Bilingualism’s Cry for Attention: how bilingualism can help curb the current wave of nationalism

Mariana Suárez-Rebling 
Professor Mira Debs
EDST 245: Public Schools and Public Policy

Bilingualism’s Cry for Attention

how bilingualism can help curb the current wave of nationalism


Am I French? Am I American? Am I Mexican? These are questions that I have been asked by others and asked myself countless times. My parents are Mexican, my sister and I are first generation American and we both attended the Lycée Français de New York. My school was taught entirely in French – other than our daily English class- and allowed students to obtain both American and French High School diplomas. Our school consisted of 1,300 students from pre-k to 12th grade; 30% were French citizens, 30% were French dual citizens, 30% were at least half American and only around 10% had both parents who were from neither the U.S nor France. I was a part of that minority. Everyone wondered why two Mexican parents had decided to send their daughters to a French school, while having no French background or remote knowledge of the language. Why had my parents not simply sent me to an American school?

My parents chose to send me to a school in which only a handful of my classmates knew what the word “integer” meant before SAT prep started Sophomore year. We had done of advanced math but it had all been held in French. None of my French standardized test scores mattered to American colleges, and most of my friends went back to Europe after graduation. I was obligated to take the TOEFL exam. Yet, my parents found these issues trivial compared to the benefits of my bilingual education experience. They valued diversity more than most of our skeptical American family friends did, and rightly so. People seemed to make different assumptions about my nationality based on the environment we were in: I was French-Mexican when with my American friends, Mexican-American  in school, Mexican to the Americans and American to the Mexicans. Despite the confusion, I could communicate both verbally and culturally with a much wider variety of people than most of my friends could from a very young age. I learned to embrace diversity in a way that opened my eyes to a very different perspective on the world. But why does this matter today? Many of the anti-globalist problems present in our world today stem from nationalistic and racist views on immigration, inclusion and violence. This wave of nationalism has led to a resurgence of ignorance to the benefits of multiculturalism. Though these problems are in no way easily nor rapidly solvable, a productive step in the right direction is bilingual education.

The History of Bilingualism  

In the late seventeenth century in the United States, bilingual education was common practice. When the first colonists were arriving to the United States, most were still teaching their children in their native language, especially Germans. A shift then occurred in the late 1800s: the rise in nativism and large wave of new immigrants at the turn of the century. This shift mixed with the start of World War I led to bilingual education being replaced by efforts to make schools feel more anti-foreign. (8)

In the late twentieth century, many parents, particularly immigrants, were opposed to sending their children to bilingual schools. This stemmed from a stigma against non-assimilated individuals in society. According to a book written in the 1970s by Barry McLaughlin, Second-language acquisition in childhood, “various ethnic groups strive to maintain their identity by raising their children bilingual.” (18) In this case, however, bilingualism means that the child only speaks the non-English language at home, never outside. The book explains that this is due to bilingualism being “a social problem because language is so intimately a part of one’s identity. The distrust shown by many people and governments toward bilingual individuals stems largely from the feeling that they are not loyal citizens because they can speak another language.” (p.2). This belief was developed after a long period of war, which involved the US developing its military more than ever, and segregation. This state of war, increased nationalism and decreased multicultural education. (18)

The combination of these things lead to a nation-wide distrust towards those who weren’t patriotic in every respect including language.  As Barry McLaughlin’s book states, “This hostility toward bilingualism has nothing to do with language as such. The hostility is directed not at language but at culture. The bilingual represents an alien way of thinking and alien values” (p.3). This provides insight into the mentality of people in the 70s, whose insights were influenced by nationalism and lack of exposure, leading to racist thoughts. McLaughlin, though unintentionally, also seems to further the idea that being introduced to a different language- and by extension its culture- at a young age produces more open-minded individuals who don’t view the “bilingual” as having an “alien way of thinking” but rather as a person having a different opinion or view. (18)

Benefits of bilingual/bicultural education:

Our world has become significantly smaller thanks to social media. Bilingualism has become increasingly possible with this potential for instant communication. The graph below, taken from “The DANA Foundation” website under the “Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” article published in 2012, shows us that from 1980-2007, there was a substantial increase in the percentage of people in the US who spoke a language that wasn’t English at home. (9)

Today, a larger portion of the world’s population is bilingual or  multilingual than monolingual. Research has proven that there are certain benefits that have come up time and time again for kids who learn a second language. Harvard’s associate professor at the Graduate School of Education said that “Bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime”. The main advantages identified so far include attention, school performance and health benefits. (1)


People who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of academic performance. “[Bilinguals] can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve in the ability to switch from one task to another,” says Professor Antonella Sorace – a linguistics and english language expert. (9) According to the DANA Foundation, this is due to the cognitive developments that occur, which allow for individuals to “inhibit one language while using another.” (6)

The graph represents the difference between a monolingual and bilingual individual to have sustained attention.

School Performance:

This graph provides visual evidence in favor of the idea that the brain developments that take place due to bilingualism have strong benefits towards one’s academic performance. This is due to the “thinking skills”,  mathematical understandings , logic and focus as is demonstrated in the graph. Furthermore, bilingual children, when switching between languages, must follow social cues in order to know which language to speak to whom. This need for accentuated social understanding leads to hyper-developed fundamental social and emotional skills with kids starting at around 3 years old. On top of these social abilities, kids who speak more than one language have been proven to be better English readers than native English speakers due to their puzzle-solving talent. (4) (11)

Health Benefits:

The health benefits of an individual who is bilingual are the most tangible of the advantages. Due to developments in the brain that take place during the learning of a second language, one’s memory is deeply strengthened. This increase in memory, has been proven to delay dementia in patients who have a predisposition to the illness. Doctor’s have found that, though the average age of dementia patients during their first doctor’s appointment is 71.4 years old, that of bilingual patients is 75.8. This might not stop the dementia from occurring but it allows for an incredible delay that provides a longer period of health and normality in a patient’s life. (4), (6), (7)


There have been several policies in the past that have tried to establish some momentum in furthering bilingual education. Today, it seems that despite the time that has passed, we may be moving in circles.(12) In 1923, thirty-four states passed laws mandating English as the language of instruction in public schools. This ended any possibility of establishing a curriculum in which English Language Learners (ELL) would be able to learn the core courses in their native languages ( mostly catered towards Spanish speakers), while taking English classes. (14)

In 1963, due to the large number of Cuban immigrants to Miami, elementary schools began offering bilingual education programs for Spanish-speaking students. In the 1970s, states were funding bilingual education programs. Many passed laws allowing schools to teach in languages other than English. (13) (15)

In 1974 the case Lau v. Nichols, a class-action suit brought on behalf of Chinese students from San Francisco, went to the Supreme Court. (16) Most students were not receiving the special instruction that they required due to their inability to speak English. The Court decided that these students “were not receiving equal educational opportunity because they did not understand the language of instruction and the schools were not doing anything to assist them.” (17)

There has never been a mandate requiring bilingual education. The courts and federal legislation–including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally assisted programs and activities”, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which “defines a denial of educational opportunity as the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation” are contributors to the progress that has been made in favor of students who are not fluent in English. (4)


Today, though president Trump hasn’t established specific policies referring to bilingual education, he has spoken extensively about his feelings toward immigrants and his plan to “make America great again”. As his slogan has been analysed time and time again as meaning “make America white again”, there have been predictions that he will not further the pre-existing programs. There have also been concerns about him entirely stopping the ones that already exist. (6)

After researching all of the beneficial aspects of bilingualism, it has become increasingly clear that speaking multiple languages can have positive consequences for everyone, not simply those who speak the languages. Certain benefits identified include strengthened memory, delayed dementia, increased attention span, and academic excellence. However, these are no more important than the more social-based gains, which include cultural understanding, inclusivity and the ability to communicate with a larger group universally.

Due to these social benefits that could occur, the Supreme Court should continue to uphold the rights of non-native English speakers. This should happen for various reasons. FIrst, for the sake of humanity; it must be reminded that regardless of their fluency in English, immigrants are still people and contribute extremely positively to the community. Second, the United States is a country built on immigrants from all continents and backgrounds who unified in order to create a country built on liberty and equality. Third, the United States should make it easier for the motivated, innovative people who chose to move to this country in order to make change. For these creations to take place on US soil is good for the country.

Furthermore, congress should pass a policy to quell these nationalist sentiment by encouraging bilingual education. Education is supposed to enrich an individual both intellectually and socially. Becoming a more well-rounded individual and being more culturally aware are things that will benefit a student far beyond his/her school days. These are things that can create an even smaller world and can  allow the violence to lessen. Having gone to a foreign, bilingual school has presented me with the largest diversity of friends, languages and cultures than I could’ve ever imagined. This has created an inclusive nature within me that was developed from the time I was 3 and has kept developing every day since. More kids could develop the same strength.


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, Huffington Post ed.Print.

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(9) Web. <>.

(10) Academic Press New York San Francisco London. “the Bilingual Child: Research and Analysis of Existing Educational Themes.” (1976)Print.

(11) Afendras. Le Bilinguisme Chez l’enfant.Print.

(12) Carey, S. T. Bilingualism, Biculturalism & Education.Print.

(13) Cohen, Andrew D. A Sociolinguistic Approach to Bilingual Education: Experiments in the American Southwest.Print.

(14) Department of Government Funded Programs and Board of Education of the City of Chicago. “Bilingual- Bicultural Education.” Print.

(15) Educational Testing Service. “Bilingual Education.” Print.

(16) Georgetown University Press, Washington DC. “Current Issues in Bilingual Education.” Print.

(17) Lewis. Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.Print.

(18) McLaughlin, Barry. “Second-LAnguage Acquisition in Childhood.” Print.

(19) Mokhtar Farhadian, Rohani Abdullah, Mariani Mansor, Ma’arof Redzuan, Neda Gazanizadand and Vijay Kumar. Theory of Mind in Bilingual and Monolingual Preschool Children.Print.

(20) Padilla, Raymond V. “Ethnoperspectives in Bilingual Education Research: Theory in Bilingual Education.” Print.

(21) Washburn, David E. “Ethnic Studies Bilingual/bicultural Education and Multicultural Teacher Education in the United States.” Print.

Fighting for a Future: The Massachusetts ‘No on 2’ Campaign and Its Impact on Public Education Advocacy

Daniel Vernick, May 2017 

Fighting for a Future: The Massachusetts ‘No on 2’ Campaign and Its Impact on Public Education Advocacy

Executive Summary

The efforts of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the main teacher union in MA and the central organizer of the 2016 anti-charter campaign, were instrumental to the success of the No on question 2 campaign. The campaign was a success due to its grassroots field operation, effective messaging, and community-based support, and can serve as a model for the public education movement in Massachusetts and across the country.


In 2009, the MTA compromised on a deal in the MA legislature to raise the cap on charter schools. They did so because if the bill failed, it would go to a ballot measure – and, in a national atmosphere in which support for charters was rising among both Republicans and Democrats as well as championed by the Obama administration, the union leaders were convinced that such a ballot measure would pass and leave lasting damage on Massachusetts’ public schools. This changed with the election of Barbara Madeloni as MTA President. Madeloni believed in an forcefully progressive approach, a strategy that ended up working. Fast forward to 2016, and Madeloni decided to embrace the anti-charter campaign. According to the polls, which showed a landslide victory for the pro-charter side, many said she should invest union resources elsewhere. Question 2 ended up being defeated 62-38. The result was not only a landslide in public support away from charters but also a landslide of questions for pro-charter advocates, whose strategies largely failed. The result rejuvenated public education advocates and provides a route of resistance against the charter lobby that once seemed too powerful to resist, which is particularly relevant in the Trump-DeVos era.


When Madeloni was elected, the MA legislature in 2014 was again about to raise the charter cap. Madeloni “urged her rank and file” to resist lifting the cap, which succeeded and showed the potential for grassroots organizing among public education advocates. The potential for a referendum was viewed as negotiating tool by the pro-charter side because it would allow for such a dramatic expansion in charters.[1] MA State Senate ended up passing the Rise Act, which tied charter cap increases to an increase in local education funding for 7 years and would cost 203-212 million per year.[2] The House decided not to compromise with the Senate on the bill and instead leave charters up to the voters, setting off the 2016 ballot campaign.

Madeloni’s willingness to take such a controversial issue head-on and success at mobilizing her membership was crucial. The result was that “teachers came out in force to talk to their neighbors,” and most people place high trust in teachers. One teacher said that their “neighbors looked to [teachers] as authorities on the issues involved in the ballot question, and greeted them warmly when approached to discuss” the anti-charter campaign[3] – a starkly different reaction than most political canvassers receive.

There are currently 78 charters in MA.[4] The current charter cap allows for 120, with 4-5 approved each year. The cap also includes a limit on the percentage of school budget spent on charters, preventing districts from spending more than 9% of their budget–and 18% in low-performing districts–on charters. In cities such as Boston, Lowell, and Springfield, the financial limit has resulted in waiting lists. In 2010, a “smart cap” was instituted. This prioritizes charter applications from CMOs “with a proven track record that seek to expand in low-performing districts.” Still, the charter cap has limited charters in many cities, with tens of thousands of students on waitlists.[5] Question 2 would allow an additional 12 charters per year for an unlimited number of years.

Top in the Nation: Massachusetts Charter Schools

The pro-charter campaign centered on the fact that MA charters are some of the highest performing in the nation and have avoided the scandals than plauge those in other states. A recent Brookings report claims that MA urban charters have positive student outcomes and increase the performance of low-performing students. The MA charter application process “is one of the most rigorous in the country,” which is shown by the closure of 17 charter schools “deemed ineffective or mismanaged” since 1997.[6]

DESE reviews all applications for MA charters. This centralized system allows for universal standards to hold charters accountable and is starkly different from other states, allowing for high performance.[7] Attending a Boston charter for one year results in a substantial increase in test performance and eliminates 1/3 of the “racial achievement gap.”[8] Competition among charters is part of the reason why MA charters are high-performing, and therefore the anti-charter side argued that drastically decreasing competition would have negative effects on charter quality.

Figure 1
Figure 2

“Great Schools” or “Save Our Public Schools”: Campaign Messaging and Arguments

Charter supporters planned a three part strategy. First was the legislative effort, then a ballot question, and the third alternative was a lawsuit using an elite Boston law firm to “file a class-action suit to lift the charter cap” because “it unconstitutionally denies children access to an adequate education.”[9] Great Schools MA was the umbrella pro-charter campaign committee. Families for Excellent Schools (FES) was the primary organization under the umbrella. FES is a “powerful pro-charter force in NYC,” and opened a branch in MA solely to lobby for question 2. FES is funded by Wall Street donors, many of whom would benefit financially from increased charters. It claims to be grassroots and parent-based, but the reality is that “a small group of charter school chains, politically connected Wall Street financiers, and powerful education officials have controlled FES since its founding.”[10] In New York, FES organized public displays of pro-charter activism, such as 30,000 people marching across the Brooklyn Bridge; “theirs is a powerful spectacle, until one looks too closely and notices that the guys on the walkie talkies are all white and that the parents were told that they had to attend.”[11] MA Secretary of Education James Peyser was on the board of FES as well as a “managing partner of New School Venture Fund,” which is “among the first and largest investors in charter schools and the first to support multi-site” CMOs. Therefore he had a direct interest in passing question 2. Furthermore, as Executive Director of the Pioneer Institute, Peyser also “helped craft a strategy for the charter expansion forces” in MA.[12] FES failed due to its vague messaging that shied away from explicitly stating its goal of pushing charters, instead beginning its work in Boston with a “lavishly choreographed rally” at Faneuil Hall. The rally did not mention charter schools at all.[13]

There were also Massachusetts-based groups under the Great Schools MA umbrella. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the MA Charter Public School Association both poured in money. DFER’s first ominous sign occurred in the September 9th Democratic primary for a State Senate seat in Cambridge and Somerville. The race pitted anti-charter State Senator Pat Jehlen against pro-charter Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung. Cheung was closely connected with DFER, who funded his campaign. In response, MTA contributed a smaller amount to Jehlen’s campaign. Jehlen challenged DFER President Liam Kerr to a debate, stating that Kerr is her real opponent. Kerr agreed, and the election became a referendum on charter schools. Cheung ended up losing with just 20% of the vote to Jehlen’s 80%. DFER and the pro-charter lobby claimed that this vote was an outlier that did not represent the opinion of MA voters. Yet they made very similar statements after losing question 2; there is a clear trend and roadmap to oppose charters. These are not isolated losses, but rather a growing fundamental distrust of charter schools that will further manifest itself in the coming years.

Figure 3

The pro-charter campaign kept switching tactics, unable to settle on a central message that worked. Its chaotic messaging contrasted with the No campaign’s straightforward and concrete central message of district school funds being funneled to charters. That argument was reinforced by the hundreds of School Committees across MA that passed resolutions opposing question 2 because they knew firsthand how much money was lost to charters. As polls showed the yes side losing, the Yes side began to directly contradict the No side’s argument, “airing ads saying that charter schools would provide more money for public education.”[14] Another central pro-charter campaign argument was the waitlist, which changed during the campaign due to the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) releasing a waitlist number that was artificially high. State Auditor Suzanne Bump said that “DESE had overstated the waitlist by an indeterminable amount by rolling over entries from prior years who may no longer be interested.”[15] Not everyone on a waitlist actually wants to go to that school; often students are placed on multiple waitlists so that parents retain a variety of options.[16] Normal public schools also have waiting lists, particularly in places like Boston. These waitlists are unable to “be as expansive as charter waitlists, since they’re only held till January” and do not roll over.[17] Since MA was ranked first in student achievement, and also because 96% of public school students in MA attend normal public schools, voters were generally positive toward the MA education system.[18] MA Parent Teacher Association and MA Municipal Association both officially opposed question 2.[19] These are well-respected and nonpartisan organizations that send a message of bipartisan opposition.

According to a Brookings study, charters in low-income and high-minority urban areas “have large, positive effects on educational outcomes” that are better than in district schools, and those effects are “particularly large for disadvantaged [and] SPED students” (see figures 1-3).[20] Another recent study showed that Boston charters that opened new schools after the cap was raised in 2010 “were able to maintain their strong results.”[21] On the other hand, students in rural and suburban charters “do the same or worse” than students in district schools.[22] The charter cap does not currently affect expansion of schools in suburban and rural areas, as they have not reached the cap.

The pro-charter side’s argument centered on ensuring that all students have access to a quality education. They argued that the referendum would modestly increase charters, and one ad even ended with “Yes on 2: for stronger public schools.”[23] Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a traditional charter supporter and former member of the board of a Boston charter,[24] opposed the ballot question due to the “pace and scope” of charters that the referendum would allow for. He called the referendum “a looming death spiral aimed squarely at the most vulnerable children in our city.”[25] Sweeney, the Boston finance chief, agreed and thought that 12 new charters per year could “nearly eliminate the Boston Public Schools.”[26] If only 3 new charters were approved each year in Boston over the next decade, the Boston funds going to charters would increase from 5 to 20 percent. Charter advocates responded by saying that Boston has to “be responsible for getting its own fiscal house in order,” and that the city will have to close schools.[27] Nonpartisan city officials and financial watchdogs agreed with the No on 2’s argument that the increase in charters would drain dangerous amounts of money from public schools.  

In Lowell, the cost of charters rose by 8.6 million over the past 9 years, but the state funding has stayed flat. Disproving another central Yes on 2 argument, “the charter school waitlist in Lowell…is dwarfed by the number of kids waiting to get into district schools.”[29] Lowell ended up voting against charters by 56.8 to 43.2.[30] The No side’s arguments spread far beyond education advocates to reach the average voter.

The No campaign “successfully connected charter school expansion to dark money and to a market-based ideological agenda,” revealing the Wall Street businessmen, conservatives, and New Yorkers that they argued were pouring money to dictate what’s best for Massachusetts. Since 2010, cities such as Boston, Fall River, and Lawrence have had an increase of 83% in charter spending but only 15% increase in state education aid. This results in money taken from other portions of the city budget, and the cities affected already have some of the highest poverty rates in the Commonwealth.[31] Due to overhead costs such as building maintenance and transportation, schools may “not be able to adjust to the loss of revenue” to charters.[32] Moody’s Investors Service agreed that passage of question 2 would be “credit negative” for the cities of Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and Fall River.[33] The yes campaign responded by denying these concerns, stating that charters have “zero impact on district school finances.”[34] After question 2’s failure, Moody’s said that that result is “credit positive” for MA cities.[35]

The Yes side’s financial dominance allowed it to air an unprecedented amount of ads for a ballot campaign. One frequently aired ad consisted of Governor Baker saying, “Imagine if your kid was trapped in a failing school,” reaching for the emotions of white suburban voters to do what’s right for Black and Latino children in inner cities, whose images flash across the screen. Another ad said that it’s critical to raise the cap in order to remove what it claimed to be 37,000 students off charter waiting lists in MA. Great Schools MA’s TV ads “contain several themes from the pro-charter playbook,” and therefore the failure of this messaging means that it can also fail in future campaigns. For instance, the Boston Globe op-ed supporting question 2 emphasized students “languishing on waitlists.”[36] Good aspects of the traditional system “were generally portrayed as exceptions in a failing system,” which is false in Massachusetts’s top in the nation system. Since MA students rank first in the nation, voters are likely to oppose any drastic changes to the current system; the No campaign’s portrayal of the Yes side as extremist led many traditionally pro-charter politicians to take what they perceived to be the safer option and oppose question 2, thus shifting public opinion.

The most senior education officials in America backed the pro-charter narrative, with Secretary of Education John King, Arne Duncan, as well as Congressman Stephen Lynch, and Speaker DeLeo in MA. They joined together to attempt to unite the Democrats in an ad titled “Real Democrats are YES on Question 2.”[37] The No side included many politicians and officials who had traditionally been pro-charter. Mayor Walsh’s opposition to question 2 sent a clear message that opposing drastic expansion of charters does not mean one has to oppose charters themselves. Walsh opposed question 2 due to the deep budgetary implications it would have on Boston Public Schools. Mobilizing pro-charter politicians to oppose question 2 by depicting it as radical was a critical strategy; “more charter supporters recognize that Question 2 is the wrong solution” due to the dramatic increase of charters allowed as well as the lack of local control.[38]

In 2015, 412 million was taken from the 243 school districts and given to charters.[39] The No campaign successfully encouraged conversations with friends and neighbors about how much will be lost to charters if the number of charters dramatically increases. They emphasized the fact that 12 new charters per year would in 10 years nearly triple the number of MA charters. Furthermore, the dropping of the limit on the amount that a district could lose to charters could effectively eliminate public education in certain cities.[40]

A Skewed Budget: Financial Aspects of the Referendum Campaign

The Yes side spent $23.6 million to the No side’s $14.1 million,[41] making it the most expensive referendum campaign in MA history. The top 5 yes campaign donors were FES, followed by Alice Walton, the group Strong Economy for Growth, Jim Walton, and Michael Bloomberg. In contrast, the no campaign’s top donors were MTA, NEA, AFT, and AFL-CIO.[42] Local teacher unions in cities and towns affected by charters, such as Boston, Lowell, and Lawrence, also donated thousands.[43] Massachusetts corporations MassMutual Financial, State Street Bank, EMC Corporation, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals all contributed to Great Schools MA.[44] Wealthy out-of-state donors also poured money into the pro-charter effort; Arkansas residents and Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton donated $1.8 million while Michael Bloomberg gave $490,000.[45] FES poured 17 million to the Yes campaign but is not required to disclose donors and is registered in New York.[46] For “average voters…the outsized role being played by rich New Yorkers was utterly incomprehensible.”[47] $778,000 was also donated by bankers that manage MA pension funds to question 2.[48] The No campaign successfully crafted a narrative that conveyed the fact that wealthy, white out-of-state donors thought they knew what type of education was best for Massachusetts’ inner-city children. New England NAACP president and No on 2 campaign chair Juan Cofield said that “this is a truly unprecedented financial push by the charter industry to buy our election with untraceable money.”[49] The MA Charter Public School Association said that the out-of-state money from financial executives is essential to combating the financial power of teacher unions, despite the fact that the No side had nearly half the money of the Yes campaign.

The well-funded campaigns produced many TV ads and direct mail, which resulted in many more voters paying attention and thus more likely to make an informed choice. Opposition to charters became more than a niche issue. Undecided voters realized that there was “something fishy” about the Yes on 2 campaign’s seemingly constant back-to-back TV ads. This suspicion was confounded by additional deceptive tactics; for instance, one of the five pro-charter campaign committees was called, “Advancing Obama’s Legacy on Charter Schools Ballot Committee,” tying the yes campaign to Obama despite the fact that he did not weigh in on either side.[50]

Leading the Opposition: The Role of Teacher Unions in the Campaign

For the past few decades, teacher unions had been on the defensive about charters. But throughout the campaign, unions–particularly the MTA under Barbara Madeloni–were on the offensive. It was reported that $778,000 was donated to Great Schools MA by “executives from eight financial firms that hold management contracts with the state pension fund,” which is led by strong charter-supporter and popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker.[51] MTA and AFT-MA filed with the SEC to call for federal and state investigation into hedge fund managers’ donations to the yes campaign. Those executives cannot donate to Baker’s campaign due to campaign finance regulations, but they are able to donate to the pro-charter campaign and thus gain favor with him. Campaign finance experts said that this is a way for executives to “legally circumvent pay-to-play rules.”[52] Madeloni was on offense in a statement, saying, “it is appalling that ads starring [Baker] are being financed by donations from Wall Street fund managers who have an interest in currying favor with the administration.”[53] Baker called it a “distraction.”[54] While the investigation did not go anywhere, it obtained negative media coverage for the pro-charter campaign and contributed to the public perception of the Yes side being funded by wealthy donors disconnected from Massachusetts communities.

NEA President Lily Garcia said, “This is really important for us.” NEA’s 3 million members make it the largest union in America, and thus its backing carries substantial weight. Politico wrote before the election that the failure of question 2 would be “a significant symbolic coup for teachers unions.”[55] Failure of question 2 would also “deter other states from considering [charter] expansions amid signs the anti-charter side is gaining momentum.” The union’s first victory came in the form of the Democratic Party platform at the 2016 convention, which, at the personal request from AFT President Randi Weingarten, was amended to be more anti-charter than ever.[56] The grassroots no on 2 campaign was driven by local teacher unions, which are present in every district and are run and staffed almost entirely by teachers in that district. For instance, Belmont Education Association (BEA) handed out anti-charter flyers containing the BEA logo at major Belmont events. Parents’ “conversation with local teachers played a central role in building opposition.” One voter said that teachers in her town of Brookline “are the ones who really made up my mind.”[57] A variety of other unions, from AFSCME to CWA, joined the teacher unions to form a broad labor coalition under the SOPS umbrella, expanding the grassroots reach of the anti-charter effort.

The pro-charter side claimed that teachers were pressured by the union to oppose question 2. One teacher said that on the first day of her job, all teachers met in the auditorium. The local union president then gave a speech about the No campaign, and slips of paper were passed out to sign up for the No campaign.[58] Others argue that it’s a “lazy script” to simply attribute defeat of question 2 to teacher unions. In reality, “the vote…represents a political realignment” on the charter issue due to progressives firmly united against them.[59] People on the ground understood this, though those out-of-state were disconnected and thus “stunned when Elizabeth Warren announced she was No on 2,” failing to understand the degree of the realignment.

From the Bottom Up: Grassroots Organizing and the Leadup to the Question 2 Vote

Save Our Public Schools (SOPS) was the No campaign’s umbrella organization, which itself is a more direct branding than the vague name Great Schools MA. Organizations under the umbrella included MA Teachers Association, AFT Massachusetts, New England NAACP, Citizens for Public Schools, MA AFL-CIO, and other community groups.[60] The role of unions as running the No campaign, a narrative promulgated by the Yes campaign and mainstream media, is “exaggerated.” Teacher unions “were only one component of a broad-based and diverse No coalition.” Unpaid volunteers “did a staggering amount of work.” For instance, parents in Boston alone were organized into the group Quality Education for Every Student, which ran “highly organized” canvasses and phone banks consistently throughout the summer and through election day.[61] Anti-charter volunteers contacted 378,000 households in Boston while the Yes campaign contacted 150,000 in Greater Boston.[62] Average people took it upon themselves to help out the No campaign; for instance, parents made videos that went viral on social media, and volunteers “turned their homes into makeshift call centers” to phone bank. Many students also contributed by canvassing, phone banking, and using the infrastructure built during their 2016 budget walkout.[63] “The coalition extended well beyond teacher unions”[64] to include civil rights groups and social justice organizations. All of these groups “fanned out across the state every weekend” to spread the word. The No campaign canvassed 1.5 million voters–a stunning figure for a referendum campaign–and the final tally was 2 million votes against the measure. Therefore grassroots campaigning truly did make a large difference, and the victory indicates “the potential of substantial pushback against the corporate agenda from coordinated grassroots organizing.”[65]

The Yes campaign had far fewer people canvassing, phone banking, and spreading the word via social media.[66] Their “grassroots” field operation was actually made up almost entirely of people who were paid to knock doors, make phone calls, hold signs, and poll watch. Many were not even from MA. The campaign attempted to portray an image of being driven by support from low-income, inner-city people of color. A few parents of color, whose children went to Boston charter schools, spoke at highly choreographed Yes on 2 rallies to portray an image of African-American support. In the end, it was impossible to create support where it didn’t exist. The rallies and support for the No on 2 campaign were less scripted and more genuine.

215 School Committees passed resolutions opposing question 2, highlighting the loss of funds to their district schools and thus reinforcing the No campaign’s central argument. They also emphasized the lack of ELL and SPED resources in charters, which leave district schools to take on the burden of financing those more expensive students. Because the resolutions were passed consistently from the spring through the November election, they provided the No campaign with a “strong sense of momentum” that was publicized in order to control the media narrative.[67] Each local school board resolution resulted in media coverage in each city and town, and allowed local canvassers and phone bankers to gain traction. Use of school boards could be an impactful strategy in the success of future campaigns.

Racial Aspects and the African-American Mobilization Against Question 2

Black and Latino parents organized in their communities through groups such as the NAACP, Black Educators Alliance of MA, and Union of Minority Neighborhoods.[68] NAACP not only endorsed No on 2 but was a direct member of the campaign committee, and Juan Cofield–NAACP New England President and SOPS chair–was the public face of the No campaign. This was critical not only in turning a substantial constituency against charters, but also in showing that the Yes campaign’s narrative of voting yes to support inner-cities is backward because inner-city voters overwhelmingly opposed question 2. A few months before the vote, the NAACP convention voted for a moratorium on charters expansion “until they adopt the same level of oversight, civil rights protections, and transparency as public schools.”[69]

Some black pro-charter organizations opposed the NAACP position, such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options and African-American Boston newspaper Bay State Banner.[70] The Yes campaign used tactics with underlying racial motives; for instance, they sent a mailing covered by a picture of President Obama, with text that said “preserve Obama’s education legacy,” yet Obama was never involved in either side. FES created a group called Unify Boston, which spent months getting signatures from parents of color who wanted “great neighborhood schools.” Yet when the leaders told the signature gatherers “that the actual goal of the campaign was to lift the charter cap, a revolt broke out.” A former organizer remarked, “It’s like they think people of color are stupid.”[71]

Black politicians such as Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson and Boston NAACP President Michael Curry played a prominent role in mobilizing their community against question 2. Both represented the No side in debates, attended rallies, and served as “go-to persons for Boston newspaper articles on the campaign.”[72] They showed the depth of No campaign’s support in the black community, rather than the artificial image of support that the Yes campaign attempted to portray.

In areas of Boston like Mattapan, with some of “the lowest performing schools in the state, opposition to Question 2 ran deep,”[73] with many people repulsed by outsiders believing they knew best without actually being on the ground in the community. Boston NAACP president Michael Curry said that “communities of color spoke loudly.”[74] Some of the most emphasized pro-charter arguments highlighted the need to support students of color in failing schools. For instance, one journalist wrote a piece titled, “It’s Heartbreaking’: Boston Parents Ask Why Their Wealthy Neighbors Are Fighting Charter Schools.”[75] This piece tried to portray charters as supported by people of color who live in areas with the highest concentration of charters. But the overwhelming 2 to 1 opposition in those areas showed the opposite; the landslide against charters in inner-city Boston is even a larger margin than the statewide result.[76] Civil rights leaders “say families of color yearn for something deeper [than charters]: A plan to improve the quality of education…so they don’t need alternatives.”[77]

A New Era: Democratic Party Solidarity Against Question 2

Democrats and Republicans initially supported question 2 in similar numbers.[78] In the final vote, Democrats opposed it overwhelmingly. At the June 4th, 2016 MA Democratic State Convention, an event I attended, “Save Our Public Schools” signs abounded despite the fact that the question had not yet even been certified for the ballot. Signatures were submitted by the pro-charter campaign on June 22nd, and the question was certified on July 6th.[79] Pro-charter forces also made a massive push for Democratic delegates and activists. DFER, for instance, was the only outside group to send an official mailing to delegates prior to the state convention. That mailing was an invitation to a DFER breakfast for delegates, which had elaborate food and was attended by pro-charter state legislators. SOPS did not have a breakfast, but it was clear at the convention that they had the people. Numerous SOPS tables appeared throughout the convention hall, and anti-charter stickers were a near-constant sight on delegates while hardly any pro-charter stickers could be spotted. DFER also paid for multiple breakfasts–which cost around $5000 each–at the Democratic National Convention,[80] attempting to portray an image of support for charters in MA.

The No on 2 campaign “tapped into genuinely viral energy.” This spurred the MA Democratic Party to officially oppose question 2, which likely would not have happened without the enormous grassroots mobilization. This stance against charters is at odds with some Democratic legislators, including Speaker DeLeo.[81] Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both endorsed the anti-charter campaign. Warren echoed the central argument of the anti-charter campaign, saying that more charters would damage the education of “students in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters.” She emphasized that 400 million was taken from public schools to charters, resulting in cuts to district schools including “in arts, technology, AP classes, preschool, bus service, and more.”[82] In a blue state like MA, Democratic unity contributed greatly to the No campaign’s landslide victory.

Crossing the Partisan Divide to Oppose Charters: Geographic Trends in the Election Results

Figure 4

The anti-charter effort was victorious in almost every town in Massachusetts. The few towns that voted yes were also some of the wealthiest in Massachusetts. Weston, easily the wealthiest town  with median household income of $201,200,[83] voted 60-40 in support of charter schools, the second highest margin in the state (the highest was 61-39 in Aquinnah, a tiny affluent community on Martha’s Vineyard).[84] Dover, the second wealthiest town, voted 58.7 to 41.3 for charters, the third highest pro-charter margin in the state. Sherborn, with the fifth highest pro-charter margin, is also the fifth wealthiest town. There is a clear correlation between the wealthiest towns and the highest pro-charter margins. The exclusive affluent communities of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard supported charters. On Martha’s Vineyard, wealthy white Edgartown and Chilmark voted yes, while the heavily African-American community of Oak Bluffs voted no, signaling that pro-charter support among the wealthiest Bay Staters was limited to whites. 

Figure 5

Towns that voted for Trump by high margins also voted against charters by margins similar to those in Boston, Worcester, and other liberal cities. For instance, Tolland had the highest margin for Trump and Cambridge had the highest margin for Clinton, but their charter margin was remarkably similar. This implies that Trump-DeVos education policies are not popular with his white working class base, and therefore it’s critical for public education advocates to mobilize that group in order to most effectively resist. The No campaign’s tactic of grassroots outreach in all areas of the Commonwealth succeeded even in white, working-class, Trump supporting areas and therefore a similar anti-charter strategy can be successfully applied across the Midwest and throughout the country. The statewide trend was replicated along wealth lines in Boston itself. The largest anti-charter margin occurred in the predominantly low-income and African-American area of Roxbury while the highest margin in support of charters occurred in the wealthy and white Back Bay.[85] The coalescence of the black community around the anti-charter campaign was reflected in the inner city vote total, with Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester all voting around two to one against question 2. All cities and towns with a large number of charter schools voted against question 2. In fact, no town that voted for charters has a single charter school.

A Model for the Nation: Applying Lessons from the Massachusetts Anti-Charter Campaign to Future Public Education Advocacy

The day after the vote, the Boston Globe headline read, “Crushing defeat leaves charter-school movement in limbo.”[86] This “exceeded the worst case scenario” of charter supporters. One researcher at a pro-charter thinktank acknowledged that the anti-charter side came out ahead on every argument.[87] The No side gained the upper hand because it convinced undecided voters while the Yes side hardly expanded its base. DFER was “quick to issue statements of “we’ll be back – talking-pointed bravado…that conveyed nothing so much as a failure to recognize the magnitude of their loss.”[88] Charter advocates say not to read into the vote. But according to the National Education Policy Center, “the MA campaign suggests that the neoliberal, pro-charter narrative” is ending.[89]

MA’s vote against charters was immediately lauded nationwide as a major step in stopping the tide of charters.[90] Diane Ravitch noted that “this was the first contest over charter schools in which the key issues became public,” highlighting million-dollar donations from financial executives.[91] The Yes effort backfired by creating their worst nightmare, uniting progressives and Democrats against charter schools and into a powerful grassroots force that will continue to fight charters across MA; “all of the momentum is on the [anti-charter] side now.”[92]

Race was a critical aspect. Importantly, the “strong and visible black support for the No campaign upended the Obama-era consensus of broad, bipartisan support for charter schools.”[93] The MTA was the lead organizer in creating the No campaign and its successful strategy. MTA President Madeloni’s decision to pull all the stops on the anti-charter campaign was controversial even within the MTA itself. But her decision to go all-out arguably made all the difference. Teachers and their local unions powered much of this campaign, leading canvasses door to door in every area of the Commonwealth. Teacher unions now have more leverage and will take a broader role against charters in the Trump era.

The landslide victory against charters, and the campaign that made it happen, was unprecedented and lays the path for future resistance to charters. The same tactics and messaging, from coalescing support from the black community to organizing on a grassroots level, can be used not just on other charter school ballot campaigns but also on resisting charters at the legislative level and in other capacities. In the Trump-DeVos era, the No on 2 campaign’s success forms the blueprint for resistance to the privatization of public education.

1. Rinaldi, Jessica. “How Many Charter Schools Are Too Many? – The Boston Globe.” 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

2. Mass. Democrats Vote To Oppose Charter School Question. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017.

3. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

4. Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 15). Moody’s: Vote against charter school expansion ‘credit positive’ for Massachusetts cities like Springfield.

5. Cohodes, S., & Dynarski, S. M. (2017, March 29). Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students | Brookings Institution. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

10. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

11. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

12. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

13. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

14. Davis, J. (2016, November 10). Crushing defeat leaves charter-school movement in limbo – The Boston Globe.

15. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Why Question 2 grassroots opposition is growing. (2016, August 29). Retrieved April 28, 2017.

19. Ibid.

20. Cohodes, S., & Dynarski, S. M. (2017, March 29). Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students | Brookings Institution. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

21. Rinaldi, Jessica. “How Many Charter Schools Are Too Many? – The Boston Globe.” 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

22. Cohodes, S., & Dynarski, S. M. (2017, March 29). Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students | Brookings Institution. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

23. Why Question 2 grassroots opposition is growing. (2016, August 29). Retrieved April 28, 2017.

24. Ibid.

25. Rinaldi, Jessica. “How Many Charter Schools Are Too Many?” The Boston Globe. 03 Nov. 2016.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

30. “Massachusetts Question 2 – Expand Charter Schools – Results: Rejected.” The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 03 May 2017.

31. Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 15). Moody’s: Vote against charter school expansion ‘credit positive’ for Massachusetts cities like Springfield.

32. Ibid.

33. Staff, G. (2016, November 02). Charter school vote may hurt credit ratings, Moody’s warns Boston, 3 other cities – The Boston Globe.

34. Ibid.

35. Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 15). Moody’s: Vote against charter school expansion ‘credit positive’ for Massachusetts cities like Springfield.

36. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

37. Hefling, K. (2016, November 04). Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

38. Why Question 2 grassroots opposition is growing. (2016, August 29). Retrieved April 28, 2017.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Shira Schoenberg. “Who Is Funding Massachusetts Question 2, on Charter School Expansion?” 05 Nov. 2016.

42. Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion, Question 2 (2016).

43. Shira Schoenberg. “Moody’s: Vote against Charter School Expansion ‘credit Positive’ for Massachusetts Cities like Springfield.” 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

44. Shira Schoenberg. “Who Is Funding Massachusetts Question 2, on Charter School Expansion?” 05 Nov. 2016.

45. Ibid.

46. Shira Schoenberg. “Moody’s: Vote against Charter School Expansion ‘credit Positive’ for Massachusetts Cities like Springfield.” 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

47. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

48. Shira Schoenberg. “Moody’s: Vote against Charter School Expansion ‘credit Positive’ for Massachusetts Cities like Springfield.” 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

49. Ibid.

50. Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion, Question 2 (2016).

51. Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 01). Teachers unions file complaint over ‘pay-to-play’ allegations involving charter school supporters.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Hefling, K. (2016, November 04). Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

56. Ibid.

57. Ryan, D. L. (2016, October 18). On charter schools, a new partisan divide – The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

58. Crookston, Paul. “Massachusetts Teachers Pressured by Union Leaders to Oppose Charter Schools.” National Review. 07 Nov. 2016.

59. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

60. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

61. Ibid.

62. Vaznis, James. “In Boston, Charter Vote Reflected Racial Divide – The Boston Globe.” 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

63. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

64. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

65. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Strauss, V. (2016, October 15). NAACP ratifies controversial resolution for a moratorium on charter schools.

70. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

71. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

72. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

73. Vaznis, James. “In Boston, Charter Vote Reflected Racial Divide – The Boston Globe.” 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

74. Ibid.

75. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

76. Vaznis, James. “In Boston, Charter Vote Reflected Racial Divide – The Boston Globe.” 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

77. Ibid.

78. Ryan, D. L. (2016, October 18). On charter schools, a new partisan divide – The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

79. “Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion, Question 2 (2016).” Ballotpedia. Web. 02 May 2017.

80. Mass. Democrats Vote To Oppose Charter School Question. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017.

81. Ibid.

82. Hefling, K. (2016, November 04). Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts. Retrieved May 03, 2017.

83. Rocheleau, Matt. “A Town-by-town Look at Income in Massachusetts – The Boston Globe.” 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 03 May 2017.

84. “Massachusetts Question 2 – Expand Charter Schools – Results: Rejected.” The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 03 May 2017.

85. Vaznis, James. “In Boston, Charter Vote Reflected Racial Divide – The Boston Globe.” 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

86. Davis, J. (2016, November 10). Crushing defeat leaves charter-school movement in limbo – The Boston Globe.

87. Ibid.

88. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

89. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

90. Education Victories Democrats Can Rally Around. (2016, November 10).

91. Good News on a Gloomy Night: Question 2 in Massachusetts Fails Overwhelmingly. (2016, November 09).

92. Jennifer Berkshire. “What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard.” Have You Heard. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

93. Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

Works Cited

Vaznis, J. (2016, November 14). In Boston, charter vote reflected racial divide – The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Blum, L. What we can learn from the Massachusetts ballot question campaign on charter school expansion. National Education Policy Center.

What Went Down in Massachusetts – Have You Heard. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Cohodes, S., & Dynarski, S. M. (2017, March 29). Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students | Brookings Institution. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Cohodes, S., & Dynarski, S. M. (2017, March 29). Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students | Brookings Institution. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Crookston, P. (2016, November 07). Massachusetts Teachers Pressured by Union Leaders to Oppose Charter Schools. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Dark Money: Pro-Charter-School Fat Cats Took A Page From Offshore Gambling Tycoons. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Davis, J. (2016, November 10). Crushing defeat leaves charter-school movement in limbo – The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Education Victories Democrats Can Rally Around. (2016, November 10). Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

GOP Senate Leader from Suburbs Wants More Charters for New York City. (2017, April 24). Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Good News on a Gloomy Night: Question 2 in Massachusetts Fails Overwhelmingly. (2016, November 09). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Hefling, K. (2016, November 04). Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Mass. Democrats Vote To Oppose Charter School Question. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion, Question 2 (2016). (n.d.). Retrieved May 02, 2017, from,_Question_2_(2016)

Massachusetts Teachers Knock Out Corporate Charter School Scheme. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

“Massachusetts Question 2 – Expand Charter Schools – Results: Rejected.” The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 03 May 2017.

Rinaldi, J. (2016, November 03). How many charter schools are too many? – The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Rocheleau, Matt. “A Town-by-town Look at Income in Massachusetts – The Boston Globe.” 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 03 May 2017.

Ryan, D. L. (2016, October 18). On charter schools, a new partisan divide – The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Staff, G. (2016, November 02). Charter school vote may hurt credit ratings, Moody’s warns Boston, 3 other cities – The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Strauss, V. (2016, October 15). NAACP ratifies controversial resolution for a moratorium on charter schools. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Why Question 2 grassroots opposition is growing. (2016, August 29). Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 15). Moody’s: Vote against charter school expansion ‘credit positive’ for Massachusetts cities like Springfield. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 01). Teachers unions file complaint over ‘pay-to-play’ allegations involving charter school supporters. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Schoenberg, S. S. (2016, November 05). Who is funding Massachusetts Question 2, on charter school expansion? Retrieved April 28, 2017, from

Is the Harlem children’s zone accomplishing its goal? Should HUD’s promise zone initiative be the future of American public education?


Schools in poor and low-income neighborhoods have often lack access to adequate educational resources and social services and may be ill equipped to provide interventions to the trauma associated with poverty. Under the Obama administration, The Department of Housing and Urban Development passed the “promise zone” initiative to improve educational outcomes for students in distressed urban and rural neighborhoods by connecting schools with local businesses and community organizers. The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), part of the impetus for the project, is a privately funded non-profit organization for poverty-stricken children and families living in Harlem, New York. It is a community-based project that provides free support to those in need with the goal of ending generational poverty. The zone, which includes parental workshops, a preschool program, charter schools, and child-oriented health programs for thousands of children and families, has stood out as the success story of effective social capital and communal cohesion. The model of HCZ poses the question of whether neighborhood zones represent a paradigm shift in modern American education and if HUD’s promise zone initiative is a sound solution to end intergenerational poverty.

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a non-profit organization for families in poverty living in Harlem, New York that provides free social, educational, and healthcare support. The HCZ is “aimed at doing nothing less than breaking the cycle of generational poverty for the thousands of children and families it serves.”[1] The organization began as the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families as New York City’s first truancy prevention program in 1970. By 1994, Rheedlen opened a Beacon center – Countee Cullen Community Center – at Public School (P.S.) 194 – for after school, weekend, and summer programming. In 2000, HCZ started “The Baby College,” a series of parenting workshops. In 2001, it introduced the “Harlem Gems” pre-school program and by 2004, it opened Promise Academy, the zone’s first charter school. Now, the project has expanded to about 100 blocks of Central Harlem and includes 3 extended-day charter schools, all-day pre-kindergarten, health clinics and community centers for adults and children, youth violence prevention programs, foster care social services, and college admissions and retention support.[2] Living up to its moniker of “cradle-to-college,” HCZ reported 96% college acceptance rate in 2016. Spurred by the success of the zone, Former President Obama launched the promise zone initiative in 2013.

In contrast the privately funded non-profit HCZ, promise zones are high poverty urban, rural and tribal communities designated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D) to connect and partner with local leaders and receive federal funding aimed at “improving educational opportunities, leveraging private investment, increasing economic activity, reducing violent crimes, enhancing public health and addressing other communal priorities.”[3] Promise zone designees receive a federal liaison to help navigate federal programs, preferences for certain competitive federal grant programs and technical assistance to manage and facilitate initiatives. The federal model attempts to replicate HCZ by encouraging community based public and partnerships between schools and educators and local businesses and corporations. For example, designees also receive tax incentives, and an opportunity to engage five AmeriCorps VISTA members. On January 9th, 2014 Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Antonio were announced as the first round promise zone designees. On April 28th, 2015, Camden; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; North Hartford; Sacramento; and St. Louis were announced as the second round designees. Finally, on June 6th, 2016, Atlanta; Nashville; Evansville; South Los Angeles; San Diego; Spokane Tribe of Indians, Washington; Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Rolette County; and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico were announced as the third and final round of designations bringing the total to 22 Promise Zones across the country.

Question – Is the Harlem children’s zone accomplishing its goal? Should HUD’s promise zone initiative be the future of American public education?

In recent years, there has been much controversy surrounding the Harlem Children’s Zone as a model for the future of education. The 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” praised the model and promoted HCZ as a model of education of which to aspire.[4] The documentary criticizes the American public education system most specifically teacher tenure, teaching standards and teacher unions and makes statistical comparisons between state, private, and charter schools. The film also stars Geoffrey Canada, who is the founder and CEO of the HCZ. A year later, the Grassroots Education Movement released the film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman accusing the former of exaggerating the success of the HCZ and bringing into light the high private revenues of the zone of which public schools cannot compete.[5] To date, HCZ has an endowment of $175 million and revenue of $75 million. Stanley Druckemiller, a former hedge fund manager and college friend of Canada, who has given over $100 million since 2006, donate most of the funds.[6] In comparison, each federally designated promise zone receives about a quarter, if that, of HCZ’s endowment over multiple years.

Comparing financial support, HCZ falls into the 10% of New York school districts. The zone spends about $16,000 per student per year at the Promise Academies and an average of $5,000 per child for the many other programs the HCZ provides outside the charter schools.[7] Slightly lower, New York City spends $14,452 per student per year. (IBID) However, HCZ does not have the highest spending per capita among school districts. The richest 10 percent of New York school districts spend $28,754 per student, much higher than the cost of educating students in the Harlem Children’s Zone and three times the national average.[8] While HCZ comes with a steep price tag, the data on district spending begs the question of what price is equitable to close the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest?

Financial differences aside, longitudinal statistic research uses HCZ as a basis to question whether neighborhood based approaches to educational achievement of low-income students work any better than conventional methods. In a study of the HCZ, Brookings posed two related but strikingly different questions about the efficacy of the zone: first, do students “who receive the full panoply of HCZ services have superior achievement to similar students who don’t receive those services” and second, did “students who received the schools-only component of the HCZ” perform as well as “students who received the full treatment?”[9] The research presumes that if HCZ works, then it must prove that students who receive all of the services and neighborhood interventions have higher achievement than similar students, even those partially involved in the zone and especially those not involved in the zone at all. The report references an experiment conducted by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer published in 2009 that compared the educational achievement of students that attended the HCZ’s oldest charter, Promise Academy, with the students who did not. Dobbie and Fryer, concluded that “the effects in middle school are enough to reverse the black-white achievement gap in mathematics” however “students outside the Zone garner the same benefit from the HCZ charter schools as the students outside the Zone.”[10] In summary, proximity didn’t show a statistically significant difference such that high-quality schools and high-quality schools coupled with community investments generate the same achievement gains.

Now, the Brookings report was limited in scope by relying on a group of students selected to participate in a lottery to attend an HCZ charter school, leaving numerous unanswered variables. When slots exceed supply, NYC charters are required to take students by lottery. Dobbie and Fryer theorized that by studying these “lottery winners” and “lottery losers” they could essentially create the conditions for a randomized experiment; however, the outcomes of these students cannot be solely held to the respective schools for a conclusive answer to the question. First, there is no assessment of various demographics – the educational background, socioeconomic status, race, disabilities, etc. – of these students prior to lottery assignments. Second, this study doesn’t measure how the zone impacts and reweaves the social fabric of Harlem, a community that has been degenerated by poverty for over a century. To reiterate, the purpose of the zone is to end intergenerational poverty and is thus aimed at various social enterprises, not just education. The results of the charter schools are merely one aspect of the Harlem community and do not present a robust analysis of the whole community impact.

Standardized test scores reveal that HCZ does not stand out among some of New York City’s charter schools. The HCZ Promise Academy I is the longest established HCZ public charter and serves elementary through high school. Comparing results from Promise Academy to the average test scores of all charters in Manhattan and the Bronx, Brookings found that “half or more of the public charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx produce test scores on state assessments that are superior to those produced by the HCZ Promise Academy,” which is true both for actual scores and scores adjusted for student demographics (percent free lunch, percent reduced lunch, percent limited English proficient, percent African American, and percent Hispanic).[11] Although HCZ appeared to perform slightly stronger in the mathematics exam, in conclusion, HCZ Promise Academy “is a middling New York City charter school.”

However to date, HCZ schools have impacted students of the Harlem community. By 2013, although no class had yet graduated from the complete cradle to college pipeline (Baby College through Promise Academy), over 900 students had been enrolled in HCZ’s College Success Office.[12] In addition, the majority of these students were in their first to third years of post-secondary schooling and 36 had graduated from two-year and four-year degree programs. Less than 10% of HCZ students had dropped out of school, which is significantly lower the national average of 43.6%. The state of New York requires high schoolers to earn a 65 on the standardized Regents exam to earn a diploma. In 2010, and 2012, Promise Academy I scored comparatively with the most competitive of NYC charter schools. “Promise Academy I’s entire 2012 graduating class scored 65 or higher (with almost half scored 85 or higher) on the English exam; 90 percent scored 65 or higher on the Geometry exam; and 96 percent scored 65 or higher on the Algebra 2 and Trigonometry exam. In 2010, 92 percent scored a 65 or higher on the Integrated Algebra exam.”[13] Finally, in the New York City Progress Report for 2011–2012, Promise Academy I placed in the 99th percentile of city high schools with the sixth-highest score in the city, boasting a 96 percent pass rate in English and 98 percent pass rate in Integrated Algebra in the New York Regents examination.

Moreover, Dobbie and Fryer do note that HCZ does make a difference. “They concluded that the Promise Academy and additional support services had effectively reversed ‘the black–white achievement gap in mathematics (HCZ students outperform the typical white student in New York City and the difference is statistically significant) and reduced it in ELA [English Language Arts].”[14] Especially at the younger levels, the researchers found statistically significant differences for Harlem students who attended and didn’t attend Promise Academy. “The effect of being enrolled at the elementary charter school on third-grade test scores—the first year that children in New York take standardized exams—is large and precisely estimated, with point estimates ranging from 1.906 to 2.039 standard deviations in math and 1.693 to 1.863 in ELA. This suggests that the HCZ elementary school impacts both math and ELA scores significantly, eliminating the race gap in both subjects.”[15] Of course, the same limitations apply for the positive and negative results of the Dobbie and Fryer study. It was based on the lottery of a single of class students in a single year, which may not reflect the performance of HCZ relative to other schools in previous school years.

Continuing, equating academic achievement with standardized test scores may only answer one piece of the puzzle. Canada responded to the formerly mentioned Brookings study and criticized its “wrong-headed take” on the Zone.[16] Mainly, he implied the failures of the study stem from its narrow analysis, which is of only one of the three charters and the lack of a longitudinal track of student growth over time. Citing the Dobbie and Fryer analysis and the Whitehurst and Croft analysis, Canada claims the latter ignores the charter schools that are outperforming Bronx and Manhattan schools and fails to include student growth at HCZ which also outperforms the boroughs.

Is it fact that HCZ Promise Academies perform on par with the upper echelon of New York City charters an indictment of its efficacy? Secondly, if yes, is that an indictment of the model as a whole? First, the Brookings report doesn’t compare HCZ charter to charters nationally or in other urban areas. It is important to consider to whom is the Zone being weighed. Second, there is inconclusive and controversial data on the ability of charters to promote educational achievement at the fundamental level due to selection and attribution biases.[17] Finally, what does ending intergenerational poverty mean and is it statistically reasonable to measure a charter that serves students in poverty to ones that may not. HCZ has a high price tag but so do some of the highest performing school districts and so, should they be targeted as well?

HCZ Promise Academy students do perform better than students of their backgrounds attending a New York City public school but the charter school at the top of the list is a KIPP school[18] which calls into comparison two different models of education and their abilities to create achievement for historically marginalized groups. Additionally, KIPP schools tend to more closely align their spending per-student to that of the surrounding district. On the other hand, the KIPP model has been around much longer and it can be argued that it may take time for HCZ to demonstrate the same level of achievement as much more established schools. But the question of how much time is enough time is a difficult one to answer.

Reforming neighborhoods and making schools the center of social service networks is certainly innovative but the data seems to be inconclusive on whether it will always work. While HCZ benefits from over $100 million in philanthropy to support its holistic approach and has seen wonderful successes, how replicable of a model is it? Can the HCZ model work in any neighborhood and its associated social services? What kinds of ingredients are required for the successful implementation of a school centered neighborhood zone? In conclusion, there doesn’t seem to be enough data to conclusively argue whether the HCZ neighborhood package “works.” Although there are noteworthy successes, it is difficult to unequivocally associate these results to HCZ exclusively.

There is quantitative data that is convenient for measuring the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone but the data is mixed and leaves many questions unanswered often telling oppositional narratives. We have only a limited basis for evaluating the Zone’s full impact. To reiterate, the Zone “works to reweave the social fabric of Harlem” and so to evaluate the Zone fully, the cumulative social impact of the organization on the entire Harlem community, not just specific results of the Zone schools ought to be measured. While academic success is an important factor in rebuilding a community, it is just one piece in the overall puzzle, not the puzzle itself. It is likely fair to say that HUD’s promise zone initiative will not be able to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone and too soon to predict whether promise zones as opposed to schools-only approaches are better.

[1] “About HCZ – Helping Kids Succeed.” Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

[2] Ibid…

[3] “Promise Zones.” HUD. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

[4] Heilemann Published Sep 6, 2010, John. “Schools: The Disaster Movie.” New York Magazine, 6 Sept. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[5] Szhamilton. “Waiting for Batman: Following the Money at the Harlem Children’s Zone.” Daily Kos. Daily Kos, 13 July 2011. Web. 03 May 2017.

[6] Callahan, David. “Who’s the Harlem Children’s Zone $100 Million Donor?” Inside Philanthropy. Inside Philanthropy, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

[7] Otterman, Sharon. “Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[8] Kellermann, Carol. “No More Aid for the Affluent.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 May 2017.

[9] Whitehurst, Grover, and Michelle Croft. “The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education | Brookings Institution.”Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[10] Ibid…

[11] Whitehurst, Grover, and Michelle Croft. “The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education | Brookings Institution.”Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

[12] Hanson, Danielle. “Assessing the Harlem Children’s Zone.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[13] Ibid..

[14] Hanson, Danielle. “Assessing the Harlem Children’s Zone.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[15] Ibid..

[16] Swaminathan, Nikhil. “Geoffrey Canada Responds to Brookings Study on Harlem Children’s Zone.” GOOD Magazine. GOOD, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 04 May 2017.

[17] Welner, Kevin G. “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment.”National Education Policy Center. N.p., 10 May 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.

[18] “CHARTER SCHOOL PERFORMANCE IN NEW YORK CITY.” (n.d.): n. pag. Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Stanford University, Jan. 2010. Web. 4 May 2017.

Teaching for Two: Public Education and Pregnant Teens

By Eliza Scruton and Emily Patton

Executive Summary

Given the well-documented negative psychosocial and economic effects on the outcomes of teenage parents (Kiselica & Pfaller, 1993; Coren et al., 2003; Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007; National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013; Einhorn, 2015), we believe it is vital that school systems offer some means of providing the resources they need to mitigate these effects. While many school districts offer no special support to teenage parents, those that do generally follow one (or sometimes both) of two models: creating a standalone school for pregnant and parenting teenagers, or providing wraparound services through mainstream schools. Currently, districts seem to be trending toward the latter model, with many alternative “pregnancy schools” across the country having closed within the past few years (Einhorn, 2015; Swaby, 2016). This trend is in part due to declining rates of teen pregnancy (Center for Disease Control, 2016) and in part due to a changing social landscape (Swaby, 2016). This essay draws on both empirical and anecdotal data to evaluate the potential impacts of this transition, and concludes that the location at which support services are provided to pregnant teens is less important than the quality and accessibility of the services themselves.



This policy report concerns the ways that public schools can provide support and resources to pregnant and parenting teenagers. In it, we highlight the advantages and drawbacks to two general models. The first of these is a model in which pregnant and parenting teens attend a separate school from their non-parenting peers, and receive the aforementioned services in the context of that school.  The second is the “wraparound services” model, wherein teenage parents receive services (such as medical care, counseling, and coordination with social workers (Swaby, 2016)) within the schools they already attend, provided by an external source.

Statistically, standalone schools for pregnant and parenting teenagers boast much higher graduation rates than the national average for this demographic; however, it remains unclear whether this type of success depends upon the standalone school model as opposed to a wraparound services model. Alternative schools provide a number of advantages, in that they provide teen mothers with a social network of their peers (Bowens, 2016) and a non-judgmental social environment (Halpern, 2011). Furthermore, their comparatively high staff-to-student ratio allows every student to receive a high level of individual attention (Halpern, 2011; Bowens, 2016). However, in many cases, pregnant teenagers opt to remain in their own schools (Orson, 2016); moreover, some have critiqued the practice of setting up alternative schools as a means to cloister teenage mothers out of sight (Einhorn, 2015), harkening back to an outdated understanding of teenage pregnancy as a social contagion (Swaby, 2016).

In order to to explore the impact of transitioning from standalone schools to wraparound services, we focus primarily on the case of the Polly T. McCabe Center in New Haven, Connecticut. McCabe, until recently, operated a brick-and-mortar school for pregnant teens, but has transitioned in the last year to offering wraparound services through other public high schools (Halpern, 2011; Swaby, 2016). Based on evidence from this school and others like it, we argue that the closing of a standalone school may be more beneficial to students provided that they continue to receive the same amount of services and resources through the wraparound program.


Teenage pregnancy in the United States today is at record lows. The CDC reports that in 2014, the birth rate for women aged 15-19 years was 24.2 per 1000 women, a 9% decrease from the previous year. This decline is consistent with overall trends since the early 1990’s, depicted in Figure 1 below, as reported by the CDC. The underlying causes of declining teenage pregnancy rates are not entirely understood, though some studies suggest that increased contraceptive use is more responsible than delayed sexual activity (Lindberg et al., 2016).

Figure 1: Trends in live births among women aged 15-19 years

Still, though, teenage pregnancy remains an important public health issue: the US has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among Western industrialized nations (CDC), and pregnancy is the leading cause of high school dropout among girls (Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007). Reports of the precise graduation rate of pregnant and parenting teenagers vary somewhat: according to a 2013 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only about 40% of teenage mothers complete high school; some report the rate slightly higher, at 50% (Einhorn, 2015). Either of these figures, though, is far lower than the national average high school graduation rate, which for public school students was 82% as of 2013 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). Because of their increased dropout rate, as well as societal stigma surrounding them and a number of other factors, teenage parents and their children are at risk of experiencing worse psychosocial and socioeconomic outcomes than their peers (Kiselica & Pfaller, 1993; Coren et al., 2003). To some extent, teenage pregnancy can be seen as a symptom of socioeconomic hardship rather than a source (Charles, 2014; Manlove, 1998): teenage pregnancy tends to follow school disengagement, as well as precede it, and rates of teenage pregnancy are far higher in areas with higher crime and poverty rates (Crane, 1991). Even after adjusting for risk factors for teen pregnancy (such as growing up in poverty or being raised by a single parent), though, the negative effects on academic performance persist (CDC). The goal of support programs for pregnant and parenting teenagers, put simply, is to buck these trends: generally speaking, programs that provide support for teenage parents seek to reduce their dropout rates, including through the prevention of further unplanned pregnancies (teenage parents of more than one child are even more likely to drop out than those with only one).

Institutional support systems for pregnant and parenting teenagers, in general, are few and far between. In the wake of declining teen pregnancy rates nationwide, many programs intended to provide support to parenting youth have been shut down (Einhorn, 2015). Nevertheless, pregnant and parenting teenagers continue to be disadvantaged in society,  and given the decline in outcomes for teenage parents, it is vital that those adolescents who do become parents receive adequate support, and are not simply swept under the rug by school districts. Many schools provide programs that focus on preventing teen pregnancy in the first place. These programs have been at least somewhat effective in increasing teen contraceptive use (Bennett & Assefi, 2005), particularly when they follow an “abstinence-plus” (as opposed to an abstinence-only) model, wherein information on contraception is included in the curriculum. Programs that provide resources to students who have already become pregnant or had children, though, are much less common: a 2012 study by the National Women’s Law Center found that only 26 states provide institutional support for pregnant and parenting teens, and only 18 explicitly disallow discrimination against teenage mothers. According to the NWLC’s study, pregnant and parenting teenagers in many schools are expelled, barred from school activities, and penalized for pregnancy-related absences.

One option for districts seeking to provide such support is to open a school designed to serve only pregnant and parenting students. In addition to services like medical care, daytime childcare, and counselling, these schools provide parenting students with a social network of other adolescent parents. In many cases, these alternative schools were founded with the intention of eventually reintegrating students into their original high schools (Orson, 2016). Some of these programs also operate through charter schools. Some of these schools, such as Pathways Academy in Detroit, provide education to their students through online courses rather than through a more traditional classroom setting (Einhorn, 2015). Students at many of these programs have cited them as a sole or significant factor in the successful completion of their high school diplomas (Konz, 2015; Skinner, 2014; Einhorn, 2015; Halpern, 2011). At the same time, though, there is some debate about the social benefits of these alternative schools. While they do provide teen mothers with a social network of their peers, some argue that cloistering teen mothers in a separate school away from their non-parenting counterparts perpetuates social stigma surrounding them (Einhorn, 2015) Programs such as these, in the context of public school districts, are not terribly common, but do exist in small number around the country.

These alternative schools are, however, dwindling in number. Several of these programs, including Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy and Baltimore’s Lawrence Paquin Middle/High School, have been shut down in recent years (Einhorn, 2015). The Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district in Kentucky is considering consolidating the Georgia Chaffee Teenage Parent Program (TAPP), which currently operates two schools, into one building in the coming years (Ross, 2015). In New Haven, the Polly T. McCabe Center recently made the transition from existing as a separate school for teen mothers to an organization that provides wraparound services through more traditional schools (Swaby, 2016). Many districts that have shut down alternative schools for pregnant students have cited budgetary concerns among their reasons for doing so (Ross, 2015; Swaby, 2016). Given the historically low rates of teen pregnancy today, it is unclear whether the benefits of running alternative schools for pregnant students are worth the added expenditures. However, monetary concerns and declining rates of teenage pregnancy are not the only reasons for the closing of many of these programs: changing societal norms also affect the demand for alternative schools for pregnant students. For example, in the case of Polly McCabe, both the laws surrounding pregnant students and the popular understanding of teenage pregnancy have changed drastically since its founding in 1966 (Swaby, 2016). At that time, pregnant students in New Haven were not allowed to attend mainstream high schools; under Title IX, this is no longer the case (Orson, 2016). Furthermore, teen pregnancy is not seen as “contagious” in the way that it once was.

Outside of alternative programs specifically for teenage parents, there are other ways for districts and states to provide resources to teenage parents, either through financial support or through subsidized services. The Connecticut Department of Education, for example, provides a program known as the Support for Pregnant and Parenting Teenagers (SPPT) grant, which operates in the five districts statewide with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy. This program more closely resembles the “wraparound services” model that New Haven’s Polly T. McCabe Center has recently transitioned to. The SPPT grant provides resources to teenage parents within existing comprehensive high schools. These services include family support, referrals to prenatal care services, child care, and parenting education. One feature of the SPPT grant, which is not generally present in programs like Pathways Academy in Detroit, JCPS’s TAPP schools, or even the Polly T. McCabe Center, is a particular focus on providing resources for teenage fathers (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015), with the goal of increasing father involvement in their children’s lives.

Wraparound services are generally provided by state or local governments, rather than by the federal government. As such, the precise nature of these wraparound services varies significantly between programs. In the case of Polly McCabe, their six-person staff includes two outreach workers and one social worker, though the center has requested funds to hire an additional outreach worker and social worker for the upcoming school year (Swaby, 2016). These staffers provide services to pregnant and parenting mothers throughout the district. Middle school students who become pregnant also have the option of receiving schooling through New Haven’s “homebound” program, wherein students who are unable to attend school (generally due to illness or expulsion) can receive up to two hours of instruction per day in their own homes (Bailey, 2014; Swaby, 2016). One issue that still remains to be fully dealt with is that of how to provide affordable childcare to parenting teenagers during the school day: in New Haven, the only mainstream school with an operating daycare facility is Wilbur Cross High School. However, the Board of Education is considering opening another facility, possibly at Hillhouse High School or the Reginald Mayo Early Childhood School. Polly McCabe also partners with the LULAC Head Start Daycare Center, which continues to operate at the site of McCabe’s standalone school. Students receiving McCabe’s wraparound services are not required to pay for the childcare their children receive through LULAC (Bowens, 2016). In addition to the resources provided to mothers, McCabe also provides outreach to teenage fathers to connect them to jobs and other services.

Analysis: Evaluating the models

There is a wealth of empirical evidence–both qualitative and quantitative–that supports the claim that alternative schools for pregnant teens can have a positive impact on not only the educational outcomes of  teen parents, but also the health outcomes of both parents and children. A study of New Haven’s Polly T. McCabe Center for Pregnant Adolescents found reduced incidence of repeat childbearing among women who enrolled at the center (Advocates for Youth, 2009). Within six years postpartum, those who did not have another child not only had higher educational attainment, but were also less likely to rely solely on public assistance to support their families (Advocates for Youth, 2009). At the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant and/or parenting teens in Baltimore City, participating students were found to have higher educational aspiration, better reproductive health outcomes, higher contraceptive use, and more breast-feeding practice and intention than those of their non-participating counterparts (Amin et al, 2006). Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy, which was in operation from 1986 through 2014, once boasted a graduation rate of 90%–a significant increase from the estimated national average of 50% (Einhorn, 2015). Other similar models have have shown students to have similar improvements in graduation and health rates (Alford, 2009, Einhorn, 2015; Halpern, 2011).

Whether these outcomes are unique to these alternative schools–or whether they could be replicated through other programs–still remains to be seen. After all, in most alternative schools, the main difference lies not in the type of facility used or even the pace or content of curriculum, but in the range of auxiliary resources and services that the school can provide, as well as the level of individual attention that each student receives from the school’s teachers and staff. This is particularly salient given the fact that the majority of the resources that alternative schools are able to provide are social services, especially when it comes to counseling. In fact, one the biggest advantages cited by both students and administrators in successful alternative schools was the degree to which the teachers and administrators could be involved in their students’ lives, both inside and outside the classroom. This high level of engagement serves to not only encourage academic achievement, but also help students overcome external barriers that might discourage them from completing their education. In an article from 2015, the principal of  the Detroit’s Pathways school described spending evenings and weekends visiting absent and prospective students (Einhorn, 2015). At other schools like Polly T. McCabe, staff members are involved in anything from helping students search for jobs to resolving interpersonal conflicts; one principal even drove a student to the hospital to give birth when her boyfriend refused to help (Halpern, 2011). This depth of involvement is enabled by the fact that alternative schools for pregnant women have a much higher staff to student ratio than other public schools. In this sense, one could argue that the key to ensuring the success of pregnant teens isn’t so much dependent on their segregation from a regular student body as it is the school’s ability to provide them with a network of support that is sufficient enough to allow them to focus on school, rather than having to navigate the difficulties of pregnancy alone.

Another way in which alternative schools alleviate pressure from their students lives is through financial support, to the extent that these schools are providing students with services and resources that they would otherwise have to pay for themselves, they offer a form of financial support. This is especially true of schools that offer child care, which can often be so prohibitively expensive that it is cheaper for young mothers to stay home rather than get a job. Other schools, like the Early Beginners Program, provide access to tangible goods including used books, maternity clothes, toys, and even weekly free diapers (Skinner, 2014). Much like counseling, these resources need not be exclusively available through a separate school facility, and could be incorporated into a wraparound services program.

The idea that students will succeed better in school when they receive more resources and attention is not exclusively applicable to pregnant women. As one journalist commented, reflecting on the success of a former McCabe student: “Perhaps she is an example of what good can come when schools don’t mainstream students with special needs; but her success may also simply indicate that any time a school system can afford to lavish attention on students who might otherwise be neglected, great things can happen.” (Halpern, 2011). It is possible that the reason why alternative schools are successful are because they are often geared towards exactly these kinds of students. Analyses of data from the National Survey of Family Growth have shown a significant correlation between socioeconomic status and teen pregnancy, with those of lower socioeconomic status being more likely to get pregnant as a teen (Hunter, 2012). Another study comparing teen mothers to their closest peers such as childless sisters or pregnant teens who had miscarried) found that the negative impact of having a child itself was marginal compared to the impact of a disadvantaged background (Halpern, 2011). In this sense, one of the most important roles of alternative schools for pregnant teens may not be mitigating the difficulties of pregnancy, but rather mitigating the obstacles of poverty.

One aspect of alternative schools that is less easily replicable in a public school setting is the community of peers that the space inherently provides. This community can serve not only as a source of positive support, but also as a shield from negative outside influences. As one McCabe student summarized: “The best thing about being [at McCabe] is that nobody judges you – nobody puts you down for being pregnant. We all understand each other; we are all going through similar situations” (Halpern, 2011). 

There is less comprehensive research and discussion on the efficacy of wraparound services compared to separate brick-and-mortar schools. The debate between the two options is centered largely on the issue of funding, with the former costing far less than the latter. In the case of Polly T. McCabe, the decision to close the school building was primarily an issue of budgetary concerns. According to New Haven’s district director of instruction, shutting down the center would mean a cost reduction of $135,306 for the principal’s salary (Swaby, 2016). The amount that the state spends annually on services for the program’s enrollees, by comparison, is $175,000 (Swaby, 2016). This money will presumably be channeled into the wraparound services which would replace the school’s official programming. In addition to cutting costs, wraparound services can also provide students with the opportunity to stay integrated in their school community, where the academic rigor and variety of course offerings may be better than their usual alternative school. This issue has come up in the debate over Polly T. McCabe, as well as other debates around the country (Konz, 2015).


For many teens around the country, teenage pregnancy can present a significant obstacle when it comes to the completion of their education. However, if these obstacles can be mitigated through public services, the odds of teenage mothers succeeding in graduation can be raised significantly. In our evaluation of these two programs, we have concluded that while schools for pregnant teens may provide teen mothers with a safe and inclusive environment in which they can navigate the difficulties of their pregnancy and impending motherhood, the success of these schools is perhaps less dependent on the fact that they are separate than it is the fact that they are well resourced. With that in mind, we do not reject the idea of wraparound services, but rather embrace them, provided that the depth and quality of these services remains the same as they would be at an original school.


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How Inclusionary Housing in Sacramento has led to Integration in Neighborhoods and Schools


“The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” That quote from a William Gibson science fiction novel is used widely in Silicon Valley to describe the technology landscape, but it applies to segregation as well. In the United States, schools are more segregated than they have ever have been despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed separate schools for all races (Millhiser, 2015). In the U.S., over one-third of black and Latino students go to schools that are over 90% non-white, while more than one-third of white students go to schools that are over 90% white (Potter & Quick, 2016). The increase in segregation stems in large part from racialized housing practices such as redlining, blockbusting, and racial covenants that have led to the segregation of neighborhoods. These discriminatory practices prevented certain people from buying homes in better areas, which determined where people lived, and as a result, led to segregation in schools as well. Neighborhood stratification led to school segregation because school attendance zones were tethered to real estate and busing-based integration efforts have declined so more students go to the school closest to them (Potter & Quick, 2016).

I will focus primarily on the Sacramento, California district and how it has tried to address these discriminatory practices from the 1900s by instituting inclusionary housing policies to fight racial and economic segregation. Sacramento has succeeded, by and large, because it is considered one of the most diverse and integrated cities in the U.S. (Silver, 2015). Time magazine asked The Civil Rights Project to name the most residentially integrated city in the U.S., and they chose Sacramento (Orfield, 2016).

I will explain how housing discrimination caused segregation in neighborhoods and in schools and how Sacramento’s commitment to creating more affordable housing has had a positive effect in Sacramento on not only its neighborhoods but on the schools as well. By focusing on getting rid of neighborhood segregation, Sacramento has also succeeded in increasing the diversity in schools. In California, Sacramento has the most integrated large public school districts (Orfield, 2016).

While other research has examined how integrated Sacramento is as a city, this report is unique because it ties Sacramento’s focus on desegregating neighborhoods with desegregation in schools. Also, this report will examine the racial demographics in Sacramento public schools and the surrounding county in context with other cities to show how its diversity in neighborhoods is carrying over to the schools and how Sacramento can be an example.

Sacramento may turn out to be the future for school inclusion, once that future gets a bit more widely distributed.


Housing Discrimination

Throughout the 1900s, the U.S. government, realtors, and banks conspired against minorities in a multitude of ways to prevent them from living in certain areas. One example of this is redlining, where banks disproportionately denied black people loans and mortgages so that they couldn’t afford to buy a home. Neighborhoods where black people lived were colored in red and were deemed ineligible for support for the Federal Housing Administration. An example of Chicago in 1939 where an entire area was considered to be minority housing is shown below. Blacks were denied services because of raising prices and because people wanted to maintain the current ethnic composition of the area that would be primarily white (Coates, 2014).

Another practice was blockbusting, where realtors would essentially encourage “white flight.” They would sell a home to a black person in an area and then encourage the white people in the area to move. The realtor would buy it from a white family for a relatively low price and then would charge much more than market rate when selling to a black person, because they may not have had any other options (Coates, 2014). The final discriminatory housing practice that I’ll mention (though there are many more), is racial covenants. This was a legal way to prevent blacks from living in an area, because neighborhoods could band together and prevent blacks from moving into the neighborhood by agreeing not ever sell their home to a black person. For example, by 1940 in Chicago and Los Angeles, 80% of properties had racial covenants (Fair Housing Center, 2010).

Neighborhood Segregation Effects

These methods to prevent blacks from living in white neighborhoods resulted in the segregation of neighborhoods that have had crippling effects for minorities in the U.S, such as increased poverty, poorer health, and higher exposure to violent crime (Bethea 2013). One of the main effects of neighborhood segregation is the segregation of schools. School districts lines tend to be drawn to reflect the neighborhoods and can be segregated by race, as transportation from one school district to another is costly and not time-efficient. Segregated schools tend to lead to better schools for white students and often impoverished schools that don’t have the same resources for minorities (Walsemann, 2010). There have also been shown to be many benefits of racially integrated schools such as obviously allowing minorities to get the same opportunities as white students but also to socialize students and prepare them for a diverse workforce where employers value people who can work with others from diverse cultural backgrounds (Stuart, 2016). In addition, a report found that, “researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.” To be sure, there are some drawbacks about promoting the integration of schools, such as the fact that the onus is often placed on minority students and their families to be the ones doing the integrating, and they often have to leave the comfort of their own schools to go to a new school with new people. But, promoting neighborhood integration means that minority students won’t have to travel a long ways to get to a quality school – instead, their neighborhood school will be diverse and likely of better quality.

History in Sacramento

Sacramento, California is one of the cities in the U.S. that is actively trying to address segregated neighborhoods by introducing an inclusionary housing policy. Sacramento passed the Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance in 2000 that applied to all residential developments over nine units in “new growth areas” (Brunick, 2004). The ordinance requires that 15% of all units by affordable housing. The goal is to fight racial and economic segregation by allowing mid-to-low income families to purchase homes in a multitude of areas.

This inclusionary housing policy in Sacramento has contributed to Sacramento becoming one of the most diverse and integrated cities in the U.S, and other large cities could follow their model (Silver, 2015). Sacramento was considered the third most diverse city in the U.S. from a citywide level, the most diverse city from a neighborhood level, and the second most diverse city from an integration standpoint, as shown in the graph below (Silver, 2015).

This graph is from FiveThirtyEight. Sacramento is in the top-right quadrant, which means it has high neighborhood and citywide diversity scores – Sacramento is both diverse and integrated.

Inclusionary Housing in Sacramento

Sacramento decided to adopt an inclusionary housing ordinance in large part because of the affordable housing crisis and to counteract the legal discriminatory practices from the 1900s. In the late 1900s, house prices skyrocketed, as “the cost of a new home nearly tripled and the cost of an existing home nearly doubled” because of high demand for homes, scarcity of available land, and a low supply of houses (Padilla, 1995). The average sales prices of homes increased at a faster rate than the average family income did; from 1994-2003, the average family income increased by 44.6%, but the average sales price of a home increased by 101.5% (Basolo & Scally, 2008).

Sacramento adopted the Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance on October 3, 2000. The main aspect is that it required 15% of new housing projects to be affordable housing for lower-income families. Some other aspects of the ordinance are: it applies to residential projects of 10 or more dwellings, 5% must be low income units and 10% must be very low income unites, developments of 50% or more of inclusionary housing can’t be located next to one another, and the design of inclusionary units needs to be compatible with the other units (Sacramento City Council, 2015).

The idea behind inclusionary housing in Sacramento is that by having more mixed-income and diverse communities, lower-income workers can own a home near where their jobs are, and their kids can live near good, quality schools that have a history of performing well academically (Garvin, 2015). In this way, low-income families can afford houses in already very good neighborhoods, which will build equity over time.

The Need for Inclusionary Housing

The outright housing discrimination in the U.S.that led to neighborhood inequality was banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that addressed issues of, for example, redlining, blockbusting, and forming racial covenants. It deemed these practices to be unconstitutional and tried to make sure the buyer or renter could get access to affordable housing (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015). While these practices were made illegal, the damage had been done, and neighborhoods have remained segregated since then. There have been very few policy efforts to address the segregation problem in the U.S., as “housing policy in the United States appears to be in a protracted, transformative period that combines a lack of strong federal leadership with continued reliance on increasingly uncertain federal funding” (Basolo and Scally, 2008). This may be the case because many politicians are uncomfortable talking about race and don’t want to acknowledge the rampant inequality in neighborhoods around the country.

As stated in a UCLA report on segregation in California, “Housing segregation is a root cause of school segregation. Any long-term policy to foster increased and lasting school integration must determine how to enforce fair housing and affordable housing policies more effectively” (Orfield, 2014).

Inclusionary Housing in Sacramento and its School Districts

We can see the benefits of inclusionary housing with the effects that it has had on the neighborhoods in Sacramento, because of how integrated Sacramento is as a city. Show below is a graph (using this tool) of the downtown Sacramento area, where each dot represents an ethnicity. A blue dot is white, a green dot is black, a red dot is asian, and an orange dot is hispanic. The darker the dot, the more concentrated a certain population is in that area. While there are certain areas that seem to be primarily one race, such as the red section in the middle, the city as a whole appears very diverse. In fact, Sacramento is the most integrated major city in the U.S. (Silver, 2015). It’s a city where every race is in the minority. Sacramento County is 12.7 percent Black, 13.5% Asian, 30.7% Hispanic, 32.4% White, and 10.3% other.

Data Analysis

The desegregated neighborhoods have had the effect of making the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) one of the most diverse and desegregated in the U.S in terms of the wide range of students they serve (Rutherford, 2013). The SCUSD is made up of public schools in the area and serves 36.5% Hispanic students, 18.6% white students, 19.1% Asian students, 18% black students, and 5.3% multiracial students (Rutherford, 2013). These numbers show the wide range of students who attend public schools in Sacramento. The one caveat is that the Hispanic population is somewhat overrepresented in the public schools, and the white population is somewhat underrepresented, which is shown in the graphs below.

Even though there is a difference (15.9%) in the percentage of white students who attend the Sacramento public schools (18.6%) and the white percentage of the population (34.5), it is much smaller than in other major cities. This may be a result of Sacramento’s focus on a move toward integrating neighborhoods.

Below, I look at two other cities (Chicago and Baltimore) to show how the disparity between the percentage of white students in public schools versus the percentage of white people in the population in Sacramento is much less than these three cities that have fairly high levels of neighborhood segregation. The population numbers of Sacramento, Chicago, and Baltimore are from the 2010 U.S. Census.


As seen in the map, the neighborhoods in Chicago are very segregated. And, the percentage of white students who attend the public schools in Chicago is much less than the white makeup of the city as a whole. Shown below are two pie charts that show the difference (CPS).

This shows that the number of white students in Chicago (9.9%) is disproportionately low to the number of white people in Chicago (39%). The reason for the disparity in white students in the public schools may because because of the segregated nature of the neighborhoods and schools in Chicago.


Again, Baltimore is shown above to be a very segregated city. And, the number of white students in Baltimore (7.9%) is disproportionately low to the number of white people in Baltimore (962%).

This effect is also seen somewhat in Sacramento but to a much lesser extent, which shows that Sacramento may be on the right path with the inclusionary housing policy.

Benefits of Integration in Schools

In Sacramento, the fact that the neighborhoods and schools are very desegregated has positive effects for the school and for the students. Diversity in Sacramento schools has cognitive, social, and emotional benefits for students, because the students get a chance to interact with a multitude of people from a variety of backgrounds (Wells, 2016). Diversity in schools also has purported benefits in the workforce, as one study found that 96% of major employers say that it’s important for employees to be “comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds” (Wells, 2016). Diversity in schools allows students to interact with people of different backgrounds, which will help prepare them socially for the future.

Effects of Desegregation in Sacramento Schools

It is hard to know what exactly the benefits of integration have been so far, since the inclusionary housing policy has only been in place since 2000. But, there are still some signs that the Sacramento City School District is improving – student test scores moved up substantially on the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) from 2011-2012 (SCUSD, 2012). English Language Learners, in particular, has the greatest improvement as a demographic by moving up 15 points in API to above the state average for ELL students. These are just a couple example of improvements in Sacramento schools. It will be important to follow the progress in Sacramento over the next couple of decades to see how the schools fare academically and socially to see if the neighborhood effects of desegregation can carry over to the schools.


One potential solution for integrated neighborhoods is the inclusionary housing policies that have been voluntarily adopted more and more by cities in California. They are needed because of the rising housing costs in the U.S. that are making it harder for impoverished families to buy good houses in good areas. The main purported benefit of inclusionary housing policies has been to make neighborhoods more diverse both economically and racially (Basolo & Scally, 2010). To be sure, there have also been potential negative effects of inclusionary housing such as the supply of homes may go down because the developers may lose incentive to build and construction activity would be reduced and then affordable houses wouldn’t be built. But, there has been no empirical data to show that this is the case.

Overall, inclusionary housing policies in Sacramento have had the effect of making Sacramento one of the most integrated cities in the U.S. The change has been recent, so it is hard to know for certain whether or not the effect will carry over fully to schools. But, there has been some positive changes in the Sacramento school district schools that signifies that focusing on housing policies may be the solution.

The inclusionary housing model has been successful in Sacramento and can be expanded and applied to many more large cities around the U.S. We need more people to be aware of the segregation problem in neighborhoods and in schools in order to fix the rampant problem. With awareness comes more ideas for solutions, and we can start with inclusionary housing practices. By looking at the example in Sacramento, we can make this desegregated and integrated future real everywhere across the United States.

Works Cited

Basolo, V., & Scally C. (2008). State innovations in affordable housing policy: Lessons from California and New Jersey, Housing Policy Debate, 19:4, 741-774

Bethea, B. J. (2013, November 6). Effects of segregation negatively impact health | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Brunick, N. (2004). Inclusionary Housing: Proven Success in Large Cities. Zoning Practice: American Planning Association, (10).

City Schools at a Glance. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Coates, T. (2014, June). The Case for Reparations. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

CPS Stats and Facts . (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Garvin, C. (2015, July 23). ‘Segregation’ will happen if the city of Sacramento ditches inclusionary housing – Bites – Opinions – July 23, 2015. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Millhiser, I. (2015, August 13). American Schools Are More Segregated Now Than They Were In 1968, And The Supreme Court Doesn’t Care, from

Padilla, L. (1995). Reflections on Inclusionary Housing and Renewed Look at its Viability. Hofstra Law Review 23(3), 539-626.

Potter, H., Quick, K., & Davies, E. (2016). A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from

Orfield, G., & EE, J. (2014). Segregating California’s Future: Inequality and Its Alternative 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education. The Civil Rights Project.


Sacramento City Unified School District. (2012, October 16). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Silver, N. (2015, May 1). The Most Diverse Cities Are Often The Most Segregated, from

Stuart Wells, A., Fox, L., & Codova-Cobo, D. (2016, February 09). How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

U. (2015, August 6). Fair Housing Act. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

U. (n.d.). United States Census: Quick Facts. Retrieved from

T. (2010). 1920s–1948: Racially Restrictive Covenants. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Walsemann, K. M., & Bell, B. A. (2010). Integrated Schools, Segregated Curriculum: Effects of Within-School Segregation on Adolescent Health Behaviors and Educational Aspirations. American Journal of Public Health, 100(9), 1687–1695.

Getting There is Half the Battle: How the College Advising Corps is Bridging the College Access Divide

Executive Summary

Underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation high school students face unique challenges when applying for college and financial aid. With a current average caseload of nearly 500 students, however, school counselors are unable to provide them with the necessary support. In order to help school counselors guide more students through the complex journey to college, the National College Advising Corps (CAC) places recent college graduates–most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves–in public high schools across the country. CAC not only addresses the class and racial disparities in college access, but also builds a pipeline of future leaders in school counseling and higher education administration. CAC’S meticulous program design and thoughtful branding make it an instructive model for other college access programs and advocates.


At the beginning of each school year ask almost any high school senior what causes them the most stress, and more often than not the response will be “applying to college.” With increasingly competitive admissions rates and seemingly boundless sticker prices on higher education, the college application cycle has come to instill fear in high school students and their families. After all, the stakes are high. Economists and policymakers consistently cite a college degree as the key to better employment prospects and higher wages. For instance, a Pew Research Center study recently found that college-educated millennials earn $17,500 more on average than their peers with only a high school diploma (“The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” 2014). The economic premium of a college education is even greater for low-income students. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, without a college degree children born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have a 5% chance of reaching the top fifth of the income ladder as adults. With a college degree, their chance of significant upward mobility more than triples to 19% (Isaacs, Sawhill, & Haskins, 2008).

The drive for more students to obtain a college degree, however, overlooks the immense difficulty of getting to college in the first place. There are several moving parts of the application process that are difficult for students to juggle all by themselves. From writing personal statements, securing letters of recommendation and identifying colleges with the proper fit, to applying for financial aid, student loans and scholarships, preparing for and applying to college are daunting to say the least.

Applying to college is especially daunting for minority, low-income, and first-generation students, who may not have the resources or support outside of school to navigate the complex application process. They often must rely on in-school supports such as their school guidance counselors. But with the average student-to-school-counselor ratio in our nation’s public schools fast approaching 500-to-1, counselors are stretched too thin to provide the necessary college advising to students struggling to map out their postsecondary plans. Additionally, school counselors consistently report that they receive inadequate training in college and career admissions and college affordability (National Office of School Counselor Advocacy, 2012). The sobering result is the underenrollment of qualified students from underrepresented backgrounds in four-year colleges and universities. Currently only 45% of students in the bottom income quartile enroll in postsecondary education, compared with 81% of students in the top quartile (Cahalan & Perna, 2015).

Several programs have started to address this college access gap by offering robust mentoring services and scholarships to high-achieving low-income, minority, and first-generation students. Prominent examples include QuestBridge, Matriculate, the Gates Millennium Scholarship and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. These programs represent noble efforts to ensure that the most promising students receive a college education, but their “cream-skimming” practices largely disregard the majority of academically weaker but equally disadvantaged students. In light of the severe school counselor shortage, many of these students resort to facing the college application process alone.

This report is a case study of a national nonprofit aiming to help those who have been left behind. Founded in 2005, the National College Advising Corps (CAC) sends recent college graduates, many of whom are minority, low-income or first-generation themselves, into public high schools across the country to provide school counselors with additional college counseling support. CAC serves a dual purpose of 1) fostering a college-going culture among all students, regardless of circumstance, and 2) giving its college advisers the experience to become future leaders in school counseling and higher education administration. This report will first situate CAC within the current landscape of school counseling in America’s public high schools. It will then analyze the program’s impact, distinctive features, limitations and potential for expansion in order to highlight CAC’s instructive value to other college access programs and advocates.

Knowledge is Power: The role of college counseling in closing the information gap

A critical determinant of whether students apply to and enroll in college is adequate information about the application process. Students from wealthy families usually face few barriers to obtaining such information. Not only do they frequently attend schools with strong college-going cultures and support networks, but they also have the means to afford private counselors to supplement their in-school counseling services (Avery, Howell, & Page, 2014). High-income students with friends and family members who attended college themselves are thus at a significant advantage in the college application process.

Underrepresented student populations tend to be less well-informed for a variety of reasons. Both low-income and first-generation students face the additional challenge of applying for financial aid and understanding which colleges offer sufficiently generous packages (Kuh et al., 2006). They are also more likely to attend schools and live in neighborhoods where the college-going culture and recruitment efforts are not as strong (Hoxby & Avery, 2012). In addition, first-generation students do not have parents who attended college to guide them through the process. Instead they rely on easily accessible information such as online rankings since traveling to visit college campuses for information sessions and interviews is cost-prohibitive (McDonough et al. 1998). Unfortunately these sources of information are extremely blunt instruments that cause students to misperceive the academic, socioemotional, and financial fit of a college.  Educators may also be less supportive of underrepresented students throughout the college admissions process due to their race, as research shows that teachers systematically expect lower academic achievement from students of color (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016).

School counselors are uniquely positioned to ensure that students, particularly those belonging to underrepresented groups, are fully informed about college admissions and affordability. One study shows that visiting a school counselor significantly predicts increased college application rates for high school students. Furthermore, according to a study based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey, an additional high school counselor is associated with a 10% increase in 4-year college enrollment (Hurwitz & Howell, 2014).

Overextended and underutilized: Why school counselors are falling short

Counselors are enthusiastic about promoting college-and-career-readiness within their schools. Nearly three-quarters of school counselors believe they should prioritize giving students an “early understanding of application and admissions processes” (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2011). Even though school counselors can and want to play an important role in closing the information gap and improving college access for disadvantaged students, however, many fail to do so.

The first and foremost reason why is that school counselors, on average, face caseloads of over 450 students per counselor. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a student-to-school-counselor ratio of no more than 250-to-1 (“The Role of the School Counselor). This presents an enormous challenge for counselors to develop meaningful one-on-one relationships with students and help guide each student through the college admissions process. Even though school districts would like to expand their counseling staffs, financial constraints prevent administrations from remedying counselor shortages (Karp, 2017).

It is also striking to note how students of color and low-income students bear the greatest costs of counseling understaffing:

School counselors are also unable to provide the proper support for students applying to college because their school administrators require them to perform extraneous tasks unrelated to college counseling, such as creating the master class schedule and administering standardized tests. On average, counselors at public high schools devote less than a quarter of their time to “postsecondary admission counseling” (“School Counselors: Literature and Landscape Review,” 2011). In a recent survey of high school counselors, 58% expressed the desire for more time dedicated to “helping students navigate the college application and financial aid processes” (The College Board 2012 National Survey of School Counselors and Administrators, 2012).

School counselors are often the primary college advising resource for underrepresented students and have the potential to play a crucial role in improving their postsecondary outcomes. Currently, however, they are stretched too thin and over-burdened with other responsibilities. Given that understaffing of school counselors is largely a funding problem, how do we increase access to college counseling services for underrepresented students in the short-run?

Killing Two Birds with One Stone: The National College Advising Corps

Founded in 2005 by CEO Dr. Nicole Hurd, the National College Advising Corps (CAC) is a unique college access initiative that provides widespread access to college counseling services for minority, low-income, and first-generation students. CAC places recent college graduates from 24 partner universities into public high schools across the country. These college graduates are tasked with fostering a college-going culture within their school communities and acting as advisers to students navigating the complex process of college admissions, financial aid, and matriculation (College Advising Corps). CAC advisers must attend an intensive four- to six-week summer training program before they begin working, where they learn from experts about the nuances of the college application process, such as SAT/ACT fee waivers and FAFSA. Advisers commit a maximum of two years to serving in their assigned schools. There are currently over 500 advisers serving high school students in 15 different states (March 2016 Member Spotlight: College Advising Corps, 2016).

States where CAC Advisers work

Since its conception, CAC has served over 600,000 students in both rural and urban high schools. An independent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University analyzed the effectiveness of CAC advisers in Texas and found positive results across several performance indicators (Bettinger et al., 2010):

CAC has also recently added a supplemental program to their in-school college counseling model called College Point eAdvising, which mimics other virtual advising models by providing remote support to high-achieving, low-income students. While the Stanford report only verified the benefits of CAC advisers on the ground, this eAdvising feature clearly allows CAC to cast an even wider net and guide more students through the college application and financial aid process.

Furthermore, Dr. Nicole Hurd envisions CAC as “a double bottom line program” that creates a new generation of education leaders (Hurd, 2016). Key higher education policy debates surrounding financial aid reform, student debt management and loan forgiveness, and the academic and social experiences of first-generation and undocumented students in college have much to gain from school and college counselors who have worked with students on the ground. CAC is thus able to kill two birds with one stone: 1) helping underrepresented students gain access to postsecondary education opportunities, and 2) creating a pipeline of school counselors and leaders into education.

Recipe for Success: What sets CAC apart from the crowd

In addition to achieving impressive results and encouraging more college graduates to consider a career in education, CAC has several features in its design that distinguish it from other college access programs.

First of all, CAC is non-selective with regards to academic achievement. In other words, it does not only provide college counseling services to high-achieving underrepresented students. While programs that do so presumably narrow their focus in order to concentrate its efforts on a smaller demographic, CAC recognizes the value of every student regardless of circumstance and realizes that there are equally valuable alternatives to prestigious four-year universities, such as community college and professional training programs. The fact that CAC has managed to maintain high-quality college advising services at such a large scale is arguably its greatest asset.

CAC’s near-peer mentoring model also gives it a distinct advantage over solely virtual advising platforms. Living within their school communities allows advisers to establish more trust and sustained relations with not only their students, but also their students’ families. In fact, in New York and Detroit, CAC has begun piloting initiatives focused on increasing parent engagement in their child’s journey to college. The power of near-peer mentoring is greatly enhanced by CAC’s prioritization of a diverse advising corps. Over two-thirds of CAC advisers were either low-income or first-generation themselves when they applied to college (Hurd, 2016). It is especially important for college counselors to share a similar background with their advisees because it allows advisers to understand which postsecondary opportunities will best allow their students to thrive academically, socially, culturally, and financially.

Lastly, CAC incorporates details in its design that sometimes go ignored by other college access programs. For instance, whereas education policy is largely biased toward urban schools, advisers serve in both urban and rural settings. CAC also includes college persistence among its performance indicators, which refers to the proportion of students who continue their college education beyond the first year. College persistence is often overlooked but is becoming an increasingly important statistic because policymakers realized that focusing only on matriculation was insufficient if students later dropped out of school. The Stanford evaluation of CAC concluded that 74% of students who met with a CAC adviser and enrolled in college persisted through to their second year (College Advising Corps).

Counseling for America? Potential shortcomings of CAC

CAC is one of several initiatives that replicates Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp that places recent college graduates in schools for two years. TFA has come under fire for diverging from its original mission of addressing the nationwide teacher shortage and instead sending corps members to schools with adequate staffing, thereby causing competition with and even displacing veteran district teachers (Brewer, 2016). Critics of TFA also point to the detrimental effects of teacher turnover and insufficient training at the expense of student outcomes (Blanchard, 2013). Furthermore, more experienced educators and policymakers lament the proliferation of alternative certification pathways like TFA because they believe they de-professionalize teaching even further (Milner, 2013).

While CAC mirrors TFA’s two-year placement model, it differentiates itself from TFA in two important ways. In terms of program design, CAC is the formal employer of its advisers, meaning its partnering school districts do not need to allocate funds for an additional staff member. Moreover, CAC does not brand itself as a corps of lone saviors. CAC emphasizes that advisers supplement, rather than supplant, existing high school counseling staff, thus helping the school assist more students (“March 2016 Member Spotlight: College Advising Corps,” 2016).

That said, CAC must be careful about contributing to the de-professionalization of school counseling and make greater efforts to explicitly recognize the opportunity costs of forgoing traditional certification. If advisers aim to become a career counselor, CAC needs to acknowledge that earning an accredited degree is necessary for counselors to understand their students’ holistic development and to craft more personalized and beneficial postsecondary education plans.


CAC has several opportunities to expand the scope of its impact in the short term. The organization should continue partnering with more colleges and universities to incentivize a larger pool of college graduates to pay it forward to high school seniors. CAC might also consider broadening its advising services to middle school students, as problems such as low academic performance and financial need arise much earlier than high school. CAC should also extend its performance indicators to include student debt and college persistence rates beyond the second year, which are necessary to understand students’ longer-term postsecondary success. In all, though, over the past decade CAC has made strides toward the goal of helping more underrepresented high school students across the nation apply to and enroll in college.

The college access divide is a multifaceted issue that will require more than one solution in order to fix. CAC represents one such solution that allows more disadvantaged students to reap the lifelong economic and personal benefits of attending college. Looking ahead, however, independent non-profit organizations such as CAC cannot close the college access gap by themselves. College access advocates need to develop long-term structural solutions to these disparities such as equitable school finance laws and more generous financial aid policies.

It is also imperative that educators, postsecondary institutions, and policymakers look beyond college completion as the ultimate goal. College completion is a worthy goal to strive for, but we as a nation must realize that underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students face several barriers to entry. Fortunately, although getting to college is half the battle, each year more and more students can count on the College Advising Corps for support every step of the way.


Thank you to Professor Mira Debs and Clare Kambhu for their mentorship this semester, and to Elijah Mas, Sara Harris, and Emily Patton for their insightful edits.

Works Cited

Avery, Christopher, Howell, Jessica S., Page, Lindsay. (2014). A Review of the Role of College Counseling, Coaching, and Mentoring on Students’ Postsecondary Outcomes. College Board. Retrieved 3 May 2017 from

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Blanchard, Olivia. (2013). I Quit Teach for America. The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 May 2017 from

Brewer, Jameson T. (2016). Teach for America: Lies, Damned Lies, and Special Contracts. Huffpost. Retrieved 3 May 2017 from

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Understanding the dyslexic drop-out: why students with learning disabilities graduate at a lower rate than their peers

Executive Summary

There are mixed messages about dyslexia. It is simultaneously true that 50% of NASA employees (Dyslexia Awareness) and 85% of prison inmates (Coalition for Literacy) are dyslexic. And, while researchers estimate that 1 in 5 Americans has a form of the learning disability (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity), it does not play a prominent role in discussions of education policy or practice. Recent waves of activism in the learning disability (LD) community has promoted the message of untapped success for students with disabilities like dyslexia. They have heralded Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci as their proof, identifying known traits which indicate some level of dyslexia. Many modern-day celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Keira Knightley, have also advocated for the rights of students with learning disabilities by talking about their struggles in the education system. In 2012, The New York Times published an article titled “The Upside of Dyslexia,” which advocated for research that found “people with dyslexia have skills that are superior to those of typical readers.” (Paul, 2012) However, while the research she references provides promising knowledge to those with the disability, it does not incorporate the attached social and educational challenges. Having dyslexia, or another learning disability, is still stigmatized and misunderstood in many school districts, and many public schools do not have the resources or knowledge to educate students that require additional accommodations adequately. These combined forces have contributed to a staggering drop-out rate for students with special educational needs. However, little attention is given to accurately understanding and attacking the problem. While other research has identified the reasons why students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are susceptible to dropping out of high school, this paper will contribute information about the difficulties of students with learning disabilities and the reasons why they are prone to join the drop-out epidemic.


In 2013, data from the Department of Education indicated that students with disabilities only graduated from high school at a rate of 62% compared to the national average of 81%. (Diplomas Count, 2015) This data encompasses a broad range of disabilities, not just dyslexia, but it is an important starting point for understanding the linkage between disabilities and dropout rates.[1] Dyslexia is exceptionally common – around half of individuals with learning disabilities have dyslexia – and is related to other forms of learning and behavioral difficulties. There are known links between ADHD and dyslexia, as well as issues with executive functioning, slow processing, auditory processing and visual processing (Dyslexia Research Institute). The National Center for Education Statistics states that, in the 2012-2013 graduation year (the same year examined in the data above), students with registered disabilities made up 12.9% of total enrollment (NCES, 2016). 14.8% of these disabilities could be identified as physical disabilities, whereas the other 85.2% incorporate a learning difficulty. (NCES, 2016)

Figure 1, Data from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014). Chapter 2.

In the data set provided to the NCES, the categories of disability are broad. Even this refined data set does not provide much more information about the number of students experiencing learning disabilities in high school, nor does it indicate whether or not health complications and physical disabilities contribute to the dropout statistics. The lack of answers here should provoke more research. But, given the lack of students with disabilities in higher education – researchers predict only 34% of students with dyslexia will graduate from college within eight years (NLTS2, 2011) – there have been few people who have been paying enough attention to notice and ask questions. Therefore, the study of dropout rates for students with disabilities must proceed with insufficient data.

Even without complete data, there is still striking evidence that students with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, are dropping out of school at much higher rates than other demographic subgroups. Figure 2 shows that, except students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities graduate at the lowest rate.

Figure 2, Diplomas Count 2015

Much attention is given to the disparities between race when it comes to drop-out rates, and it is evident from Figure 2 why this would be the case. This research can be beneficial in understanding the dropout rate for students with disabilities, for two particular reasons. First, the theories about why students drop out of high school point to trends which exist for students with learning disabilities as well, even in the manifest differently. Second, low-income students and students of color are referred to behavioral and learning specialists at a much higher rate than their peers. These two reasons can help form a greater understanding of why the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities continues to be high even when there is improvement elsewhere. The data from which this graph was created also divides by state, indicating state disparities in the education of students with disabilities. In all states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was lower than the state-wide graduation rate. Rural states tended to have the greatest difference between graduation rates. Most notably, in Mississippi, students with disabilities only graduated at a rate of 23%, compared to a state-wide rate of nearly 80% (Diplomas Count 2015). Furthermore, the states with greater gaps in graduation rates already are known for their under-resourced public school systems, which would also imply that their resources for students with learning disabilities are likely also below par. These hypotheses require further research but are certainly worth considering.

Figure 3, Diplomas Count 2015

Before delving into some of the reasons why these students may be experiencing this dropout rate more than their peers, one must clarify the definition of a learning disability. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term “specific learning disability” is used to identify a disorder with the following description.

A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. (20 U.S.C. § 1401 (30))

Specific learning disorders also appear in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was last revised in 2013. The DSM-V description provides another way to identify the disabilities.

Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing, or mathematics. The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living. Specific learning disorder is diagnosed through a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational, and family history, reports of test scores and teacher observations, and response to academic interventions. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

As these descriptions determine, experiencing a learning disability is neither a choice nor a sure indicator of intelligence. However, not much is known about their origin. Progress has been made in determining specific genetic factors which can contribute to learning disabilities, explaining similarities among members of the same family. Other research suggests prenatal or maternal injury can be a contributing factor, as can traumatic injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to substances like lead (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014). Inadequate teaching cannot cause learning disabilities, nor are learning disabilities a prescription for a negative schooling experience. The research proves exactly the opposite.

Learning disabilities are not a prescription for failure. With the right kinds of instruction, guidance, and support, there are no limits to what individuals with LD can achieve. (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014)

Despite this message, students with learning disabilities continue to drop out of high school and struggle in the public-school system.

Evidence: Why students with disabilities drop out

It is not necessarily the learning disability itself that causes the high drop out rate. As Annie Paul argued in her New York Times opinion article, “The Upside of Dyslexia,” many gifts come from the dyslexic brain. However, the issue comes when teachers do not know how to hone these gifts. New York City public school teacher Mary Beth Crosby Carroll wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to “The Upside of Dyslexia.” In her letter, she pondered, “it makes you wonder how many scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and writers we have lost because they failed early on in school and no one knew how to tap into their talents and teach them how to read.” This is the unfortunate reality for many students with dyslexia. They drop out before they can realize their potential. Dr. Robert Balfanz, in his research at John Hopkins University and coiner of the term “dropout factories,” identified four main reasons why students drop out of high school. His research incorporates all students and focuses more on race than on students with learning disabilities, but his framework can be used in this case as well.

  1. Life Events
  2. Fade Outs – those who stop seeing a reason for coming to school
  3. Push Outs – those who are encouraged, some more subtly than others, to withdraw from school. This can be for a myriad of reasons, but more often than not, it’s because a child is perceived to be “difficult, dangerous or detrimental.”
  4. Failing to Succeed

These reasons interact and overlap, and are not designed to be prescriptive. The written and researched experiences of students with dyslexia indicate that they fall into the latter three categories. This next portion of the paper will look at these three categories and examine why students with learning disabilities find themselves in these categories, and determine whether there is anything that can be done to solve these problems.

Fade Outs

Diagnosis, or the lack of it, in public schools remains a major problem, and is a primary contributor to students “fading out.” The Dyslexia Research Institute estimates that although 1 in 5 Americans likely has dyslexia, only 5% are diagnosed. Even fewer are diagnosed during their elementary education years. So, by the time students reach high school, they have learned poor coping mechanisms for their dyslexia and struggle in silence, or they continue to struggle academically and incur low self-esteem as a result. In Family Education, a blog site for parents, Betsy Van Dorn provides tips for parents of high school students with dyslexia. She writes that one of the biggest problems for getting students diagnosed with dyslexia is that “distractibility, dreaminess and lack of motivation are age-typical behaviors, [and] it’s not always easy to separate real learning problems from adolescent angst.” (Van Dorn) The challenge of not being recognized and appropriately diagnosed can build up stress within a student that can lead to apathy towards their education and thus cause them to fade out. This is not an issue of schools being ill-intentioned or intentionally bias towards students with learning disabilities. The lack of diagnosis can occur for lots of reasons.

Most schools are not able to administer a complete language processing evaluation, and outsourcing it can be expensive. Therefore, referring someone to a testing center requires confidence from the part of the teacher, or the parent. Teachers need to be sure that they can accurately discern the difference between a student with a learning disability and a student who is struggling to keep up, or a student who will learn in time. It is not always the case that the dyslexic student will be the one at the bottom of the class, as their academic challenges may manifest in different ways. Schools that do provide some form of evaluation are not always able to formalize a diagnosis. Sandie Blackley, speech-language pathologists and co-founder of Lexercise, wrote in a blog post some of the reasons why these forms of evaluation are insufficient. She writes that the lack of diagnosis can make it difficult for teachers, parents and the student themselves to understand what their specific differences are, and how to move forward. The standard measure of evaluation in public schools, from the psychoeducational perspective, is to measure IQ and academic achievement and determine if there is a gap. The difference is interpreted as a learning disability, for it indicates a difficulty in expressing one’s IQ in achievement. However, the evaluation will not provide a course of study, and may not even identify all students. This process is lengthy and demands a lot on the student. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some students would choose to drop out of school or remain undiagnosed.

The “fade out” phenomenon can be linked to lack of diagnosis because of the challenging experience it creates for a student in the classroom. In an article published by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, teacher and mother Kyle Redford explained how the dyslexia diagnosis helped her son embrace his education.

My son’s reaction to the dyslexic label convinced me that my reservations were a form of educational elitism. He was delighted with the new word; it helped to contain his condition. His learning challenges could no longer be confused with generalized stupidity. (Redford)

Redford’s story is not unique. Other stories cite newfound confidence after a diagnosis, better performance in school and a better self-awareness (Pearce). Even in those to whom the diagnosis evokes a false sense of shame, the ability to form a strategy of their own with the knowledge of their dyslexia allows for success. The absence of this knowledge can be demoralizing and prevents students from understanding their potential, especially when it may look different from their peers.

Push Outs

The issue of students being forced out of the public-school system is most frequently discussed in regards to issues of racism. Black students are suspended from K-12 public schools are a much higher rate than their peers, indicating a longstanding pervading problem of institutional racism in many school districts across the United States. (Smith & Harper, 2015) While the issue of suspensions and disproportionate discipline to racial minorities remains relevant, similar tactics are used in pushing out students with learning disabilities, a topic which continues to be relatively under-discussed. However, while racism is the driving factor between the disproportionate expulsion of Black and Latino students, a lack of understanding drives out many students who have a learning disability. They may ‘act out’ more frequently than their peers, but the underlying cause is certainly more than just a tendency towards truancy.

Students with learning disabilities often become frustrated with their inability to learn in school. Some become behavior problems to divert attention from their academic performance; others try to behave perfectly and hope that adults won’t notice them.” (Levine & Osbourne, 1989)

In some instances, as in Levine and Osbourne’s example, there is a choice made. Truant activity is a way to get attention and be noticed by members of staff; it is a way to present the image of not caring about one’s education. For, as high school social environments would dictate, it is easier to be failing if you give off the impression that you don’t care. In other instances, resisting instruction is a defense mechanism to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to read or partake in ordinary academic activities. But, for other students, acting differently from the rest of the class isn’t necessarily a choice. For students with ADHD, behavioral problems may stem from the inability to focus in the classroom. Genuine curiosity may be construed as rude or intrusive behavior. Even in dyslexia, which does not have any obvious behavioral symptoms, there is evidence of truant behavior. Dahle and Knivsberg conducted a study of behavioral issues in children with dyslexia against children without dyslexia. In their study, teachers reported more instances of aggression, hyperactivity, and delinquency in the dyslexic students, “indicating that children with dyslexia may use overt behaviors as an avoidance or coping strategy when faced with difficult tasks in public environments.” (Dahle & Knivsberg, 2014).

Regardless of the reason, however, suspension rates for students with disabilities is high. Research from The Civil Rights Project at the University of California found that “for all racial groups combined, more than 13% of students with disabilities were suspended. This is approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.” (Losen & Gillespie, 2012) For students of color, this number is even higher. These students were also more likely to be suspended multiple times instead of just once, with one out of every four Black K-12 students suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 academic year. The interaction between race and disabilities is sobering, especially in light of federal legislation which is designed to protect students with disabilities from this kind of disciplinary discrimination. The study from The Civil Rights Project asked the important question: are the suspensions justified due to misbehavior, or are they discrimination? This question is particularly hard to answer in regards to students with disabilities because often their natural behavior, as determined by their disability, conflicts with the disciplinary standards of the school.

For students who have not been diagnosed, disciplinary action becomes difficult to understand and comprehend. Especially in students who are making less conscious choices about their activity, the act of being reprimanded or suspended devalues education. In line with the students who fade out without disciplinary action, the value of education is reduced when students feel like they are being disciplined for who they are, instead of actions they did wrong. This does not excuse dangerous or harmful behavior but poses a Band-Aid solution to something that could be better addressed with more information about learning differences and disabilities.

Failing to Succeed

Academic failure is the most stereotypical problem of the dyslexic student within the public-school system, especially in the last decade, and has been measured with more scrutiny since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. The law, signed into law by President George W. Bush, demanded higher standards of all students before they graduated high school. According to the Act, all students should pass the same benchmark of academic standards. Given the size of states and the discrepancy of education systems across one state, the standards were determined and measured by performance on standardized tests. The importance of these tests developed a high-stakes testing culture, as schools with insufficient test scores were threatened with closure. For schools with high numbers of students with disabilities, this posed a problem. Students with learning disabilities were supposed to take the same test and meet the same standard as the other students in the school. In the 2009 reading assessment for twelfth graders, 64 percent of students with disabilities tested below basic proficiency compared to 24 percent of students without disabilities. (NCES, 2009). The rate of success is consistently much lower for students with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.

Many children and adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities report their schooling experience as incredibly difficult, as they often felt “deeply humiliated when asked to read. They reported being ridiculed and bullied because of their reading difficulties.” (Rose, 2009). Boyes et. al, in 2017, published an article outlining the relationship between learning disabilities and mental health problems, many of which emerged from this feeling of shame. Given the intensity of high-stakes testing, the pressure to do well can feel all-encompassing to a student with a disability. Lacking self-esteem can remain a barrier for other disciplines as well. Even if a student with dyslexia shows promise elsewhere, their experiences in other classrooms may hinder their belief that they can succeed. As Richard Dowson writes, “failure in school can result in depression and a fear of school. The student dreads going to school. Who can blame him? Except for a chance to clown around with friends, school is a hostile place where the dyslexic does not experience academic success.” (Dowson) Psychological research finds that these kinds of experience normalize negative self-worth and self-esteem, so much so that dropping out becomes an attractive alternative to continued negative experiences. When the failure to succeed is combined with disciplinary action or a feeling of being misunderstood by peers and teachers, it is unsurprising that many students with learning disabilities drop out of school.

Conclusion: The Answer?

As the evidence above shows, there are many significant problems for students with learning disabilities in the public school education system. Not all of them can be solved overnight or with federal policy. The major shift that needs to occur is one of greater understanding of learning disabilities. Educators need to be able to have the means and knowledge to recognize a learning disability in an individual, or at least be able to discern when a student should be referred for further testing. It is possible that the limited access to comprehensive evaluations is blocking a lot of this understanding, and therefore measures need to be taken to create a better system for evaluating and diagnosing students. These tests need to be inexpensive or subsidized by governing authorities as opposed to the school so that teachers and parents can provide comprehensive care to their students with learning disabilities. This care should be specific to the needs of the children and altered from the traditional route if necessary. Having a greater understanding of learning disabilities through better training and continual support will allow teachers to be able to handle the difference in education and help the student better. However, while better understanding from the standpoint of an educator may help a student with a learning disability, more research still needs to be done about the specifics of dyslexia before a full solution can be determined. There is a dearth of literature on the experience of dyslexic students at school, and even less literature which talks about the experience of people with dyslexia outside of the education system. It is well known that students who drop out of school are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be unemployed, but little attention is given to how learning disabilities factor into these issues.

But, while this paper has outlined many of the logical reasons why a student may choose to drop out of school, the real problem that will likely continue is the feelings of shame and humiliation that pervade the school experiences of students with learning disabilities. These moments often do come from a lack of understanding from peers and educators, but also from an educational system that has narrowed its focus to standardized testing and proficiency in reading and math. Until these systems begin to become more flexible in their measurements of intelligence, students with learning disabilities will continue to be put to one side and the epidemic of the dyslexic dropout will only just continue.


Thank you to Professor Debs for allowing me to write a paper that allowed me to learn so much more about what it means to be dyslexic, and for making me all the more grateful for my teachers and family members who allowed me to thrive in the education system instead of drop out. And, thanks to my fiancé Andrew Bean for the M&Ms. I needed them all. Thank you to Alison Levosky, Brian Pok and Julie Zhu for putting up with me and my GIFs, and to Julie (again) and Emily Patton for their edits.

Works Cited

Balfanz, Robert. “What your community can do to end its Drop-Out Crisis: Learnings from Research and Practice.” Prepared for the National Summit on America’s Silent Epidemic. May 9, 2007. Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University. Accessed:

Boyes, Mark. E.; Leitao, Suze; Dzidic, Peta; Claessen, Mary; Gordon, Joanne; Howard, Kate; Nayton, Mandy. “Exploring the impact of living with dyslexia: The perspectives of children and their parents.” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, (2017). DOI. 10.1080/17549507.2017.1309068.

Blackley, Sandie. “Why Public Schools Struggle to Help Kids with Dyslexia.” Lexercise. March 24, 2014.

Carroll, Mary Beth Crosby, “The Reality of Dyslexia: Millions Struggle,” The New York Times, February 12, 2012.

Coalition for Literacy, “$2 Billion is spent on students repeating a grade every year because of problems related to reading.”

Anne Elisabeth Dahle, Ann-Mari Knivsberg, Internalizing, externalizing and attention problems in dyslexia, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 2014, 16, 2, 179

Diplomas Count 2015, “Graduation Rate tops 80 percent.” Data from the U.S. Department of Education, published in

Dowson, Richard. “Dyslexia – the Least Known, Most Common Learning Disability.” The Alberta Teacher’s Association. Vol. 2084. No. 201. Accessed:

Dyslexia Awareness,

Dyslexia Research Institute,

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1401 (30)

Losen, Daniel J; Gillespie, Jonathan. “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.” (2012) The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project. University of California. Accessed:

Levine, Sarah L.; Osbourne, Sally. “Living and Learning with Dyslexia.” Phi Delta Kappan. V70 n8 p594-98. April 1989.

National Center for Education Statistics, “The Nation’s Report Card: Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics 2009 National and Pilot State Results” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).

National Center for Learning Disabilities, “The State of Learning Disabilities,” Third Edition, 2014. Accessed:

National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, National Center for Special Education Research, “The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabiltiies up to 8 years after high school.” 2011. Accessed:

Redford, Kyle. “My Son’s Dyslexia Diagnosis.” Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Accessed:

Paul, Annie Murray, “The Upside of Dyslexia.” The New York Times. February 4, 2012.

Pearce, Barbara. “Confessions of a Parent of Two Dyslexics.” Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Accessed:

Rose, Jim. “Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties.” An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools nad Families. June 2009. Accessed:

Smith, E. J., & Harper, S. R. “Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and expulsion on Black students in southern states.” (2015) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Accessed:

“Specific Learning Disorder” Fact Sheet, American Psychological Association, 2013. Accessed:

Van Dorn, Betsy. “Dylsexia and the High-Schooler.” Family Education. Accessed:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), Chapter 2. Accessed:

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, “Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative.”

[1] Some states provide more specific data, whereas others do not, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of the specific breakdown of this data nationwide.

The “New” NYC Renewal Schools Program

Jorge Lema – Final Policy Project

May 3, 2017

Executive Summary

The New York City Renewal Schools Program was enacted to save 94 of the city’s lowest performing public schools. The program has failed because, although “Renewal” schools received a lot of funding and resources, their enrollments and teacher quality have decreased. Families and professionals are skeptical of Renewal Schools because the schools close if they do not meet program benchmarks in areas such as graduation and attendance rates or other more holistic expectations. School climates of mistrust and frustration have led to administrative manipulation of data to meet aforementioned benchmarks. New York City can reform this program by making it permanent, removing the threat of school closures and incentivizing people to work, and believe in, Renewal Schools.


New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Renewal Schools Program was enacted in 2014. It provides Renewal schools with funding and resources that traditional public schools do not have. Originally the schools were required to meet benchmarks in three years to avoid closures or mergers with other schools, but many have not. Students and school staff are leaving Renewal Schools in fear of losing their jobs because of school closures. NYC must reform the program if it wants to improve the lowest performing schools in the city which disproportionately serve low-income, students of color. While other research has focused on the Renewal Schools Program’s flaws, I recommend that the program continue indefinitely. New York City must create long-term partnerships with schools and communities to provide permanent support and resources for Renewal Schools, cementing the belief that schools do not fail.


The Renewal Schools Program was created to improve 94 NYC public schools considered among the 144 lowest performing schools in the state (Cheney, 2015). Schools were selected using three criteria: those identified as “priority” or “focus” schools by the State Education Department, elementary and middle schools in the bottom 25 percent in math and English language arts proficiency in the past three years and high schools in the bottom 25 percent in four-year graduation rates in the past three years, and schools that scored proficient or below in their most recent School Quality Review (Cheney, 2015). These schools were resource deficient and did not properly service their students. East Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for example, had classrooms that were “starved for supplies and qualified teachers, with unlicensed interns leading one class and the kids in others left to learn from videos” (Gonen, 2017). Intervention was necessary to combat similar issues at all 94 schools.

Students at Renewal Schools are low-income, students of color, and severely disadvantaged.

Data Source: New York State Department of Education. Students at Boys and Girls High School (Brooklyn Renewal School) are predominately Black or African American and “economically disadvantaged,” meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch (Reportcard Comparison – Boys and Girls High School, 2017).

At another Renewal School, Public School 298 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, many students live in temporary housing, with another family, or with different parents during the week and weekend (Taylor). Close to one in five children is homeless and the school’s neighborhood has the highest rate of gun violence in Brooklyn (Kolodner, 2017). Thus, Renewal Schools not only must improve academic performance, but also tackle external conditions, such as deep poverty, that inhibit student achievement.

Under the program, Renewal Schools must add an hour to their school days, receive couching for school administrators, and are paired with community organizations that provide services, such as counseling (Taylor, 2016). In 2014, schools were given three years to meet benchmarks in areas like attendance, graduation rate, and for elementary and middle schools, performance on state reading and math exams (Taylor, 2017).  More holistic factors, however, such as enrollment, leadership, and staffing issues were considered before a school was shut down or merged with another school (Taylor, 2016). Originally, the program was set to end on June 2017 with with a two-year $150 million budget and variable third year amount, but is now projected to continue for a total of five years and cost $839 million (Wall, 2016).

Although Renewal Schools received additional support, many have closed. So far, 17 Renewal Schools have closed or merged with other schools because the Department of Education believed that they failed beyond rescue (Taylor, 2017). The threat of school closures has transformed Renewal School culture to the point where enrollments have decreased, school administrators have quit, and schools have tweaked data to meet benchmarks and avoid closures. The program has not helped the schools it was set to aid.

Why the Renewal Schools Program Fails:

Threat of school closures discourages professionals and families from working with Renewal Schools.

Renewal schools are stigmatized. Parents will not enroll their children at schools considered “failing” and in risk of closing. For high schools, because students choose where to apply, the Renewal School label discourages them from applying. At 11 Renewal high schools alone, enrollment fell 15 percent after the first year of the initiative (Taylor, 2016). Incoming classes had 30 students, far below levels city education officials deem necessary for viable schools (Taylor, 2016). As enrollments decreased, math and reading proficiency levels at these high schools also fell, indicating that the highest performing students left Renewal Schools (Taylor, 2016). In addition, attendance and graduate rates have declined such that only six of the remaining 11 high schools met the attendance targets set for 2015 and only three met their graduate rate targets for 2015 while three saw them decline (Taylor, 2016). The lowest performing students are left behind, many of whom barely attend school. Not only do fewer students attend Renewal Schools, but fewer succeed academically and graduate. There is a clearly an issue when fewer students want to attend schools with additional resources and support.

Data Source: New York State Department of Education. Enrollments at Boys and Girls High School decreased for every grade level from 2014 to 2015 (Reportcard Comparison- Boys and Girls High School, 2017)

The program does not combat the problem it says exists.

In 2015, more than half of teachers at Banana Kelly and Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx did not return after the school required that all teachers reapply to their jobs (Taylor, 2016). Teachers who leave or are not rehired, deemed unqualified to work at Renewal Schools, still remain in the system and can teach elsewhere. This is a problem because if former teachers are now unqualified to work at Renewal Schools, there is no reason they should qualify to work elsewhere. They were fired for a reason. The fact that Renewal Schools receive money, resources, and support makes it easier to cite teachers as the problem as well. They presumably have everything they need such that if students do not reach benchmarks, then teachers have failed. This obsession with teacher-blame does not address the structural forces that disadvantage Renewal Schools.

Fewer professionals want to work at Renewal Schools. At Automotive High School, many teachers asked to reapply to their jobs did not (Taylor, 2016). With fewer applicants, it is easier for schools to hire the poorly qualified candidates. Nearly 14% of teachers at Junior High School 145, a Renewal School in the Bronx, for example, were teaching subjects in which they were not trained (Donohue, 2017). Although disappointing, this makes sense. It is also difficult to attract candidates with the experience or expertise to work at Renewal Schools when the schools are in danger of closing and viewed as challenging to work at.


Data Source: New York State Department of Education. Between the 2014-2015 and 2015- 2016 academic years, the percentages of teachers with no valid teaching certificate, teachers teaching out of certification, teachers with fewer than three years of experience, students not taught by highly qualified teachers, and students taught by teachers without appropriate certification increased. The percentage of teachers with Masters Degrees plus 30 Hours or Doctorate also decreased. This all happened one year after the program began. Teacher quality decreased while the number of teachers remained the same. The staff must have changed. (Reportcard Comparison – Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research)

Climate of mistrust.

Teachers fear losing their jobs and fall back on unions. At one troubled Brooklyn high school, for example, the principal stepped down after clashing with teachers’ unions, claiming that it was for her “own sanity” (Taylor, 2016). The threat of school closures does not guarantee teachers their jobs, frustrating school leaders when negotiating with unions because teaching positions may only exist temporarily. This damages principal-teacher relationships because teachers and unions cannot trust administrator promises regarding job permanence.

Frustration with the short time span schools to demonstrate improvement.

Megan Hester, principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said “There’s no school improvement initiative in the country that shows long-term success that showed improvement within two or three years” (Taylor, 2016). At Leaders of Tomorrow, a Renewal middle school in the Bronx, 75 percent of a sixth grade class with over one hundred students received a 1 at their elementary school, the lowest level on the four-level scoring system (Taylor, 2017). It is possible to jump from a 1 to a 3, the score considered proficient, the principal proclaimed, but it is a process and takes time (Taylor, 2017). At East Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, teachers have even been pressured to pass students to boost the graduation rate (Taylor, 2017). In June 2016, Michael Wiltshire, principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, resigned to take “an easier job” in Long Island, where schools are better resourced and funded than those in NYC (Taylor, 2016, June 23). Constant pressure and expectations fatigue school leaders.

Attempts to manipulate school data to reach benchmarks. 

Although Eric Aston, the executive director for school performance at New York City’s Education Department, said “the department wouldn’t decide whether to close a school solely based on test scores,” no school wants to risk a closing (Taylor, 2017, March 28). Dr. Wiltshire, former principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, admitted to having encouraged some students to transfer, but “that it was in their best interest because they had little chance of graduating” (Taylor, 2016, June 23). As a result, graduation rates increased, but only because the most vulnerable students left. Because these students leave, the program is helping the students it was meant to serve. They are pushed out of Renewal Schools, cementing a belief that it is impossible to help them.


Although a greater percentage of students passed the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in 2015 (102 students at 60%), more students actually passed the exam in 2014 (115 students), yet represented a smaller percentage of all students (34%) because enrollments decreased from 341 students in 2014 to 170 students in 2015. Big numbers only represent improvement relative to enrollment. Fewer students pass this exam, but data does not reflect this. (Reportcard Comparison- Boys and Girls High School)

Graduation Rates

Only 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools in 2016, 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated in 2014 (Zimmerman, 2017) Yet, the city’s 31 Renewal high schools’ graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014 (Zimmerman, 2017). Current data does not demonstrate that fewer students graduate from Renewal Schools than in 2014.

  ^Although the Coalition (Renewal) School for Social Change increased graduation rates, the number of students who graduate actually decreased (Reportcard Comparison – Coalition School for Social Change).

Program does not measure growth.

The Renewal Schools Program sets standards that seem “too modest” and do not measure growth (Taylor, 2017). Public (Renewal) School 67 is supposed to increase its average math proficiency by only a hundredth of a percentage point this year, leaving it at a much lower rate than other NYC public schools (Taylor, 2017). Although this improvement seems miniscule, it can be tremendous because students at Renewal Schools are in need of tremendous growth. Facing deep poverty, many Renewal School students are several reading/math levels behind and cannot become proficient immediately, but they can grow. A focus on proficiency also disregards student improvement and teacher success. Schools should measure growth to understand student improvement.

Policy Recommendations

Do not close schools. Create permanent partnerships with schools.

The threat of school closures discourages teachers from working at Renewal Schools and families from sending their children there. NYC needs permanent partnerships with Renewal Schools to provide them with support indefinitely. Renewal schools serve disadvantaged populations whom traditional public schools do not adequately service. Unless populations and their needs change, the resources they require will not. NYC cannot take away the resources it provides and expect them to perform as well.

Permanent partnerships remove negative stigmas and attract more people to Renewal Schools. No one will invest in Renewal Schools if will failing and inevitably close. Permanence attracts teachers to schools because their job loss fear will disappear. Parents become confident in Renewal Schools. More collaborative school environments ensue when everyone can focus on helping students rather than avoiding job loss.

Data source: NYC DOE. Students from Renewal Schools that close, such as Foundations Academy, attend schools that underperform city averages in attendance and chronic absenteeism rates where most have higher concentrations of poverty (Zimmerman, 2017). Closing schools does not solve the problem.

Implementation: Market a program that does not allow schools to fail because only systems fail, not schools.

Cement partnerships with community organizations. Implementation:

Enact permanent partnerships with community organizations that service student needs. Automotive High School, for example, purchased glasses for students who did not own and could not afford to buy them (Brown, 2016). Despite assurance that the glasses would arrive in September 2016, they did not arrive until February 2017 (Brown, 2016). This could have been avoided if schools purchase goods from organizations within communities with incentives to service children who live with them. Stakes are also higher with permanent relationships.

Include a college preparation component to the program.

Today, fewer Renewal School students pass Advance Placement exams, college level courses that prepare students for undergraduate study (Chapman, 2017). There has also been little progress in the percentage of kids at Renewal Schools taking the SAT entrance test; too few students consider college (Chapman, 2017). This makes sense when so few kids succeed academically. City data also shows that drop-out rates at Renewal Schools have lurched from 18.1% in 2014 down to 17.8% in 2015, but back up to 18.6% in 2016 (Chapman, 2017). Too few students complete high school and envision themselves at post-secondary schools. While it makes sense why this happens, students should understand why academic work is important for their success. This is not to say that students are to blame for low scores or rates, but rather that it is impossible to hold students accountable for their school work when many see no point in academic success. A college prep and access program offers post-secondary opportunities to students.

Implementation: Use additional funds to create/update college offices. Offer college standardized test prep, discussions on education and college, college application assistance. Invest in guidance counselors who understand students and communities. Partner with community youth centers, school graduates at college, or college students who live in communities to work with Renewal School students.

Heavier screening of Renewal School workers.

Too much is spent on bureaucrats who are not properly screened. Gregory Hodge is a leadership coach for the principal at Leaders of Tomorrow School and the Young Scholars Academy despite an official recommendation that he be fired and barred from ever working for the DOE (Golding & Edelman, 2017). He makes $660 a day which is small compared to the $1400 a day spent on other coaches and the $40 million spent each year on all coaches (Golding & Edelman, 2017). Despite this, Young Scholars will merge with other schools in September 2017 because it failed to “show meaningful progress” toward “sustainable improvements” (Golding & Edelman, 2017). Another school with a $660-a-day couch, Channel High School, closed in 2014 due to “a dismal graduation rate of 46 percent and ‘widespread dissatisfaction’ among parents, students, and teachers” (Golding & Edelman, 2017). Too much money is spent on professionals whose work fails.

Implementation: Listen to DOE hiring recommendations. Involve community leaders, teachers, and families in hiring. Host community events like town halls and Q&A forums for communities to evaluate candidates.

Offer professional development opportunities for teachers and principals before firing.

Help school administrators before firing or requiring that everyone reapply. Provide indefinite support because collaborative environments will attract better staff members. Firings should become last resorts.

Implementation: Offer veteran teachers at Renewal Schools opportunities to mentor newer teachers and supervise clusters of teachers. Create discussion groups for teachers to examine issues with students. Use funds to make classrooms smaller so teachers work with less students.

Measure growth

Growth rates measure student improvement more accurately. Allow schools to draft long-term plans for students to ensure that they reach proficiency levels with time. It is impossible to measure student improvement with only proficiency rates.

Policy Concerns


Funds are limited. Renewal Schools funds consist of $180 from NYC, $79 million from the state, $143 million from the federal government, and $7 million from other sources (Wall, 2016). Because President Trump favors school choice federal funding of the Renewal Schools Program will decrease. New federal budgets spend $20 billion a year for vouchers and expansion of charter schools alone (Bendix, 2017). NYC should enact budget cuts in other areas or curtail funds for positions such as leadership coaches. Carmen Farina, NYC School Chancellor, has stated that Renewal School support will continue for years “no matter what” (Brown, 2016). She wants to continue this program. With one of the largest tax bases and property values in the country, NYC can find money (Chan, 2007).

Too many people want to attend Renewal Schools

            If Renewal Schools become are seen positively, too many students may want to enroll. Few families, however, will move to poverty-stricken neighborhoods when district schools in wealthier neighborhoods are not failing. Moreover, NYC should aim for this to happen because it means that the program succeeded.


Too many voices may want a say if procedures become egalitarian. Communities should create leadership boards that represent a diversity of voices. This may also get offset by the fact that families in poverty-stricken neighborhoods are less likely to have time to engage in school politics.


While growth measures improvement, it hurts students who never reach proficiency because they are behind their peers at other schools. It becomes more difficult to attend and succeed in college. People who draft long-term growth goals should work with college centers and school leaders to set realistic expectations.


            Short-term programs succeed because momentum increases accountability. A long-term program risks losing momentum. Constant accountability should be enforced by the NYC DOE such that schools meet benchmarks even without the threat of school closures.

Politics of Current election

Mayor De Blasio will run for re-election in November 2017. Because De Blasio overturned former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education preferences for closing “failing” public schools, a new mayor can terminate any program we produce. NYC must act fast to enact this program and ensure some version of success before 2017.


The New York City Department of Education must provide Renewal Schools with indefinite support. Temporary assistance results in a cycle of failure. The threat of school closures discourages professionals and families from working with Renewal Schools, decreasing enrollments and teacher retention. Data is manipulated to make it seem that schools improve, when, in reality, they serve less students with few benchmark improvements. Without permanence, nothing is guaranteed. Even if Renewal School resources and support improve schools, they eventually disappear under the current program. Every method and discovery that Renewal Schools make are in vain. They become applicable under situations that will never be duplicated. Permanence terminates the problems that the current program faces because it does not permit Renewal Schools to fail. In fact, schools never fail – only systems do. Realistically, however, the “New” Renewal Schools Program cannot address the housing, food insecurity, and discrimination (which impact education) that students at Renewal Schools face, indicating that the city must also address larger institutional issues when truly reforming education policy.

Works Cited

Bendix, A. (2017, March 16). Trump’s Education Budget Revealed. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Brown, C. (2016, October 28). Team de Blasio’s recipe for eternally failing schools. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Chan, S. (2007, February 21). New York Tops 8 Big Cities in Taxes, Study Shows. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Chapman, B. (2017, March 31). So-so returns on $400M de Blasio school gambit: charter advocates. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Cheney, B. (2015, January 16). Capital Data: Measuring de Blasio’s Renewal Schools. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Donohue, J., & Moss, C. (2017, January 17). How the city failed our students at a closing Renewal School. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Golding, B., & Edelman, S. (2017, March 07). De Blasio’s questionable school consultants cost taxpayers millions. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Gonen, Y., & Golding, B. (2017, March 06). This public school is a victim of de Blasio’s empty promises. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Kolodner, M. (2017, February 09). The Convoluted Path to Improving New York City’s Schools. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Taylor, K. (2016, July 18). After 2 Years, Progress Is Hard to See in Some Struggling City Schools.Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Taylor, K. (2016, June 23). Principal of Boys and Girls High School Will Leave, Ending Experiment. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Taylor, K. (2017, January 06). City to Close or Merge 9 Schools That Were in Support Program.  Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Taylor, K. (2017, March 28). Pressure Builds for City’s Renewal Schools as State Tests Begin.Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Wall, Patrick. (2016, June 09). Despite major city investment, struggling ‘Renewal’ schools shedanother 6,300 students. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Wall, Patrick (2016, June 09). After Renewal program takes shape, $150M price tag becomes $400M. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Zimmerman, Alex. (2017, February 22). New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

REPORTCARD COMPARISON – Boys and Girls High School| NYSED Data Site. (n.d.). RetrievedMay 03, 2017, from®ents=1&gradrate=1

REPORTCARD COMPARISON – Coalition School for Social Change| NYSED Data Site. (n.d.).Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

REPORTCARD COMPARISON – Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research | NYSED DataSite. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2017, from®ents=1&rct=1&nysaa=1&nyseslat=1&elemELA=1&elemMATH=1&elemSci=1&secondELA=1&secondMATH=1&unweighted=1&gradrate=1

The Manhood Development Program

Akintunde Ahmad

African American Male Achievement

Welcome to Oakland, California, the most diverse city in the United States. In Oakland, you can find it all. Every ethnicity, every language, every religion. From artists and athletes and academics, to bikers and dancers and teachers, this city truly captures the beauty that encompasses all forms of humanity. Oakland is a special place. On one hand the success of the city’s sports teams, growth in job markets, and unique culture are to be praised and celebrated. On the other hand, the city’s criminal justice system and socio-economic education inequalities are in desperate need of fixing. While some demographic groups can live in Oakland and reap all of the benefits that this amazing city has offer, other marginalized groups are being forgotten and left to deal with the burden of being on the receiving end of the city’s economic and social inequality. To be blunt, the African-American community in Oakland is in need of healing. Specifically, African-American males are consistently getting the short end of the stick when it comes down to what cities like Oakland have to offer. Black males are the lowest achieving pupils in our nation’s schools, the most likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and the most likely to fall victim to gun violence.  These issues are intersectional, with education, incarceration, and economic inequality being the main issues that need fixing. These problems have persisted throughout history, and while there has been much talk about the problems, there haven’t been many effective solutions. However, the Manhood Development Program in Oakland, CA is taking on the challenge to change the narrative for black men by infiltrating Oakland Unified School District’s classrooms and implementing strategies and programming that target the city’s most troubled demographic group.

Why African-American Males?

So why exactly do cities need programs targeting and assisting African-American males? Lets look at the statistics. A Pew Research study tells us that across the United States, “black children were almost four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013, and significantly more likely than Hispanic children” (Patten and Krogstad, 2015).

Graphic Taken From Pew Research Study, 2015

A report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education states that in the 2012-13 school year, the national graduation rate was 59% for Black males, 65% for Latino males, and 80% for White males (Schott Foundation, 2015). According to a report done by the Sentencing Project, if current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime (Sentencing Project, 2013). Now, lets shift the focus to Oakland specifically. When it comes to incarceration, a 2013 report stated that 73.5 percent of juvenile arrests in Oakland are black males, even though they make up only 29.3% of the Oakland Youth population (Black Organizing Project, 2013). When it comes to education, black males have consistently had the lowest graduation rates in Oakland’s public school district. In 2011-2012, African-American males graduation rate was 52.4%, compared to a district graduation rate of 66.8% (Oakland Unified School District, 2014). When observing overall inequality, a report by the Alameda County Public Health Department stated that compared to a white child born in the Oakland Hills, a black child born in West Oakland is 13 times as likely to be poor and a four times less likely to be reading at grade level in the fourth grade (Brown, 2016).

Graphic Taken From The Community Assessment, Planning, Education, and Evaluation Unit of the Alameda County Public Health Department, 2015.

Introducing the African-American Male Achievement Program

The evidence is clear. In cities like Oakland, African-American boys need help, and in more ways than one. In order to effectively change the narrative for African-American males, programs must attempt to combat not only issues that exist on school campuses and in the classroom, but also account for the economic inequality, mass incarceration, and disparate rates of violence that effect young black men. Thankfully, in Oakland, CA, the Office of African-American Male Achievement is doing something to change that. By bringing in African-American male teachers to the classroom, teaching curriculum focused on African-American history, and building personal mentorship relationships, the Manhood Development Program has been a model for other urban districts to look to to successfully uplift its black males with the hopes of having them graduate college ready. In 2010 the Oakland Unified School District created the Office of African-American Male Achievement, spearheaded by Chris Chatmon, with the vision of stopping “the epidemic failure of African-American male students in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)”, and the mission of creating “the systems, structures, and spaces that guarantee success for all African-American male students in OUSD” (OUSD, 2017). The Oakland Unified School District is the first school district in the United States to create a department dedicated to addressing the specific needs of African-American male students. While there had many initiatives in the past that tried to combat the issues that African-American males in the district faced, Oakland’s Board of Education, Urban Strategies Council, and the East Bay Community Foundation came to the conclusion that in reality, these past efforts had done little to nothing to actually impact the experience of the district’s black males (OUSD, 2017).

Following the inception of the Office of African-American Male Achievement, or AAMA, the Manhood Development Program (MDP) was then initiated in 2010. This was the flagship program of the newly created department, aimed at implementing the change they wanted to see on the ground level. The program functioned as such: African-American male instructors were handpicked based on their cultural competency and ability to relate to youth, in addition to their past teaching experiences. Each instructor taught an elective course that was offered five days a week during the school day. Class sizes ranged from 20-25 students, with classes mixed up based on student achievement level. One third of the class was high achieving, one third was average, and the other third was under-achieving. The program was originally instilled in only three schools in OUSD, but currently functions in twenty-four schools throughout the district, existing in elementary, middle, and high schools (Wisely, 2016).

The Manhood Development Program revolved around three central goals:

1) Decrease suspensions and increase attendance. 2) Decrease incarceration and increase graduation rates. 3) Decrease the opportunity/achievement gap and increase literacy. One of the first steps at achieving these goals is getting a commitment from the students to standards of the Office of African-American Male Achievement (Watson, 2014).

The Standards of Brotherhood

  1. Respect for ourselves and each other.
  2. Keep it 100 (Tell the truth)
  3. Lift Ups, No Put Downs
  4. Look out for each other
  5. Play Hard, but Also Work Hard
  6. Represent Your Best Self At All Times
  7. Be On Time
  8. Be responsible for your own actions
  9. Build the Brotherhood
  10. Trust yourself and others in the brotherhood

With these agreements made, the instructors then work on building a family environment in the classroom and across all students in the district. Students refer to one another as “Brother ____” or “king”, terms that reinforce the value that each individual has, and the familial community the program wishes to instill amongst its members. A district leadership council exists amongst the students with representatives from each school, making sure that program ideals and values line up across the different schools. Students attend leadership conferences together, and travel as far as New York City to learn about what it means to be a black man (Brown, 2016). Students also participate in the annual African-American Male Achievement Symposium, where each school’s class showcases what they have learned about black manhood at Oakland’s historic Fox Theater. And the instructor’s serve as much more than just teachers. They act as mentors and vouch for their students, often serving as the intermediaries between their students and the other teachers in the school when issues arise.

In the classroom, the curriculum is structured around studying black history, building self-esteem, and learning professionalism. It’s much more than just academics. Students are also learning life readiness skills. Younger students learn about the narratives and images of historically significant black people. The high school students go even deeper, covering everything from ancient African civilizations to the Civil Rights movement to current issues like Black Lives Matter. But it doesn’t stop here. Students learn skills like how to tie a necktie, dress professionally, or how to present themselves in public. They talk about the struggles that they face on a day-to-day basis as black men, with issues ranging from gun violence in their communities to how to deal with police brutality (Lee, 14). These are issues that most black male students are not often afforded the opportunity to openly discuss, rather it be amongst peers or structured in a classroom. By having an older black male that has experienced similar situations, Manhood Development Program teachers are able to facilitate dialogue that stimulates emotional and mental growth out of black male students that other instructors just would not be able to achieve.

The Change

Now, lets examine some of the statistics of the district since the founding of AAMA and the instillation of the Manhood Development Program. The graduation rate for African-American males increased from 51% in 2011-12 to 61% in 2014-15, a major 10% jump. The number of African-American males on the honor roll rose from 20% in 2013-14 to 32% in 2015-16, a 12% increase. The suspension rate fell from 22% in 2010-11 to 10% in 2014-15, a 12% decline.  The chronic absence rate fell from 19.7% in the 2011-2012 school year to 18% in 2013-2014. The number of students in the juvenile justice system fell 40%, from 273 in 2010-11 to 164 in 2014-15 (Wisely, 2016).

Graphs obtained from the OUSD District Data Website

Based on these charts, it is easy to see that since the founding of the Office of African American in 2010, the district’s African-American males are making improvements. To give more statistics, grade point averages are now 25 percent higher for Manhood Development Program students than for Black male students who haven’t taken the course. District-wide, the Black male graduation rate has improved from 42 to 57 percent since the course was introduced.  The number of Black male high school seniors who qualify for admission to the University of California (UC) or California State University is 6 percent higher among the Manhood Development Program participants than for non-participants (OUSD,  2017).

And while these metrics on academics, behavior, and attendance are important, there is even more data pertaining to how the Manhood Development Programs have affected students attitudes and approach in school. Look at these statistics. 43% of students report that their teachers respect them versus 77% for the MDP participants. 44% of students report that their other teachers want them to get good grades versus 85% for MDP. 65% of students report that their other teachers expect them to succeed versus 92% for MDP (Watson, 2014). Clearly, the instructors in MDP are having an impact on student’s lives that exceeds just their academic performance.

Why Does It Work?

Representation matters. According to a 2017 study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, “exposure to a black teacher during elementary school raises long-run educational attainment for black male students, especially among those from low-income households” In addition, estimates suggest that exposure to a black teacher in primary school cuts high school dropout rates by 39%, and also raises college aspirations along with the probability of taking a college entrance exam (IZA, 2017). In a report on reflections from black teachers, the educator’s experiences in the classroom reflect what research has proven. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy. As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relations with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students”. The report went on to say “Black teachers in our sample, much like in other research, felt they had an easier time building connections with students, especially Black students, because of perceived cultural and experiential similarities. They said this immediate, surface-level connection with many Black students helped those students trust them and feel safe in their care” (Griffin and Tackie, 2016). So, just by having a black male teacher that they can relate to on campus, student’s learning experiences are transformed. The feeling that they have somebody that they can trust and turn to with their issues subsequently affects their viewpoints towards their overall learning experience.

In addition to the students being able to see themselves in their teachers, the culturally relevant topics that they study also help with garnering interest in academics. While so many of the schools that have the highest percentages of students of color are teaching to standardized tests, and neglecting relevant social studies, the Manhood Development Program’s curriculum actually engages its students in topics that they can relate to. One Huffington Post article reads “we should be preparing these students for the challenges of race in America with a broader knowledge base and more elective courses. Instead, we are robbing a generation of students of ownership over their identity by turning the social sciences into collections of reading quizzes” (Hartmann, 2017). The intersectional academic skills of black male students in Manhood Development Program are improved by using engaging topics to gauge student interests. The language used in the program also adds so much value. The use of the N-word is prohibited, and as previously stated, students refer to each other as king or brother in order to reinforce the ideal that each student has immense value, and should be respected and treated as such.

The Future of the Program: Oakland and Beyond

While the Manhood Development Program has had a significant impact on district achievement scores for black males, in reality, the amount of black males who are actually enrolled in these programs is but a fraction of the African-American males in the district. An MSNBC article reported that in 2014, the program was only reaching about 400 students a year, roughly 4% of black males in the district (Lee, 2014). In 2016, the program existed in 24 schools and served over 800 students (Wisely, 2016). Each year, the Office of African-American Male Achievement strives to scale up this program to reach more of its young black males by instilling the MDP in more of the district’s schools. The effects of this program have proved to be nothing but positive, however at the end of the day it takes a lot of money for these kinds of programs to function over long periods of time. The program currently has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million, with half funded by the district and the other half funded by private donors (Wisely, 2016). In a district that has recently called for $25.1 million in cuts over the next 18 months, the future of the Manhood Development Program could be in jeopardy (Tsai, 2017). Without increased funding, realistically there is no way for the program to reach more of the black male students in need in Oakland.

The Office of African American Male Achievement has been transparent about its process of coming to existence, and has made its curriculum and operating methods open for other districts to replicate. There are plenty of districts across the United States that could benefit from implementing a Manhood Development Program, and the hope is that other district’s administrators and officials will recognize the impact this program has had in Oakland and bring a program like it to their respective city’s. In 2014, Minneapolis Public Schools launched their own Office of Black Male Student Achievement, which has already showed promise in improving the academic achievement of its students (Wisely, 2016).

What’s Next?

In 2016, Oakland founded its Department of Equity, with the mission of “eliminating the predictability of success and failure that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor, interrupting inequitable practices, examine biases and create inclusive and just conditions for all students, discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every student possesses, understanding that we must first ensure EQUITY before we can enjoy EQUALITY” (OUSD, 2017). As a result of the foundation of this department, three new programs have been developed to target the city’s other demographic groups in need. There are programs for African American Girls and Young Women Achievement, Latinx and Indigenous Student Achievement, and Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement. These programs will be launched in the 2017-2018 school year, so there is no data on their effectiveness yet, but the hope is that they can replicate the successes of the Office of African American Male Achievement.


Many cities across the United States have struggled with finding effective methods of combating the inequalities of society. Far too often, African-American males are the demographic group that is impacted most by this inequality. In 2010, the Office of African-American Male Achievement was founded in the Oakland Unified School District. Its flagship program, the Manhood Development Program, implemented an Afro-Centric academic curriculum with self-esteem building techniques taught by African-American male teachers into classrooms throughout the district. Graduation rates increased, alongside grade point averages and attendance rates. School suspensions declined, while attitudes towards Manhood Development teachers were reported to be far more favorable than that of other teachers. The successes of this program are clear, and the hope is that this program is able to expand in the Oakland Unified School District, and be replicated across the United States in urban cities like Oakland.


















Works Cited

The Black Organizing Project, Public Counsel, and ACLU of Northern California. “From Report Card to Criminal Record: The Impact of Policing Oakland Youth.” US Human Rights Network. N.p., 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

Brown, Patricia Leigh. “Lessons in Manhood for African-American Boys.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Feb. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

The Community Assessment, Planning, Education, and Evaluation Unit of the Alameda County Public Health Department. “How Place, Racism, and Poverty Matter for Health in Alameda County – Documents.” The, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

Gershenson, Seth, Cassandra M. D. Hart, Constance A. Lindsay, and Nicholas W. Papageorge. “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers.” IZA. EconPapers. N.p., 21 Mar. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Griffin, Ashley, and Hilary Tackie. “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers.” The Education Trust. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Hartmann, Jennifer. “Teaching Black History to Our Students of Color.” The Huffington Post., 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Howard, Tyrone C. “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy.” Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. 2011. Print.

Klein, Rebecca. “These Schools Made A Commitment To Black Boys And Are Now Seeing Big Results.” The Huffington Post., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 03 May 2017.

Lee, Trymaine. “How Oakland’s Public Schools Are Fighting to save Black Boys.” MSNBC. NBCUniversal News Group, 15 July 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

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Patten, Eileen, and Jens Manuel Krogstad. “Black Child Poverty Rate Holds Steady, Even as Other Groups See Declines.” Pew Research Center. N.p., 14 July 2015. Web. 03 May 2017.

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Tsai, Joyce. “Oakland: School Superintendent Calls for $25.1 Million in Cuts, Orders Hiring Freeze.” East Bay Times. East Bay Times, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Watson, V. The Black Sonrise: Oakland Unified School District’s Commitment to Address and Eliminate Institutionalized Racism, an evaluation report prepared for the Office of African American Male Achievement, Oakland Unified School District, Oakland: CA. December 2014.

Whitney, Spencer. “75 Percent of Juvenile Arrests in Oakland Are Black Males, Says Report.” Oakland Local. N.p., 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.

Wisely, John. “First-in-the Nation School Program Turns Boys into Strong Black Men.” Detroit Free Press. N.p., 27 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

Legislating School Climate: Examining LAUSD’s Suspension Ban

Legislating School Climate

Examining Los Angeles Unified School District’s Ban of Suspension for “Willful Defiance”


In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a joint federal guidance stating that school discipline was discriminatory based on race and ethnicity and that exclusionary discipline “creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes, and can contribute to what has been termed the ‘school to prison pipeline’” (Joint “Dear Colleague Letter”, 2014). The guidance reminded schools of their obligation to serve students in a non-discriminatory manner and offered recommendations for making discipline more equitable (Joint “Dear Colleague Letter”, 2014). This guidance was recognition on a national level that unjust school discipline practices are a civil rights issue for students of color. More locally, parents and students have understood this reality for years, and worked to change it. Educators across the country understand that traditional exclusionary discipline practices just aren’t effective. Alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice, are being implemented in schools and districts that recognize that students who misbehave often need more support rather than less time in class.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been working to reform their discipline culture for over a decade, moving away from “zero tolerance” and actually implementing a district-wide policy that limits schools’ ability to suspend students and requires implementation of alternative discipline practices. What does it look like when a district recognizes the injustice and ineffectiveness of suspensions, and tries to ban them? Can districts or states use legislation to reform negative discipline culture? Overall, the “School Climate Bill of Rights” adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School Board has successfully decreased suspensions in the district, and driven change in the state of California. LAUSD can be seen as a model of what districts can do to reform discipline. However, while district policy is critical, discipline reform is most important at the school level, as discipline culture is the product of daily interactions between students, teachers, and administrators.

Policy Background: Local Initiatives and State Laws

In May 2013, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) voted to end schools’ ability to suspend students for “willful defiance.” Willful defiance is described in the California Education Code as: “Disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties” (Cal. Education Code, 2009). Parents pushed for the ban, as “willful defiance” suspensions are disproportionately applied to at-risk students, such as students of color, english language learners, and students with disabilities (ACLU, 2015). As part of the long list of violations that could lead to a student’s suspension in LAUSD schools before 2013, “willful defiance” was targeted as the most vague and subjective reason for taking a student out of class. Statewide, “Willful defiance accounts for 43% of suspensions issued to California students, and is the suspension offense category with the most significant racial disparities” (ACLU, 2015). Current proponents of best practices in discipline say that out-of-school suspension should only be a last resort, rather than an answer to some of the minor behaviors that can full under “willful defiance” (Losen and Martinez, 2013, p. 2).

The suspension ban in L.A. was passed as part of a larger “School Climate Bill of Rights” that mandated implementation of restorative justice programs, disaggregated data collection tracking school discipline, and a system to file formal complaints regarding discipline (School Climate Bill of Rights, 2013). When the bill passed, NPR reported that “Hundreds of students gathered downtown to testify about the problem of zero tolerance and to celebrate the end of willful defiance.” (Rott, 2013). Parents’ opposition to suspensions was voiced by CADRE, a parent organizing group that had been tracking suspension data and arguing that suspensions can lead students to drop out of high school (Rott, 2013).

The next year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued the federal guidance regarding discipline and the State of California followed with legislation passed in September 2014 that banned suspension for “willful defiance” in grades K-3, and expulsion for “willful defiance” in all grades (ACLU, 2015). California was the first state to pass such a law and the signing of AB 420 was an important step towards re-thinking discipline in this country’s public schools (ACLU, 2015). Los Angeles Public Schools are are at the forefront of the California’s move away from exclusionary discipline, as the board had adopted a plan that was more comprehensive than the state before the state law was even passed.

Research on Suspensions

Why is reducing suspensions such an important goal? Suspensions are exclusionary and punitive practices that can harm students. Research supports the idea that suspensions do more harm than good for students. At the secondary level, students who have been suspended are more likely to have lower standardized testing outcomes and a higher risk of dropping out of high school (Wood, 2016, p. 11). In fact, “being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a twofold increase in the likelihood of dropping out” (Losen and Martinez, 2013, p. 1). Heavy use of exclusionary discipline has negative consequences for individual students as well as schools. Schools with “high rates of exclusionary discipline” are shown to have lower scores on state achievement tests, even when controlling for factors such as poverty, race, school size, and school location (Wood, 2016, p. 11).

Research shows that suspensions are bad for all students, but also that suspensions are disproportionately applied to students based on race, gender, and ability. Nationally in the 2011-2012 school year, “32–42% of Black/African American students were suspended or expelled,” while “Black/African American students represented 16% of the student population” (Wood, 2016, p. 2). On the whole, male students are suspended more frequently than female students (Wood, 2016, p. 9). However, black female students are suspended are higher rates than white or hispanic female students (Wood, 2016, p. 5). Looking at the exact same behavior, a study in 2011 found that “African American and Latino students were more likely than their White peers to receive expulsions or OSS as consequences for the same or similar problem behaviors. (Wood, 2016, p. 5) This type of bias for similar behaviors is why banning suspension for vague categories such as “willful defiance” is so important. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, “students diagnosed with an educational disability were more than twice as likely to receive an OSS (13%) than their non-disabled peers (6%)” (Joint “Dear Colleague” Letter, 2014). In their study for the UCLA Civil Rights project, Losen and Martinez point out that intersections of these categories can demonstrate immense inequalities: “36% of all Black middle school males with disabilities were suspended one or more times” in the 2009-10 school year (2013, p. 3). School discipline as it currently operates is discriminatory, as students of color and students with disability are especially vulnerable to suspension.

This discrimination in discipline contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline” in the United States (Graham, 2016). “Zero-tolerance” discipline policies of the late 80s and early 90s and the high-stakes accountability of NCLB in the 2000s have provided schools with the tools, and actually incentivized them, to exclude students (Graham, 2016). Consequently, “Standardized testing and increased suspensions have the effect of pushing students, especially students of color and students with disabilities, out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems” (Graham, 2016, p. 2) Once students internalize negative perceptions of themselves as “troublemakers” or come in contact with the criminal justice system, the effects can be devastating (Graham, 2016).

Suspensions are not only harmful to students in the long run, but they are missed opportunities for positive intervention. Pedro Noguera argues that exclusionary discipline practices “effectively deny targeted students access to instruction and the opportunity to learn and do little to enable students to learn from their mistakes and develop a sense of responsibility for their behavior” (2008, p. 133). Disruptive behavior that could fall under the umbrella of “willful defiance” should be interpreted as a signal that a student needs more support. Noguera continues, “When we locate discipline problems exclusively in the students and ignore the school and local contexts in which problematic behavior occurs, we ignore the most important factors that give rise to problematic behavior” (2008, p. 136). The idea of locating discipline problems in areas beyond the individual student, such as trouble at home, conflicts with peers, or disengagement from academics, is critical to improving school culture.

Many opponents of exclusionary discipline are doing more than exposing a problem, they are offering solutions that will make discipline culture more positive and fair. Restorative Justice is one alternative to exclusionary discipline that involves holding an offender accountable for their actions, “often by requiring the offender to face the victim and engage in restoration of what was lost” (Owen, et. al, 2015, p. 10). Typically, restorative justice is carried out by trained outside groups or peer juries that facilitate restorative circles to repair relationships between students (Owen, et. al, 2015, p. 10). Another strategy is professional development and support for teachers, which also requires time and resources (Owen, et. al, 2015, p. 9). A variety of programs are in place around the country, but the underlying principles should emphasize re-engagement with the classroom, rather than exclusion. Noguera writes, “By relying on alternative discipline strategies rooted in ethics and a determination to reconnect students to learning, schools can reduce the likelihood that the neediest and most disengaged students, who are frequently children of color, will be targeted for repeated punishment” (2008, p. 136). Alternatives to suspension can decrease race-based discrimination in discipline that disproportionately harms students of color.

Effects of Discipline Reform in Los Angeles   

Though the School Climate Bill of Rights was passed in 2013, discipline policy reform has been in the works in Los Angeles for over a decade. For instance, the LAUSD “passed the Discipline Foundation Policy in 2005, thereby becoming a national leader through the District-wide adoption of the proven, evidenced based whole-school alternative discipline strategy, positive behavior intervention and supports” (Special Board Meeting, 2012). These sustained efforts have contributed to significant change at the district level: suspension rates in the district have decreased from 9% in 2004-05 to 1% in 2014-15 (students not duplicated) (DataQuest, 2013). The racial gap in discipline rates has also decreased, though Black students and American Indian students are still suspended at disproportionately high rates compared to other racial/ethnic groups (Losen and Martinez, 2013, p. 14). Importantly, state and national policies have followed the district’s lead, rather than the other way around. LAUSD’s action on discipline, guided by parents, teachers, administrators, and students, has been effective at reducing suspensions.

The state of California as a whole has also demonstrated steady declines in suspension rates. From 2012 to 2104, statewide suspension rates dropped by over three percentage points. In fact, “77% of this reduction in total suspensions is attributable to fewer suspensions in the category of disruption or willful defiance,” demonstrating the impact of legislation like AB 420 and district policies that ban suspension for willful defiance (Losen, et al., 2015, p. 4). Losen, et al. comment, “The local efforts of members of many school communities in districts across the state not only inspired the state to act but also contributed to the patterns” of statewide decrease in suspension rates (2015, p. ii). District-level action, in places such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley, and Alameda, has been instrumental in decreasing state-level suspension rates (Losen, et. al, 2015).

Figure 1. State and district rates have decreased over time. Los Angeles Public Schools have been working since 2005 to reform discipline, showing that this issue requires sustained effort.

Across all of LAUSD’s almost 1,000 schools, the average suspension rate in 2014-15 was 0.9%. Most of the district’s schools are clustered around this average, which is quite low compared to the national suspension rate of 10.1% for secondary schools (data from 2011-12) (Nationwide Suspension Rates). However, there are significant outliers within the district. Fourteen schools in the district have suspension rates higher than 10%, meaning one in ten children at those schools was suspended at least once in the 2014-15 school year (Figure 2). Of those fourteen schools, twelve are charters, one is a magnet, and one is a regular public school. Based off this short list of the schools with the highest suspension rates, charter schools are not making the same improvements in decreasing suspensions that district schools have shown. Charter schools have received backlash in cities across the country for their tendency to employ strict discipline techniques, resulting in higher suspension rates. The California NAACP recently proposed a moratorium on expansion of the charter sector, citing discipline as a major concern (Nix, 2016).

Figure 2. Each point represents a school in LAUSD. Points in red show schools with suspension rates above 10%. Points in green show schools with suspension rates below 10% and above 5%. Points in blue show schools with suspension rates below 5%.

When it comes to discipline, district-level action has been critical, but perhaps the most important level for students is school-level change. Suspension rates are not just numbers, but signals of school climate that affect every student in the classroom, not just the students who face suspension. Garfield High School in L.A. is an example of one school’s efforts to shift discipline culture. When Jose Huerta became principal in 2010, his mission was to “enhance and improve the instruction” at Garfield High School (NPR Staff, 2013). Reducing suspensions, which he and his team of teachers have done significantly, was only one component, or perhaps a result, of that mission. Huerta sees suspensions as reactionary and assumes that problems outside of class are causing disruptive behavior (NPR Staff, 2013). When a student exhibits problematic behavior, Huerta says that “teachers act quickly with counselors or the student support team to ‘find out what the real deal is” (NPR Staff, 2013). With limited funds to spend on additionally school counselors or supports, Huerta reached out to community groups (NPR Staff, 2013). He claims that “connecting with kids and having a strong instructional program” are the keys to lower rates of exclusionary discipline (NPR Staff, 2013).

Garfield High School did not suspend any of its 2,500+ students in the 2014-15 school year (DataQuest, 2013). To decrease, and eventually eliminate, suspensions at Garfield, it took determined administrators and teachers with a comprehensive view of positive school culture that emphasized student engagement, community involvement, and the social-emotional needs of students. However, not every teacher and administrator shares Huerta’s views. Furthermore, there are barriers in place currently that make improving discipline culture more difficult than it needs to be.

Challenges to Implementing a Suspension Ban

Not all educators are supportive of the suspension ban. A common criticism from opponents of the ban is that well-behaved students will suffer if disruptive students are not removed from the school. One Los Angeles teacher said “If I see the classroom environment is suffering, that the students are getting scared, I will remove the problem student because my other students have rights, too” (NPR Staff, 2013). However, quantitative studies have tentatively shown that “in California, lower district suspension rates are correlated with higher district achievement” (Losen, et. al, 2015, p. ii). Additionally, a 2014 study of Kentucky secondary schools found that “higher levels of exclusionary discipline within schools over time generate collateral damage, negatively affecting the academic achievement of non-suspended students in punitive contexts” (Perry and Morris, 2014, 1). These findings suggest that excessive use of exclusionary discipline affects the entire climate of the school, making it an environment less conducive to learning for all students.

Discipline reform is not impeding academic achievement, as some opponents have suggested, but the real experiences and concerns of educators should not be ignored. Taking away schools’ abilities to suspend without offering resources or training for suspension alternatives is a halfhearted solution to the problem of exclusionary discipline. Isabel J. Morales, a high school social studies teacher in L.A., supported the school board’s initiative but expressed that some of her colleagues felt “powerless”  LA teachers says some feel powerless (Anderson, 2015). Morales points out a disconnect between district policy and teachers’ attitudes or resources, saying, teachers “still have their same biases, and now they’re extra angry because their one method was to kick [insubordinate students] out, and there’s just extra hostility” (Anderson, 2015).

In schools where the policy may have felt like an unwelcome imposition from the school board, there have been unintended consequences. Assistant Principal at L.A.’s Markham Middle School admitted, “students were at times sent home without being officially suspended because the behavior does not meet legal grounds for suspension” (Watanabe, 2014). Several African-American parents at Markham have claimed that the predominantly Latino administration has treated their students unfairly. Parent Talia Slone said “When it’s Hispanic kids, [administrators] take the time and call parents but do not take the time with African Americans” (Watanabe, 2014). Organizers from CADRE, the same parent group that rallied for the suspension ban, have alleged that schools are now working around formal suspensions to send students home (Watanabe, 2014).

Another school under scrutiny for such practices, Gompers middle school, has recognized the problem and taken steps to improve. Gompers Principal Traci Gholar used to use suspensions as a way “to drive home to families that she was intent on building a safe, orderly and positive school climate” (Watanabe, 2014). Gholar’s sentiment represents a challenge to discipline reform- that different administrators have different ideas on how to create a positive school climate. Charged by higher ups with the task of reducing suspensions, Gholar requested resources and was able to get her school “a conflict resolution specialist, a restorative justice coordinator, more campus aides, performing arts events and other activities” (Watanabe, 2014). The first years of the suspension ban’s implementation show that schools need resources and support, whether that comes from the district or community organizations.


In many respects, Los Angeles Unified Public Schools have provided a model for reducing suspensions in large urban districts. The district’s “School Climate Bill of Rights” was the product of years of discipline reform and advocacy from parents, teachers, and students. The state of California followed suit with legislation that has begun to have statewide effects, showing that districts, especially a large urban district like LAUSD, have power to drive large-scale change. While state legislation is promising, discipline is an issue that is extremely close to students and teachers. Even in Los Angeles, an exemplar of a large urban district with low suspension rates, schools are still struggling to implement a more positive discipline culture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for schools to embrace the suspension ban, they need administrators and teachers that believe in it and/or additional resources to implement restorative justice practices, train teachers, and provide additional support to students. LAUSD should focus on supporting schools that are struggling to implement the ban as well as strengthen mechanisms for families to report instances where students are sent home, but not technically suspended. Racial disparities in discipline remain (Figure 3). In the current school year, as of mid-April, African-American students in L.A. public schools had lost 1,171 days of instruction due to suspension. While African-American students make up 8.3 % of the district’s total enrollment, they accounted for 34% of lost instructional days (Student Discipline Reports, 2017). In sum, banning suspension for “willful defiance” is effective and worthwhile. However, much of that effectiveness comes from the local support of educators and communities, rather than the power of the legislation itself. Furthermore, even in districts with the lowest suspension rates, racial disparities in discipline and schools with high rates of exclusionary discipline are still present.

Figure 3. Hispanic students have lost the most instructional days due to suspension this school year, followed by African-American students. 

Works Cited

ACLU. California Enacts First-in-the-Nation Law to Eliminate Student Suspensions for Minor Misbehavior. (2015, September 27). Retrieved from

Anderson, Melinda D. (2015, September 14). Will School-Discipline Reform Actually Change Anything? The Atlantic. Retrieved from

DataQuest. (2013, November 8). California Department of Education. Retrieved from

Graham, J. (2016). Race, Resegregation and the School to Prison Pipeline in Mecklenburg County (Order No. 10239026). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1864760225). Retrieved from

Joint “Dear Colleague” Letter. (2014, January 8). U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Losen, D.J., Keith, M.A. II, Hodson, C,L., Martinez, T.E., & Belway, S. (2015). Closing the School Discipline Gap in California: Signs of Progress. K-12 Racial Disparities in School Discipline. UCLA: The Civil Rights Project / Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from:

Losen, Daniel J; & Martinez, Tia E. (2013). Out of School and Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools. K-12 Racial Disparities in School Discipline. UCLA: The Civil Rights Project / Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from:

Nationwide Suspension Rates at U.S. Schools (2011-12). The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from

Nix, Naomi. (2016, August 4). California NAACP proposes moratorium on new public charter schools, sparking backlash from other civil rights advocates. LA School Report. Retrieved from

Noguera, Pedro. (2008) What Discipline is For: Connecting Students to the Benefits of Learning. In Pollack, M. (ed.), Every Day Anti-Racism: Getting real about race in school. New York, NY: The New Press.

NPR Staff. (2013, June 2). Why Some Schools Want to Expel Suspensions. NPR. Retrieved from

Owen, J., Wettach, J., Hoffman, K.C. (2015). Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline. Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and Duke Children’s Law Clinic. Retrieved from

Perry, Brea L. & Morris, Edward W. (2014, November 5). Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools. American Sociological Review Vol 79, Issue 6, pp. 1067 – 1087. Retrieved from 10.1177/0003122414556308.

Rott, Nathan. (2013, May 15). LA Schools Throw Out Suspensions For ‘Willful Defiance.’ NPR. Retrieved from

School Climate Bill of Rights. (2013, May 14). Los Angeles Unified School District. Retrieved from

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Student Discipline Data Reports- Suspension: 2016-2017 School Year. (2017, April 11). Los Angeles Unified School District.

Suspension or Expulsion, Cal. Education Code § 48900. (2009). Retrieved From

Watanabe, Teresa. (2014, May 31). L.A. Unified suspension rates fall but some question figures’ accuracy. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Watanabe, Teresa. (2014, May 21). Watts school officials are targeting black students, some parents say. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Wood, J. (2016). Predicting School Success From A Disruption in Educational Experience. (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation). Retrieved from