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Very little busing for desegregation left in Philly

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 10, 2009 03:19 PM
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22280801@N07/

The school bus was one of the primary ways to work on desegregating the schools, but now busing is mostly for students going to charter schools.

As the School District and the courts prepare to put to rest the long-running legal battle over racial equity in schools, some statistics about school busing came to light that deserve a little more attention. Busing students for desegregation, which in the 1980s and 90s was the District's main avenue for parents to exercise school choice, has declined by almost 90 percent since then.

Instead of busing between District schools, students are now primarily bused around the city to attend charter schools.

It is hard to know what to make of this development, whether it represents progress or not. What is clear, though, is that charter schools are no more likely to be desegregated by race and ethnicity than traditional public schools -- they may even be slightly more segregated.

The history is very interesting. In one of the earlier phases of the 40-year-old school desegregation case that will come to a formal end on Monday, Superintendent Constance Clayton in the 1980s inaugurated a voluntary busing program. (At the time, the PHRC wanted mandatory busing -- which Clayton and all her predecessors had rejected outright since the case began in 1970.) At its peak, some 14,000 students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to improve the schools' racial diversity.

As late as 2006-07, there were 107 schools on the list that students could transfer into for purposes of desegregation. These were schools that were racially imbalanced when the voluntary busing program started more than 20 years before, but  within the reach of the goals -- no more than 60 percent white or 75 percent black.  

Some of the busing targets were predominantly black schools in integrated neighborhoods, such as C.W. Henry or Houston School in Mount Airy.  In these cases, White students would be bused in to reach the 25 percent threshold.

But most of the desegregation target schools were predominantly White schools in the Northeast and parts of South Philadelphia and Roxborough. During this period of active busing, virtually all of the schools in these mostly White neighborhoods became racially integrated - aided in some cases by demographic changes among neighborhood residents. The overwhelming majority of parents who took advantage of the desegregation busing were African American. 

By 2006-07, however, the demographics of many neighborhoods had changed considerably. And there were two other avenues for school choice -- charters, and some transfers out of failing schools under No Child Behind. CEO Paul Vallas showed little interest in busing for desegregation; the numbers of students who took advantage of this option started to wane. 

At some point during this period, the number of schools defined as suitable targets for desegration busing was slashed from 107 schools to 10. The District has said that these are the only schools where busing for desegregation still made sense, but the data don't bear that out.

For instance, Bridesburg Elementary, a consistently high performing school that is the only District school still without a significant number of students of color, is only 1.1 percent African American. It is not on the list. 

In the face of the severe budget crisis in 2006-07, Vallas pared back busing for desegregation to the 10 schools: AS Jenks, GAMP in South Philly ; Cook-Wissahickon and Dobson in Manayunk; Shawmont in Roxborough; AMY 5, Conwell, and MYA middle schools in Port Richmond, Kensington and West Philadelphia; and Hancock and Baldi in the Northeast. Only GAMP has high school grades.

According to the School District, about 1,540 students are bused now under the desegregation program, while more than 10,000 are bused to charter schools. Most of these 1,540 students are "grandfathered" from before the 2007 decision. The District says it is accepting new deseg applications for just these 10 schools, but could not provide a number.

With the decline of desegregation busing, at least a few schools in predominantly White neighborhoods have seen a marked change in the ethnic makeup of their enrollment. For instance, at Decatur School in the Far Northeast near Franklin Mills Mall, the African American population fell from 28.5 percent in 2005 to 12.1 percent today. 

The stated goal of the deseg busing was desegregation, and I remember as an Inquirer reporter new to the education beat back in the '80s being somewhat shocked that nobody was tracking whether the busing improved student achievement. District leaders -- and the courts, for that matter -- considered this irrelevant, at least then. 

Today, however, student achievement has become the sole focus.

Thursday afternoon I caught up with Homer Floyd, the longtime executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who amazingly has been involved with the case from the start. He said he was happy with the settlement because of promises to close the racial achievement gap between White and Asian compared to  Black and Latino students.

"I’m very pleased with the agreement," he said. He praised Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for "establishing objectives that we were hoping for for a long time, that is closing the achievement gap, putting more resources into the low achieving schools, as well as getting to the extent possible the most effective teachers in those schools. Those are very important things." 

Desegregation? With the White population down to about 13 percent, Floyd said, "chasing desegregation at this point doesn't make the same amount of sense as trying to upgrade the schools. Quality education and equal educational opportunity are what we're seeking. We're hoping this agreement will lead the way to doing that."

As for charter schools, they certainly provide parents with more choices, and now they educate about one-sixth of the students who attend taxpayer-funded schools in the city.  A recent Stanford University report studying charters in 16 states indicated that while 17 percent delivered better academic gains than traditional public schools, 37 percent of charters showed gains worse than traditional schools; 46 percent showed no significant difference.

Even so, it is clear that as a matter of national policy they are now at the center of urban education reform and reducing the achievement gap. President Obama wants to see states remove caps on charters and encourage educational innovation.

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 11, 2009 8:44 am

Anyone who believes this proposed settlement will improve schools is naive about education.
The Academic Achievement Gap begins when children arrive at school day 1. "Children from economically disadvantaged families experience significant difficulties learning to read and write because they enter school with lower knowledge of letters and less familarity of words" (Geitinger & Stoiber 2008).
How will moving teachers around change the root cause of this problem?
Once again we have an administrator intent on busting the union instead of improving education for our children.
The question of the day really is can Dr. Ackerman spell, define, and practice synergy? If not say good bye to public education and hello to those increasingly racially isolated Charter Schools Dale mentioned above.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on July 12, 2009 12:00 am

You say the problem is that the achievement gap begins at Day 1. Isn't then the solution to do exactly what the District has finally agreed to after 40 years - put additional resources into the schools with economically disadvantaged families to help close the gap? 

It's true that Ackerman has been advocating forced transfers of teachers, but that is not a component of the proposed settlement in the deseg case, which we plan to post in full after it is finalized on Monday.

The focus of the final agreement is not on "moving teachers around". It is on making sure that schools with the greatest need get additional resources and supports for teachers.

On that issue right now, Superintendent Ackerman and many of the city's education advocacy groups are on the same page, which is why the settlement has come to fruition.  I'm doubtful that she'll have te same groups backing her if she continues to push for forced transfers of teachers or takes steps to "bust the union."

But I think Dale gets at another important question in this post - is it really the case that nobody cares about desegregating schools any more? Or is it the case that the District pulled the plug on the busing program even though it has historically been a tool for students in low-performing schools to gain access to schools that are at least marginally better?

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 12, 2009 1:29 am

anonymous says "busting the union..."

That is amusing...

The union and the district are two peas in the same pod...they both work hand in hand...

The union in Philly is no union...it is a lap-dog of Ackerman...Jordan and Ackerman are like a couple on the top of a wedding cake...both of the same mind and nefarious agenda...

Phttuuuu!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 12, 2009 1:44 pm

I take you at your word Paul that this is not about union busting or forcing teacher transfers form high achieving schools to low achieving schools. Perhaps because of the sensationalism of this issue and its ability to sell papers, it has received the brunt of publicity in media coverage.
I am a big fan of Dr. Ackerman's concept of weighted student funding. It has worked in Montgomery County Maryland and our state reps should pay attention to that in bills now before the house.
As for the state deseg case I do think no one cares about that anymore. The evidence appears to be in, (at least at the elementary school level). Citizens want their children to attend elementary schools where they can have easy access. For lower income parents that seems to mean in the local neighborhood. For affluent or commuting parents, close to work is as important as close to home.
I'd like to see a study detailing the income of parents who send their children to elementary charter schools outside of their neighborhood.
I'm guessing that our diverse charter schools have parents with the highest income level.
I would further argue that Charter Schools are doing for Philadelphia what magnet schools originally did, keeping the middle class in Philly.
All parents Black, White, Hispanic. Asian, are tired of seeing their children be the victim of a school district which for whatever reason, fails to maintain proper codes of conduct in our schools.
It seems everyone wants out of this district, parents are flocking to charter schools, administrators are seeking managers to improve the schools they can't, and teachers are miserable. Dr. Ackerman's job of improving this district should be an easy one.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on July 12, 2009 6:19 pm

Do you really think "Ackerman's job of improving this district should be an easy one"? You have to be kidding! For starters she hasn't offered any new solutions and seems to recite old ones that didn't work with previous CEOs. The throw money at mentality doesn't work, especially in Philly where the money rarely reaches the actual classrooms.

Many teachers want support from this district, not out of it. Ackerman continues to propagate the myth that charters and private operators will save the district. By now the research has shown that neither one has done what they have promised.

A solution that hasn't been tried, teacher run schools. Not just the classrooms, but the purchasing of materials used, administration done by teachers, etc. Restore coporal punishment in half the schools. Parents that are afraid that their darlings might get a paddling can send their kids to the other schools where Time Outs reign. Parents that have done their job and disciplined their children know they have nothing to worry about at corporal punishment schools because they've already laid down the law at home. That will weed out the behavior problems that currently waste so much time in class.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 12, 2009 9:58 pm

You are exactly right, which is why fixing the schools is easy. Dr. Ackerman needs to drop the antagonism, support the teachers who are trying to do their job, and let's all get on the same page and push in the same direction.
Why is it principals and administrators can't take constructive criticism, yet it is clear their administratively run schools are failures?
Teacher run schools could be a great solution. It's called "Distributive Leadership." The administration can say it, spell it, but can't seem to implement it because power hungry principals will lose their fiefdom
The district has confused the term "strong principal" with effective ones. We need effective ones, not weak people who masquerade as strong leaders imposing their ill informed wills.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 13, 2009 8:30 pm

Teacher run schools as opposed to what we have now...student run schools? Especially in the neighborhoods...

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 13, 2009 3:01 pm

Ackerman is doing a three card monty...when the pressure is on...talk about discrimination and equality in the schools...

Ackerman needs to clean up her schools' 50 percent drop out rate...

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 12, 2009 11:06 pm

Doesn't Ackerman believe that the poor performance of the students is the fault of the teachers?

Never mind that many of the students come from broken homes...are raised in dyfunctional homes...it is the teachers fault...

Keep blaming the teachers...and I am sure the drop out rate will improve...

Submitted by Rev Stephen Greene (not verified) on September 18, 2009 7:18 pm

This is a very enlightening article. And you are correct, as most if not all of the charter schools we tried to enroll our daughter in are racially and ethnically segregated as well. A number of the neighborhood schools in the city are still very much segregated.
We had our daughter bussed from 65th & Lansdowne to 13th & Porter to the A. S. Jenks school since first grade. She graduated this past June. Prior to her graduation, my wife had applied to several schools (5 in fact) to try and get our daughter enrolled. She was denied access to all five.
Two weeks before the school year began, mid-August, the school board notified us that she was accepted to Meredith School at 5th & Fitzwater. However, we were never notified that she would not be bussed until we went to the school board office at Broad & Spring Garden Streets. We were then sent back to Meredith to have the school principal fax the request to the Bus Office requesting that our daughter continue to be bussed. Well, two weeks after the school principal had assured us that the request had been faxed, my wife contacted the Bus office at the school administration building to find out what progress had been made on our request. It turns out that the principal NEVER SENT THE REQUEST TO THE BUS OFFICE!!! She was reluctant to do this in the first place, constantly telling us that she had done this for other parents and they were denied. In fact she went so far as to tell us that the schools were told not to even send in requests for bussung school children.
My wife found out that our daughter indeed qualifies to be bussed because of the distance she would have to travel to school every day (over 5 miles). How many other parents were told this lie and believed it?
I for one refuse to pay to have my daughter educated. When she attends college, I qill have absolutely no problem with paying tuition. But to have to pay for an education from public school, which is a God-given right under the Constitution, is an absolute disgrace. We are losing good teachers to the suburban districts because of the way our public schools are being run. I see children up to and including teenagers coming to schools in this city not wearing the proper uniforms. I see our young African-American boys and young men coming to schools with their pants down below their behinds; something i find absolutely repulsive, and worse, I do not see one teacher or principal correcting them and making them pull their pants up!
Where is the structure for these children? Why are some children being permitted to come to school improperly dressed? Where are the standards? The real estate companies are not helping the situation because they are still selling housing based on race. You see the "gentrification" of our neighborhoods occurring throughout the Mantua-Powelton Village and University City areas.
UNEQUAL EDUCATION IS A VIOLATION OF THE U. S. CONSTITUTION!
Give our children an opportunity to attend any school in this city that we choose to send them to. If the School District will not guarantee equal education throughout the entire city and not just the Center City area, then our children MUST be given the opportunity to be bussed.
We will meet with the Meredith school principal on Monday and deal with this bussing issue there.

Submitted by Bo Diddley Brummel (not verified) on September 18, 2009 11:18 pm

Teachers are reluctant to criticize a student's dress because they get no support. None from the administration or the parents. I had a parent once insist that her son's shirt was school approved despite the fact that it said "US Polo Team". I told her I wasn't aware that the district had a polo team. The cowardly principal I worked for lectured me about giving parents a hard time. We get tired of trying to uphold rules (cells phones are a good example) that the administration refuses to enforce. Teachers now get even less support than ever with Wackerman in charge. Trying to get a child to come dressed properly becomes a power play in which the teacher loses. After a while, why bother? When parents demand that principals and their ilk enforce the rules they pretend to enforce then we might see some real reform.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 8, 2010 11:17 am

Fix the problem at the source. Bad parenting + Bad Schools = Bad Education. Fix the family life and fix the schools. STOP BUSING PROBLEMS FROM AREA TO AREA. Roxborough has become an afternoon gangland.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 25, 2011 6:15 pm

I am amazed that this debate goes on ad infinitum. More money doesn't help. Busing doesn't help. There are plenty of examples of that. Get rid of the teacher's union. Inject real discipline into the schools and remove disruptive students. These things will do more to improve education than a truckload of money.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 25, 2011 6:57 pm

Remove disruptive students? Where should we put them? They have a right to learn, too... they have a right to programs that will address their needs. I have one extremely disruptive young man in mind. The problems with him stem mostly from his frustration with the totally scripted day he must endure. If I was allowed to instruct him on his educational levels, most of his problems would fade.
He is not disruptive to be bad - he is begging for support. He should be getting it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2011 12:11 pm

The child you are talking about sounds like the exception. You point out the exception rather than commenting on my basic thoughts. Most disruptive students don't want to be there. They should be isolated in special classes or special schools. Those special environments would have different rules than a normal class. We need to think about the needs of the kids who will cooperate and want to learn. If you don't change anything those kids will suffer. Do you think the teachers union is helping education? If you do you're extremely biased.

Submitted by meg (not verified) on February 26, 2011 5:50 pm

The union is helping my focus, which yes is helping the education of my students.
As for separating all disruptive students? I think that is too broad a statement. There is too much gray in the topic for any blanket statemens.
My little one would love to learn - you are right - I just do not have the freedom to teach him and that is wrong.
As for the students not wanting to be there - SOME of that is our fault. Who wants to be in an environment where they are not valued or supported? That is what we are offering right now.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2011 3:30 pm

Great. What you're saying is keep the status quo or throw more money at the problem. It doesn't work.

Submitted by meg (not verified) on February 28, 2011 3:21 am

That is not what I meant - not even close. Each child needs to be treated equally, fairly and as themselves, not a cookie cutter approach. Parental support should be considered as well as the educational needs of each child. I am against locking all troublesome kids up togethere in one room in the building.
As for my exception - as someone put it, if I was allowed to instruct him without a script, he would be growing as a student, as a person and some of these behaviors would fade away. He is not the first struggling student I have taught and I can teach even those kids, when I am permitted to do so. He is no cookie cutter kid and this program is failing him.
I actually need less monies to teach my class including him - not more. Take away the scripted programs and let me use the materials I have and that are already available in my building. IT can be done.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2011 5:11 pm

OK. Good luck and I hope you can improve things. However, I have been hearing opinions for 40 years and seen no improvement. I don't ever expect to see any improvement. I think people will just be talking and talking and talking about what should be done. Even the schools in the burbs aren't what they could be. That's why I spent a small fortune on private schools. Now I'm in debt up to my ass.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2011 1:38 pm

Disruptive students have a right to learn, but they DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO PREVENT OTHER STUDENTS FROM LEARNING. I agree with the scripted programs being a major problem (and the constant monitoring of teachers who dare to not conduct them with "fidelity"). However, much of the disruption comes from administrative cowardice and a reluctance on the part of parents to discipline their own children when it's needed. These kids feed off the spinelessness of the Philadelphia School District administration. Everyone acts like corporal punishment is such a bad thing. It actually defines the very boundaries that these children need. Programs designed for every child's need would be wonderful, but you know it's not going to happen.

Submitted by meg (not verified) on February 26, 2011 5:56 pm

I totally agree with that point. No child has the right to disrupt learning for others. My point is that each case must be handled individually. We cannot just autmatically throw away kids who cause problems.
I think we deal at different ends of the continuum, also. Second graders really need more support and options than high schoolers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 25, 2011 6:11 pm

P.S. Of course bad parenting is a significant part of the problem. However, there is nothing that can be done about that so stop worrying about it.

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