Friday, November 30, 2012

The Diverse Schools Dilemma - Book Review

Michael Petrilli offers a must read for those working in or studying education policy, parents and caregivers living in the DC area, and those with an interest in or already work in a diverse school setting.  In other words, this book will likely join Teach Like a Champion as required reading for BVP staff.  Indeed, this is a great read for BVP families and everyone connected to the innovative Rhode Island Mayoral Academy model, whereby Rhode Island statute requires that half of the Mayoral Academy seats are offered to urban students and half to non-urban students.

When I joined the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, I was actually hesitant about the diverse elements of the work.  Early in my career, I completed the Teach For America program, having taught in Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City.  About four years ago when I decided to join the Mayoral Academies, I was working in Providence, in schools seemingly more challenged than those I worked with in New York.  Thus, the idea of leaving the hard and noble work of leading schools in an urban setting for a start-up charter program serving a mix of urban and - egad - suburban kids was hard to get my head around.  (If I wanted to lead a suburban school district, certainly there would have been an easier path than the one was on....)

What tipped the scales for me to join the diverse schools work was a conversation with a mentor - a Rhode Island urban superintendent.  She suggested that if my goal was to serve urban poor kids well, then the best way to do so was to lead a truly diverse school.

Fast-forward three-and-a-half years, and BVP is having many great successes.  The academic strength of our young people has been demonstrated in formative and summative assessments.  As importantly, the growth of the whole child is evidenced by strengths in athletics, music, the arts, and service to the community.  Within BVP, proficiency gaps are nearly eliminated, though our more affluent students are outperforming our lower income students when it comes to achieving "advanced" scores.  Perhaps most thrilling is this notion, this gut feel, that when our scholars go off to colleges and universities that they will be more prepared for success not only because of our academics, but also because of their experience with the real difficulties of navigating a diverse school community.  So much easier imagined than realized, but this is the goal that we are working towards!

Some of the challenges that BVP has experienced over the years, especially with recruiting and retaining some sets of upper middle income families, are actually well-explained by Petrilli in his "anti-tome."  At just about 120 pages - appreciated by someone now reading most news via twitter - Petrilli offers both research-based thoughts and personal experience as he seeks to find the right school and neighborhood for his growing family.  The Diverse Schools Dilemma brings to light one of the biggest of the internal challenges we face - thinking through pedagogy knowing that some parental sets are more likely to push for "progressive" education while other sets are choosing BVP because of our "high expectations" academic and classroom culture.

Ultimately, Petrilli does what many great authors do, leave you wanting for more.  The benefit of 120 pages is that it is easily consumable, but the brevity does leave me with some outstanding questions:
  • What are the key public policy shifts that need to be made and at what levels?  Spell out the hypothesis in greater detail.  Is it bussing? Is it greater, "cross border" choice? Is it greater financial incentives for diverse schools?
  • The threshold of 50% Free-Reduced Price Lunch is used when showing safety statistics.  How dramatically does that data change as you increase that metric?  How might the data change if you just use Free Lunch as the metric?  (Hypothesis, 50% FRL is actually too low of a benchmark to be realistically implemented, and that things start to really negatively shift above of 70% FRL or above 50% FL).
  • There is a hypothesis that high need kids are more likely given higher poverty levels, and that that "one kid" can throw off learning for a whole class.  Where does inclusion and special education fit in this paradigm?  Is this potentially an unintended anti-inclusion argument as well? This worries me, a lot.
  • The challenge of grouping homogeneously versus heterogeneously seems ultra-big and mostly unanswered. Who, nationally, is doing this really well?
  • What are effective programs, tools, resources to bring families (and students) together in diverse schools?  Is it okay if some kids sit on a different side of the cafeteria? If not, what then?  The anecdotes in the book show that parental exchange is a challenge, but what are some proven solutions and models?
After you have read Petrilli's book (shoot me a note to borrow one of my copies, or click here) please send me your unanswered questions and perhaps we can get Mr. Petrilli to venture up to Rhode Island for a Q&A.

And, if you were looking for a real book review, check out the Washington Post.  

Can't wait for a visit to engage with Michael? You can find him, like me, on twitter...

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