropped by 100 students and it has lost more than $3 million over the last three years because of additional enrollment declines, citywide budget cuts, and the end of a federal turnaround grant. The principal has shed staff repeatedly, including 10 teachers, three security guards, a budget manager, and an attendance clerk.

Austin also has faced the same challenges, cutting electives and special activities.

“We have a group of teachers here dedicated to the kids—they’re all just doing more,” said Josserand, the CPS administrator.

Staff at neighborhood schools and their advocates have been asking for years how CPS could let this happen and are pushing for change. Citywide, an effort is underway to grow neighborhood schools and their surrounding communities and to combat the worst consequences of the choice system. A foundation-supported effort called Generation All has been working on a grass-roots plan for over a year to be released April 13. The group is pushing for a moratorium on school openings and closings until the city creates a comprehensive plan that prioritizes neighborhood schools.

Knowing the choice system likely is here to stay, the group didn’t go after it. However choice is discussed in a section of their report called “Outdated policies that backfired,” said the group’s executive director Beatriz Ponce de Leon.

CPS’s leaders are aware of the problems at neighborhood schools and with the choice system. CPS quickly used up $8 million set aside this year to prop up the most troubled, low-enrollment schools, and Generation All was founded in partnership with the school system and the teachers union.

But they stand by choice.

“It used to be that if your child couldn’t test in, or you weren’t affluent, there were no choices; more choice is more equity,” said Janice Jackson, CPS’s Chief Education Officer, a former principal, CPS grad, and parent. “With better policies and management, we wouldn’t see those consequences—schools where children just don’t go.”

Austin students gather in their school library soon after plans were announced to fold Austin’s three schools into one and make it a neighborhood school. (Kate Grossman)

Jackson, on the job since last summer, said CPS is trying to get smarter and more strategic about where and when it opens new schools, noting that her administration has slowed down openings. CPS is contemplating a new enrollment system where all children make a choice, she said, and she’s working to involve communities more in shaping their high schools.

Critics like Ponce de Leon counter that neighborhood schools always will be a last choice, no matter what choice system is used, if CPS and communities don’t invest in them.

In some communities, the push to improve neighborhood schools is starting to pay off with improved academics and enrollment. But those tend to be in established, more affluent neighborhoods where families are turning to neighborhood schools when faced with fierce competition to get into a test-based school. There is also growth in burgeoning Latino neighborhoods with strong community partners.

Most half-empty Chicago schools don’t fit into either category: Nearly all are in struggling black neighborhoods where population has declined. The question of survival looms. When CPS closed nearly 50 under-enrolled elementary schools in 2013, many in these very same neighborhoods, high schools were spared and the mayor pledged a five-year closure moratorium. Powerful academic and financial arguments support school closures, even in the face of concerns about high schoolers crossing gang boundaries to attend new schools. The moratorium could lift in 2018, though there are no plans to do so, Jackson said.

The potential threat of closure only ramps up pressure on Austin’s would-be renaissance. Community members and CPS staff worked for over a year to draw up a plan to save the school—and they know what they’re up against.

Austin beefed up student recruitment significantly this year, led by a top-flight counselor who oversaw admissions at a test-based high school. It’s been a struggle. The counselor Jean Harmon has hosted two parent open houses. One family came in the fall. Four came in March.

She invited 30 all-important elementary school counselors for a fall breakfast—too few replied so she cancelled it—and asked them to bring their middle schoolers for a one-hour open house. Only two schools agreed to come.

“The only way to change the image is to bring them in and show them it’s a safe, viable option,” said Harmon, who is weary but undeterred.

It seemed to work.

In late March about 50 eighth graders visited from a nearby school. They heard college plans from nine seniors, learned about Austin’s state-of-the-art metals-manufacturing lab, as well as the intimacy Austin’s small size offers. They toured the orderly and clean, though aged, building, including the lab, an art class and a computer lab, and left with swag—cookies and an Austin backpack.

Students weren’t told that the school was in flux—that the existing three schools were folding into one and some staff may be let go—but the core of what Austin offers today is expected to remain.

The choice machine was in high gear that day, and for most of the visiting eighth graders, Austin didn’t seem to be on the radar. Several knew nothing about Austin before arriving or had heard only negative accounts.

“People said Austin had a bad reputation based on fights and disrespect,” said Nyla Ewing, an eighth grader. After an hour at the school, Nyla made up her own mind: “I didn’t believe what I heard—and it does seem more fun and more advanced than I thought,” she said, echoing the impression Austin made on several others.

That’s a real victory for Austin.

But like many students at the open house, Nyla already had been accepted elsewhere. Most didn’t know Austin was their local high school. These students, like many in Austin and across Chicago, didn’t even know their neighborhood school was an option worth considering.

A Hairy Situation

One reason school dress codes are such a lighting rod is that they often have no basis in real-world sartorial standards. Though some rules are common sense, people seem most irked by prohibitions on clothing that wouldn’t be out of place in a business meeting—yet is unacceptable by middle-school standards.

Recently we asked what the strangest dress code was at your school. Dozens of you wrote in, and here are the 11 we deemed most odd:

  1. No holes in jeans, but duct tape is fine:

“This was at a public high school in West Virginia in the mid-2000s—the time just before leggings and yoga pants, which was a dress-code battle after I graduated. The fad at the time was holes in the jeans. The rule shifted every year, from no holes at all to only ones allowed below the knee. The kicker was if you were caught with in appropriate rips or tears in your $50 Hollister jeans, you had to put duct tape over them. Our principal carried a roll of tape with her just in case.

The strangest part was the rule was established because it “looked bad.” But then we were forced to wear duct tape, which makes you look even worse. And of course, this rule completely targeted girls because few boys wore holes in their jeans. The duct tape also ruined the tears, created even bigger holes once the tape was removed. It was bizarre and embarrassing.”

— Taylor Stuck

  1. No little old Russian grandmas:

“I attended a public high school in rural Ohio from 1998 to 2002. It was the only high school in the entire county, and despite the lack of any real problems (save the occasional student caught with a joint), the teachers and leadership felt it necessary to institute an oppressive dress code. At least once a week, the principal would announce via intercom a new standard. Below are some of my favorites:

NO babushkas (meaning headscarves). As far as I know, we did not have any older Russian ladies attending my high school. To reiterate, the principal announced over the intercom that “babushkas” (not scarves, not hijabs) were banned from the high school.

NO clothes making fun of the president. At the time, George W. Bush was in office. I actually contacted the ACLU on this one, who immediately sent my high school a cease-and-desist letter. They re-instituted the ban the year after I graduated.

NO face paint. Admittedly not very weird, but I got called into the principal’s office, where he accused me of wearing white face paint. I am incredibly pale and had to show him my ivory-colored Maybelline foundation as proof.”

— Anonymous

  1. No cornrows, except in February:

“I went to Loyola High School in Los Angeles, graduating 2005. Since we were in Southern California, the dress code wasn’t really as strict as you might expect at a traditional all-boys prep school, but there were definitely rules.The strangest one was that cornrows were banned EXCEPT during Black History Month.” (Update: A reader who says he went to Loyola disputes this. The high school’s current official dress code doesn’t mention cornrows.)

— Nick Francomano

  1. No shorts on certain dates:

“I attended public high school in a suburb of Harrisburg, PA, in the early to mid 1990s. Our school had a rule that you could not wear shorts after September 15 or before May 15.

Our school also did not have air conditioning. Harrisburg could be oppressively hot and humid well into September and May was often pretty warm too. The rules allowed girls to wear skirts over the knees and culottes whenever they wanted. This led to the yearly tradition of some boys, protesting the rule, wearing skirts to school on the first day over 80 degrees in May and being sent home to change.”

— Andy Szekely

  1. No mismatched shoes:

“A school in Kentucky where I used to work as a teacher (within the past few years) had many of the standard dress code rules. The one that always stood out, and got the most questions from students when we reviewed the dress code, was that you were required to wear shoes that were of the same style and color. I don’t recall it ever being an issue, but it was never revised or taken out.”

— Ryan Bringhurst

  1. Sweatshirts were fine, but no hoodies, unless you’re a monk:

“At my Catholic high school in rural Illinois in the early 2000s (long before they had taken on any racial-political connotation), hoodies were banned. The monks, when pressed to answer why the addition of a hood to a sweatshirt caused it to fall outside of the dress code, the students were informed that we could easily hide contraband in the hood. (An idea I hadn’t even though of, so thanks for the tip.) The most infuriating part about this rule is that every single monk wore a habit with a hood.”

— Anonymous

  1. Dangerous liaisons:

“Girls could not wear the combination of red and black because the girls counselor thought it was too sexy.”

— Anonymous

  1. No hair clips:

“I went to Catholic school during the ‘80s. Eighth-grade girls were not allowed to wear pantyhose, even for warmth under their knee socks in a Massachusetts winter. But in ninth grade, girls had to wear pantyhose and were not allowed to wear socks, though little ankle socks were very much in style.

Also in style were banana clips—long, curved hair clips that we were forbidden to wear. After the girls repeatedly pressed for an answer as to why these were verboten, we were told that banana clips simulated Mohawks and were therefore insulting to Native Americans.”

— Kathleen Weldon

  1. Na, na, ya grill:

“I went to a public high school in Midland, Texas. In 2006, my school banned ‘grills,’ the mouth pieces popularized by the Nelly ft. Paul Wall classic, ‘Grillz.’”

— Brianna Losoya

  1. The third toe leads to lost productivity:

“A job, recently, where open-toed shoes could not expose more than two toes.”

— Anonymous

  1. Loosely defined Satan:

“In a large public school in the city: ‘No Satanic t-shirts.’ Just that. No explanation, just ‘No Satanic t-shirts.’”

— Anonymous

When Kids Lead Their Parent-Teacher Conferences

PITTSFIELD, N.H.—Pushing up the cuffs of his plaid shirt and adjusting his glasses, the ninth-grader Colton Gaudette looks across the small classroom conference table.

“Welcome to my student-led conference,” he says.

“Thank you for inviting me,” answers his mother, Terry Gaudette, sitting next to Colton’s adviser and biology teacher.

This meeting, which happens twice a year, has replaced the old format of parent-teacher conferences at Pittsfield Middle High School, a rural New Hampshire campus that takes a “student-centered learning” approach to schooling. With this model, students are given more freedom to connect their individual interests to their academic learning and future goals. Teachers are considered collaborators and coaches, and students are expected to shoulder more responsibility for their school lives—including organizing all the details of these twice-yearly conference with parents and advisers.

The Hechinger Report

Pittsfield began shifting to this student-centered approach after being rated one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools, and qualifying for a federal School Improvement Grant in 2009. It’s also part of a coalition of 13 New England schools that share another $5 million federal grant, and was awarded $2 million from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2012, specifically to foster student-centered learning.

“Kids have to be honest with themselves and I think that’s fantastic,” said Paul Strickhart, who teaches math at Pittsfield and is Colton’s faculty adviser. “They have to own up to why they’re not passing a class, or, if they’re doing well, they have to be able to identify what’s contributing to that and how they can keep going.”

The student-led conferences are also a way to teach skills you can’t learn from a textbook: organization, long-term planning, confidence with public speaking, collaboration and self-reflectioneven how to shake hands and make introductions in a more formal setting. That aligns with a larger goal for Pittsfield’s studentsto move beyond rote knowledge to develop the kind of critical-thinking skills needed for “real world” success, said John Freeman, the district’s superintendent. The unique conference format has helped to kick-start family engagement, helping the combination middle-high school to better serve its 260 students and the rest of the former mill town’s 4,500 residents.

Indeed, from New York to Washington State, student-led conferences have been praised for breathing new life into an otherwise perfunctory process. According to school officials and families at Pittsfield, before the new format was adopted a few years ago, turnout for the traditional parent-teacher conferences was dismal—less than 20 percent participated. Now, more than 90 percent of parents regularly show up.

Students are responsible for writing a letter inviting their parents or guardians to attend, coordinating with their faculty adviser to schedule the conference, and preparing a portfolio of their academic work. The conferences typically last about 30 minutes, including time for parents to ask questions and for the faculty adviser to give feedback on the presentation. Students are expected to discuss their academic, social, and emotional progress and outline their short- and long-term goals.

Jim Vaiknoras / The Hechinger Report

At the classroom table, Colton lays out samples of his schoolworkshowing some of his strongest work and several assignments with which he had less success. In English class, Colton says he had an easier time crafting his literary analysis of Lord of the Flies than the subsequent assignment for The House on Mango Street. He’s working hard to keep his grade up in geometry, and intends to earn at least a 3.5 (out of possible 4) for both semesters. His geopolitical-studies class is going well, as is computer-assisted draftinghis blueprints for a set of shelves turned out better than his first effort designing a stone bench.

Colton also shares the results of several questionnaires the school uses to help him learn more about his personality and learning style. The results: “I’m empathetic, artistic, and kind of shy,” Colton says. His strengths include music, writing, and hands-on learning. The personality assessments bolster the plans he has for the future: He wants to study creative writing in college and potentially launch his own comic-book company. So his biology teacher encourages Colton to look for more opportunities to connect his artistic interests with his academic learninghe could have gone further with an in-class assignment asking him to describe the life cycle of a cell, for example.

“I felt down when I got that [assignment] back and you wrote that we could be more creative,” Colton says. “I want to try that.”

At the conclusion of the conference, Colton thanks the adults for participating, and says he is feeling good about where things stand for him.

“That was very well done, very thorough,” his math teacher tells him.

His mother is also impressed.

“You’ve been so nervous about thisI think you did an excellent job presenting,” she says. “And you know how to better prepare yourself for some of this academic work.”

examining school approaches to “deeper learning,” Martinez said the student-led conferences can be a powerful tool for improving students’ engagement with their learning process.

“How many of us appreciated, as a student, being talked about in the third person as if we were invisible?” Martinez asked. “When it’s just the teachers and parents participating in the conference it can end up as ‘we’re going to dictate what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.’ That’s taking away the power.”

Emily Richmond / The Hechinger Report

That being said, a student-led conference by itself won’t mean much, Martinez added. “The school must be really transferring ownership to the students and making it clear that kids have plenty of opportunities to reflect on their work.”

Jenny Wellington, an English teacher at Pittsfield, agrees. The schoolwide shift to student-centered learning is one key reason that the conferences work, according to Wellington. In class, students get a say in choosing their academic projects, which not only makes them more excited about working on their assignments but also about presenting them at the conferences once they’re completed. She added that parents can also still getting in touch with teachers at other times to ask questions or to request meetings.

Pittsfield’s teachers said the conferences are also an opportunity to observe students’ interactions with their families, and those moments can be an important window into understanding their attitudes and classroom behavior. Conferences don’t always go smoothly. Wellington said she’s observed meetings in which a student’s stated post-high-school career plans vastly differed from what their families had in mind. For example, one student was hoping to attend an out-of-state college, while her parent expected her to stay local or perhaps prepare to work in the family business.

“That can be heartbreaking,” Wellington said. “You see the parent maybe trying to push the kid in a direction that the kid doesn’t want to go in, and as their teacher you didn’t know that dynamic was happening at all.”

In such instances, Wellington tries to encourage the families to use the conference as an opportunity to talk through their differences. Ideally, the result will be a plan of action that incorporates the student’s goals while fostering parental support.

To be sure, those kinds of negotiations work best when teachers know their students well. And Pittsfield’s small size certainly helps. But Wellington, who taught middle school for six years in New York City, said she could also see it working in a larger school setting provided there is a reasonable student-teacher ratio.

The Hechinger Report.

Literature’s Emotional Lessons

I’d drawn a little tombstone on the board. I was in the middle of leading a class of 10th-grade English students through Piggy’s death scene in Lord of the Flies: the rock, the shattered conch, Piggy’s long fall, the red stuff flowing out, the twitching legs. The corners of her eyes bubbling, a 15-year-old girl dashed for the door.

When I spoke with her after class, the student explained that she identified with Piggy. Being studious, fearful of bullies, and a bit of an outsider, it upset her to casually discuss his violent death. Piggy’s demise was not the symbolic death of order or logic, but the murder of a kid like her.

In my experience teaching and observing other teachers, students spend a lot of time learning academic skills and rarely even talk about the emotional reactions they may have to what they read—even when stories, as they often do, address dark themes. The Common Core Standards push students to become clinical crafters of arguments and masters of academic language. While these are essential skills to possess, the fact that my other students appear perfectly comfortable not acknowledging and discussing emotional responses to literature may be as revelatory as this one student’s teary dash from class. Inundated with video games, movies, and memes, teenagers often seem hard to shake up. Characters are fictitious abstractions, and, without actors to bring them to life and makeup and digital tricks to make the drama feel real, students may strictly do the analytical work teachers expect without the interference of a significant emotional response. That’s a bad thing. An emotional response should be part of the curriculum.

Since August, my 10th- and 12th-grade literature students have read about pre-adolescent boys who bully and murder one another; a man, fearing shame and betrayal, who smothers his wife and commits suicide; and another man who hangs himself as colonizers pulverize his culture. They’ve also read about a woman who kills her baby daughter so she won’t experience the physical and emotional horrors of slavery. They’ve been introduced to a man who shoots a guy on a beach because the sun is in his eyes, relishing, as he later marches to the gallows, the prospect of incurring society’s hatred.

The Wisdom Deficit in Schools

These stories should be familiar. My colleagues at public, charter, and private schools also build study units around Lord of the Flies, Othello, Things Fall Apart, Beloved, and The Stranger. A 1990 Center for Teaching and Learning survey identified the 10 most commonly taught texts in high school; 1990 was a long time ago relatively speaking, but all but one of the texts are still taught at my school today. Pearson Education, Inc. advises that high-school students read more than half of the texts I am required to teach in a year. And Appendix B of the Common Core Standards lists fiction “exemplars” that hedge toward personal, political, and societal tragedies like The Great Gatsby, The Bluest Eye, and The Scarlet Letter. All this is to say that high-school students don’t exactly do a lot of light reading.

English teachers don’t teach these important stories because they want to batter students with the darkness in human nature. Or because they want to remind them of history’s hideous chapters or emphasize the absurdity of existence. Academic goals aside, fellow teachers told me they want to help students cope with real life—even when portions of that reality are unpleasant and disturbing. In the right hands, the important stories, grim plots and all, do that. Researchers who have studied emotion and cognition extensively, Patrick Hogan of the University of Connecticut and Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto, further suggest that literature can play a vital role in helping people understand the lives and minds of others, and that individuals and communities can benefit from that ability along with literacy and analytical prowess.

“It’s easy to see the trends of death, war, destruction, and oppression in our current society,” said Ray Ramirez, a friend of mine from graduate school who teaches high-school English. “There’s a certain level of honesty reflected in art which deals with the psychological, social, and emotional fallout of such violence.”

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, a well-known primary source slave narrative, along with excerpts from The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and The New Jim Crow. A work like Beloved becomes a way to address the corrosive legacy of slavery that haunts Americans today—and not just a challenging work of literature that pushes students to expand their powers of comprehension and analysis.

Yet while such a unit may be rigorous intellectually, it is arguably incomplete unless students tangle with the book’s emotional core. Along with amassing skills and wrestling with ideas, one should react emotionally to Beloved. It’s a story about suffering and healing, the fragmentation of identities and stories and then the potential for their reassembly through the love and labor of a community of survivors. A teacher should help students process the book’s depiction of characters’ traumas, guiding them toward greater empathetic heights—and therefore maybe preparing them to play a role in repairing one of America’s most gaping societal wounds. In 1993, Toni Morrison told The Paris Review that she had wanted Beloved to make the history of slavery “truly felt” by readers, to “translate the historical into the personal.” If the Pulitzer-winning narrative does this, then shouldn’t the teaching of it recognize the personal, emotional relationship with the book as important, too? While few authors write books designed to be enjoyed on their philosophical or political merits alone, in a school setting you probably wouldn’t guess this were the case. Standards rarely address it; administrators rarely explicitly encourage it; few people pay consultants to give presentations on it at staff meetings. To do the work mandated by the Common Core well (which, for a good English teacher, is nothing particularly new), it may be helpful. To make students kinder and more conscientious citizens, it’s perhaps imperative.

In 2011, Keith Oatley published an article in Scientific American Mind called, “In the Minds of Others” in which he explains how fiction helps readers understand people. “The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view,” he writes. “It can even change your personality … The emotional empathy that is critical to our day-to-day relationships also enables us to picture ourselves living as the characters do when we read fiction.”

“Literary study should … provide us with many complex models for understanding and responding to others and to ourselves,” said Patrick Hogan.

As an example, Hogan cited Othello. “I read Othello as concerned principally with shame, humiliation, and a sense of attachment betrayal,” he said. “In studying the play, it is crucial to explore the nuances of these feelings. The fictional frame allows students to work through the autobiographical feelings more fully, and often more honestly, as there is deniability.”

Good teachers often incorporate the ideas voiced by Hogan and Oatley into their craft. Othello allows my class to review high-school courtship patterns and the insecurities on which they thrive. The Stranger encourages students to contemplate how the meanings that they attach to relationships, responsibilities, and ambitions may be arbitrary and inauthentic—fine lessons for those nearing graduation. There’s a pretty clear line to draw between Lord of the Flies and the boorish pack mentality of teenage boys.

Thurston, my coworker, suggested that many students comfortable sharing their own emotions might fail to apply the messages embedded in literary texts to their own environments. “I’m worried about the girls who suffer from anxiety but are simultaneously catty and wretched to one another,” she said. “Where’s that coming from and how do we educate that?”

Echoing her sentiment, Shaun Bond, another coworker, talked about “the discrepancy” he notices in students’ condemnation of characters’ behavior and their own actions. “I show students real-life stories about adults enacting their ignorance and hatred on the world,” he said, “And I tell them to imagine those adults at 15 years old, reading Lord of the Flies themselves. Clearly, those adults have ignored the lessons their English teachers once toiled to instill.”

It balloons into a broader discussion about the purpose of an English education. English teachers—at least the ones I know—want to churn out thinkers who wield power through language. We want them to love books, but also to survive. We want them to read a lease in 10 years and know what they’re getting into. We also want to turn out good citizens who practice in the streets and at the office what they identify as moral and good in class, people who do not cheat, manipulate, abuse, and unfairly judge others. English teachers, it seems, are in a unique position to impose some degree of emotional and moral rigor on the curriculum.

Yet this program of emotional and moral rigor is informal, if not imaginary, and entirely unstandardized. I don’t know many teachers who prefer not to have control over what and how they teach, but if one recognizes that literature helps people understand one another and can improve our individual and collective health, it’s a bit telling to see this prerogative unmentioned in the standards providing guidance to teachers.

When we spoke, Oatley bemoaned the notion that classwork focused on emotional responses to literature might be seen as “soft.” Some people get suspicious when academic courses drift into the fuzzy realm of feelings. At the high-school level, standards have to be quantifiable and, as Oatley pointed out to me, “technical skills are the easiest things to test.” A lot of English teachers I know wish this were not the case. Most of them believe that an emphasis on standards-based test-result-centered accountability strips an English education of creativity and personal expression. It may also deprioritize the point of reading.

If educators want students to come away from their study of literature with more than just academic skills and content knowledge, maybe policy-makers should rethink their approach to testing. Emotional health might be hard to measure on a large scale by traditional testing methods, but it’s far from squishy, and certainly no less tangible than the technical skills education-policy framers seek to standardize. After all, one only has to live on a violent, beleaguered planet and watch the news to know we are troubled. And one may only have to read fiction to understand that solutions can spring as readily from love and empathy as logic.

Counselors Versus Cops

Many of America’s biggest school districts have prioritized  security officers over counselors. In Houston, that means there’s only one counselor for every 1,175 students

School-security officers outnumber counselors in four out of the 10 largest public-school districts in the country—including three of the top five, according to data obtained by The 74.

New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Houston schools all employ more security staff than counselors. New York City, Chicago, and Miami-Dade are all among the nation’s five biggest school districts.

Not one of the top 10 districts, where counselors may be particularly beneficial for low-income students, meets the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of one counselor for every 250 students—most weren’t even close. The nearest to the standard was Hawaii with 274 students for every counselor.

In Houston, there are 1,175 students for every counselor. Meanwhile, the Texas district has one security staffer for every 785 students.

My analysis—which was published by The 74, an education-focused news publication, in partnership with The Atlantic—comes as the debate over school safety, classroom violence, and the school-to-prison pipeline continues to dominate national headlines and inform federal policy. (In my previous job at Educators for Excellence—New York, I worked with teachers to advocate for less punitive-discipline practices in New York City schools.)

“I’m not surprised, but it still concerns me really deeply,” Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU’s racial-justice programs, said of the officer-to-counselor ratios. “It reflects an approach to school discipline and school safety that is ultimately counterproductive.”

The ACLU has called attention to federal data showing that public schools disproportionately discipline students of color—especially black males—and disabled students. Students subjected to harsh discipline are more likely to end up in the criminal-justice system.

Cory Notestine, a counselor, works in Colorado Springs School District 11 and was named school counselor of the year by the American School Counselor Association for 2015-16. “I do find it alarming that we would have more resource officers in [some] schools than we would have school counselors,” he said.

Mike Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute, who has generally been skeptical of efforts to limit tough discipline, said, “We’ve got to be really careful about drawing conclusions from these data. [But] I certainly think that these data raise an important question, that they demand further investigation.”

School counselors’ roles vary depending on where they work, but often focus on helping students deal with academic, behavior, and social issues. High-school counselors play a key role in helping students get into college.

School security can range from uniformed personnel employed by the district to maintain school safety to armed police officers who can make arrests. Houston says it is the only school district in the country with its own accredited police department. Los Angeles Unified School District also has its own police force.  Other districts, like Hawaii, have no police presence in its schools, employing all its own safety personnel.

* * *

New York City and Hawaii have high numbers of both security staff and counselors, while Houston and Los Angeles have low numbers of both. New York City added 250 counselors in the last two years and is planning to add more, according to the Department of Education.

“Our goal is to provide a safe, respectful and supportive environment for students to thrive academically and socially. We are working across city agencies, including NYPD and FDNY, to ensure the safety and security of students and staff,” Toya Holness, a DOE spokesperson, said of New York’s security-to-counselors ratio.

The recent public debate in New York City has veered between safety concerns and criticism of harsh discipline, with three reports in the past two weeks of students bringing guns to school and a related battle ensuing over whether city charter schools suspend students too freely. Charter schools are public schools but their enrollment numbers, where possible, were not included in my analysis because they are independently run, including when it comes to hiring their own staff. In some instances, such as when they are in the same building, charters and traditional public schools can share security.

The national average of school counselors per students as of the 2013-14 school year was about two counselors per 1,000 students, and six of the top 10 districts—New York City, Chicago, Clark County, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough County, and Hawaii—did beat that.

A spokesperson for the Houston Independent School District, where it seems a student is more likely to encounter a cop in the hallway than a counselor, said the district is committed to making sure “every child has access to counseling services.” That could be through a school-based counselor or the district’s partnerships with Texas Children’s Hospital and the Memorial Hermann healthcare network. The district also pointed out that while the school system’s police department are Houston ISD’s “law enforcement agency, they’re also taking on the role of mentoring and supporting students.”

Spokespeople from Chicago Public Schools and Miami-Dade County Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment or could not respond in time for publication. The story will be updated as additional responses are received.

Miami-Dade employs more than six security staffers for every 1,000 students, though about 40 percent are part time. New York City employs more than five security personnel for every 1,000 students and Chicago over four.

In contrast, Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest district in the country, has less than one security staffer for each 1,000 students and one counselor for every 824 students.

Nevada’s Clark County has the most counselors per security staff at a ratio of four-to-one, while Miami-Dade has the lowest, at about 0.4 counselors for each security personnel.

There was significant variation from district to district for both sets of numbers, but it was much wider for security staff than counselors. That suggests districts have a good deal of discretion when deciding how much they want to spend attempting to maintain order, prevent crimes, or respond to in-school incidents.

David Osher, a vice president of the American Institute of Research, has studied issues that affect what’s called “school climate,” a broad term that encompasses everything from how safe a school feels to how well students relate to teachers and other staff to how high teachers set expectations for learning. He said he found it “troubling” that districts might employ more security staff than counselors. Osher emphasized that what matters isn’t necessarily the titles that different adults in schools have, but whether they played a positive role in strengthening school climate.

The records I requested did not include social workers or psychologists, who may also help students who are struggling academically or emotionally.

However, in Chicago, New York, and Houston, three districts that provided the number of social workers, even adding them in did not alter the big picture. Each still employed more security staff than school counselors and social workers combined.

* * *

There has been increased attention in recent years to the idea that schools contribute to overincarceration, particularly among students of color. Viral videos of police officers assaulting students in schools has brought anger and outrage over cops using excessive force in classrooms.

“I don’t think schools are an oasis from the racial problems that affect the rest of society,” said Parker of the ACLU.

Students of color make up the majority of all 10 of the largest school districts. Federal data shows that black students in particular are significantly more likely to receive harsh discipline, including out-of-school suspension and expulsion, particularly from white teachers. National data also reveals that schools with high proportions of students of color are significantly more likely to have security personnel.

Parker said that adding security to schools has led to some normal school infractions, like dress-code violations, being handled by law enforcement rather than school staff. That can result in a student being arrested and having to appear in court.

Many school-security officers receive minimal or inadequate training, particularly in dealing with special education students. As previously reported by The 74, the majority of states have no specific laws mandating that officers deployed to classrooms receive special training in dealing with children.

Parker argues that investing in reactive methods over proactive ones is a mistake.

“If there were more emphasis on preventing problems rather than dealing with them when they happen, schools would ultimately be safer and students performance would be better,” he said.

The Seventy Four

One study found that even after controlling for poverty levels, schools with more resource officers had higher arrest rates for the subjective offense of “disorderly conduct.” However, the same study showed that arrest rates for assault and weapons charges actually dropped with security staff present.

Many districts across the country—including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—are working to reduce punitive discipline in schools, including suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, fearing that those punishments contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Critics have argued that such efforts can make schools less safe and learning more challenging. But it’s not clear that there is any evidence, beyond anecdotes, to support these claims. Little, if any rigorous research, links an increase in school security to improvements in school climate. It’s difficult to know what value security staff bring to schools and what the appropriate level of staffing might be.

Some see their role as vital to protecting order in schools. In a March 2015 article in The Houston Chronicle examining how many times school police used force on students, the head of the teachers’ union said district police were “critical in protecting classroom teachers from violent attacks by students.”

“There are situations, especially in high school, where the use of force becomes necessary,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “What we find with Houston ISD officers is generally they can reason with the kids. If they use force, they’ve been pushed.”

Meanwhile, research has generally found that school counselors have a positive effect on students, including increased achievement, and decreased discipline incidents, particularly for low-income students of color.

Notestine, the school counselor of the year, said, “The benefit of school counselors is that they’re at the front lines of identifying student issues, whether that be a behavioral issue, an academic issue, or even social emotional issues around mental health.”

Counselors may be particularly valuable in large urban districts—like the top 10—where the enrollment is heavily low-income, and the need may be greater. A lack of counselors may leave students struggling, without professional support, to deal with out-of-school challenges that affect learning or to navigate complex and unfamiliar college admissions processes.

Osher agreed with the ACLU’s Parker that schools should emphasize strategies to prevent discipline issues rather than those that deal with them after the fact.
“The best way of preventing violence … is by creating an environment that is rich in supports for students,” he said. “Counselors play a really important role in that.”

This story was produced in collaboration with

When Kids Create Their Own Playground

Eve Mosher was getting frustrated. Her children, ages 4 and 6, encountered rules everywhere they went to play in New York City. Even at parks and playgrounds, expressly built for the purpose of play, they were chastised for digging in the dirt or climbing trees. Mosher, a native of the Houston suburbs, says that her city kids had “no sense of ownership over a space; there’s no sense of independence and self-confidence that comes from playing on their own.”


She and fellow parent Alexander Khost were talking about this issue one Saturday in August 2014 when the topic of adventure playgrounds came up. By Sunday they had a plan to bring an adventure playground to New York; by December, play:groundNYC hosted its first event.

Adventure playgrounds aren’t a new concept. Also known as waste-material playgrounds, they were popularized in Europe and the U.K. after World War II, when people realized that kids were playing in bombed-out lots. “It was a very urban, rough play experience,” explains Robin Meyer, a playground-design project manager and one of eight board members of play:groundNYC. Hanna Rosin gave a great overview in her 2014 Atlantic article on the subject, and Erin Davis’s 2015 film The Land documents a modern Welsh adventure playground in all its tree-climbing, fire-starting, free-range glory.

The primary components of an adventure playground are moveable parts (which can include items like boxes, pipes, paint, hammers, and even saws) and trained, paid grown-up “playworkers,” who oversee and facilitate the play without interfering. Children are free to build their own structures, tear them down, climb, graffiti, create. They are encouraged to take calculated risks in order to learn resilience, grit, and problem-solving skills. The concept of vandalism is moot at an adventure playground—it is child-led play in its freest, most anarchic form. It is organized chaos.

Children playing at a pop-up playground on Governers Island (play:groundNYC)

Though adventure playgrounds never reached the popularity in the U.S. that they have in the U.K. and Europe, the environmental psychology Ph.D. student Reilly Wilson notes that there were 20 across America in the 1970s, according to a survey of the American Adventure Play Association (an organization that has recently been revived). There were several in New York alone. But without funding to maintain them, the adventure playgrounds fell into disrepair and looked, quite frankly, like the bombed-out remains they were originally based on.

Shifts in parenting trends are reviving interest in waste-material playgrounds. So-called helicopter parenting, in which parents hover and rush in at the first sign of distress, is increasingly being called out by authors and researchers writing books and articles about the importance of letting children fail, working out their own problems, and developing independence. New studies show that we should be letting children engage in riskier play.

Adventure parks benefit parents as well as kids. Wilson, who is also on the board of play:ground NYC and became interested in playgrounds after working as a nanny, posits that adventure playgrounds might help assuage hovering moms and dads. “There’s a lot of social pressure among caregivers to intervene when their kid is making another parent nervous,” she says. “Other adults will step in very quickly so people will preemptively step in so as not to deal with the social pressure.” That pressure is off in a monitored, safe space like an adventure playground, where the culture is to let kids do their own thing.

Marisa Karplus took her sons, ages 3 and 6, to the play:groundNYC pop-up on Governors Island last summer, thinking they’d just stop by then continue on their way. They were all having such a great time that they stayed for three hours. “My husband said that it looked like Burning Man for kids,” she says. “They were happy on their own … It gives [parents] permission to sit back without feeling neglectful.”

Parents are encouraged to take a hands-off approach. (play:groundNYC)

Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of reprogramming before parents can loosen the reins. It’s not uncommon to find the occasional sign that says, “Parents! Sit down and relax!”

Using an organization called Pop Up Adventure Play as a model and source for playworker training, Mosher, Khost, and their six fellow board members started hosting pop-up adventure playgrounds around the city, including on Governors Island, where they’ve just signed a one-year lease. Their seasonal adventure playground for kids ages 6-13 will open there in May. play:groundNYC also had a residency at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum this past winter, and they’ve exceeded their $25,000 goal on Kickstarter to help fund their efforts. “We’re at a really exciting moment right now, where there’s growing interest … and I think parents are ready,” says Meyer.

“There’s all kinds of powerful research that shows that play is a natural vehicle for children to learn about themselves and the world,” explains Roger Hart, a professor in the Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Program of the CUNY Graduate Center, the co-director of the Children’s Environments Research Group, and a member of the play:groundNYC board of advisors.

“One of the things that’s wonderful about public space, and the reason we have to preserve it for children, is that it is a democratic space,” Hart tells CityLab. “It’s a space that should involve all kids and should be safe and it’s a place where they can be next to one another and inventing culture and transforming it. They’re making a new world.”

Having the first semi-permanent play:groundNYC project on Governors Island—a ferry ride away from Brooklyn and Manhattan—means that it will be a destination. As Meyers explains, that status has its pluses and minuses. “The plus is that lots of people will come and it will get attention with the sort of cachet of it being Governors Island,” she says. “But in lots of parts of Europe … adventure playgrounds are more integrated into lower-income neighborhoods, and they become a place where young people can go and have a space that’s safe and has adult supervision. The playworkers become almost like a big brother or big sister or social-worker-type role. So we recognize that our playground will be different in that respect.”

However, the goal is that the destination location will draw lots of people—and, in turn, attention—to the power of adventure playgrounds. “My hope,” says Hart, “is that it will spark initiatives at the community level where children can have a more sustained relationship to a rich environment like that … There need to be more places where we can see children healthily inventing activities by themselves, with each other, rather than a society that is preparing everything for them.”

This article appears courtesy of CityLab.

White Teachers Expect Less Than Black Teachers From Black Students

In yet another sign that the lack of teacher diversity is a pressing issue, a new study suggests that white teachers expect less academic success from black students than black teachers do from the same students.

The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University, found that when a white teacher and a black teacher consider the same black student, the white teacher is 30 percent less likely to think the student will graduate from a four-year college. White teachers, the researchers also found, are nearly 40 percent less likely to think their black students will graduate from high school.

“One of [the teachers] has to be wrong,” Nicholas Papageorge, a co-author and economist in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

It bears repeating that while it is true that high-school graduation rates are lower for black students, the discrepancy has to do with unequal access to opportunity and resources, not innate ability. Black students are more likely to attend high-poverty schools with fewer resources, and to have less access than their white peers to advanced-placement courses. Student-to-counselor ratios are also much higher than recommended, a problem that is particularly troubling for poor students, who are disproportionately likely to come from families that lack experience navigating the college-admissions system.

The research, which involved an analysis of data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a national study of more than 8,000 10th-grade students, suggests that low expectations from some teachers might engender low performance from students. The researchers found that when black students had a non-black teacher in a particular 10th-grade subject, they were much less likely to enroll in similar classes subsequently, suggesting teacher bias may have long-term consequences. More than 80 percent of public-school teachers are white, and the vast majority are women. Efforts to diversify the nation’s teaching corps have been slow, despite vocal support from U.S. Education Secretary John King and teachers’ unions.

Black Parent Initiative, and the father of two young children, says he isn’t surprised anymore when he sees studies like this one. “All the data and life experience suggest that this is the reality,” he said. “Our families have to figure out a way to advocate better for children, to really sort of transform the landscape.”

He points to recent successful efforts at Portland’s mostly black Jefferson High School to raise graduation rates. Between 2014 and 2015, the graduation rate jumped from 66 to 80 percent. The school has made a series of changes, including allowing students to earn college credit at nearby colleges while they are still in high school, and bolstering mentoring programs. The underlying belief, as McGee put it, is that “failure is not an option.”

As the researchers note, their findings likely have implications beyond school, into the workplace and the criminal-justice system. The researchers say they are studying how biased expectations might impact long-term outcomes for students, including employment and involvement with the criminal-justice system. Alleviating some of the bias or recruiting and retaining more teachers of color could reduce some of the achievement gaps between white and black students, and help propel more black students toward high-school graduation and beyond.

While McGee agrees that hiring more diverse teachers is a good thing, he thinks it’s just a start. “We’ve got to deal with racism and structural bias in all of these systems,” he said. “We have to attack them. We have to be bold about it.”