Saturday, September 14, 2013

Public School Inequality Is Hurting Rural Children

When we think of educational inequality, we often think about parents who can afford private schools vs. public schools, but there is a chasm of opportunities between public schools, especially in upstate New York. 

When you walk into St. Lawrence High School it looks like any average high school across the state. Its walls are freshly painted eggshell white and an energetic cobalt blue. Students’ artwork, personalized collages illustrating the phrase, “Home is Where the Heart is,” decorate the hallways. If you look closer, however, you will see that the floors are grubby and the trash cans are overflowing with garbage because the cleaning staff is only working part-time.

         Brasher Falls is poor. Unemployment is above 10 percent and 16.9 percent of its residents living under the poverty rate, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
For the children who live here, that poverty is reflected in its schools. This small school district belongs to the top 25 poorest school districts in New York. The high school’s population has dropped to under 100 students according to New York State Department of Education data.

Among the students who remain, the chance they will graduate is less than elsewhere in New York.   The district has a 63 percent graduation rate. Statewide, the figure is 74 percent.

And for those in its classes, there are fewer teachers, less options for classes, aging books, and dwindling supplies. In the past two budget years, the school has cut a total of 24 positions. Four more positions will be cut in the 2012-2013 school year. Students do not have a single Advanced Placement class. Teachers buy their own supplies from Walmart, as their budgets shrunk from $500 a few years ago to nothing today. Books are anywhere from eight to 20-years-old.

New York State Department of Education Data

         The struggles Brasher Falls Central School District faces are not unusual among high needs rural schools in New York. Poor rural schools do worse than average needs schools as identified by the New York State Department of Education. Average needs school districts graduates 85 percent of students, according to the most recently released data compiled by New York State. But for poor rural schools, that figure is 78.8 percent.

         The gap between quality of education is wider when poor rural school graduation rates are stacked against wealthy suburban schools. In those wealthier schools, or low needs schools, the graduation rate is 93.8 percent.

         Poor rural schools also lag behind average needs and low needs schools when you examine Regents scores. Poor rural schools students scored as much as five to 10 points below average needs schools and low needs schools did even better, scoring 10 points above rural school students on the English Regents and a whopping 17 points better on the Chemistry Regents.

         It is the dearth of opportunity for rural school students to prove themselves, however, that is the starkest example of inequality between wealthy and poor New York State school districts.

         Few rural school students are lucky enough to take advanced Regents tests that will allow them to graduate with an Advanced Regents diploma. Only 33 percent of rural school students graduate with an advanced designation in comparison to 60 percent of low needs students and 46 percent of average needs students.

         In terms of free and reduced lunch programs, 50 percent of high needs rural school students qualify for the program, compared to 22 percent of average needs schools and only 6 percent of low needs schools. The statewide number is closer to rural school counts, at 41 percent of the student population.

Brasher Falls Central School District

The town of Brasher Falls, New York, is only a 30-minute drive from Canada. As you drive through, you see some of the quirks of a small town without historical district zoning laws or an invasion of Starbucks: a Trump for President sign made of wooden planks and a statue of a polar bear holding an American flag greet you. The landscape is flat. Winters are ruthless; dumping inches of snow on the highway several times a week. Spare white and grey homes appear in the distance. They are made tiny by long stretches of unoccupied land and the occasional farm. The region is called the North Country according to most locals and it’s home to some of New York’s poorest counties.

Post-financial crisis budget cuts coupled with an impoverished student population challenge the teachers and the administration as they struggle to provide disadvantaged students with a quality education. Some teachers have been told they would not receive a single penny for supplies this year, causing teachers to pay out of pocket for pencils, paper, craft materials and instruments, or raise money through community events.

         The school had an Advanced Placement English class last year but budget cuts removed the class from the curriculum this year. St. Lawrence English teacher Margaret Snyder said she is worried about a lack of opportunity for her young children as they grow older.

         “Rural schools are being ignored in terms of their needs and it affects me in a different way as well because I have two small children in the school district,” Snyder said. “I know that what my kids are getting is not what I got growing up.”

         Teachers are looking for aid wherever they can find it or in some cases, volunteering their time. Krista Easton, a high school music teacher, said she relies on the local St. Lawrence Board of Cooperative Educational Services and community fundraisers to buy instruments and fund her chorus class as the $600 she receives from the school doesn’t fully cover her classes.

Krista Easton

        “The $600 doesn’t even come close, so the rest of the money we’re fundraising or getting from BOCES. I’m not sure what I’d do without BOCES,” Easton says.

         The school cannot afford additional music teachers or assistant music teachers, so Easton got creative. She works with SUNY Potsdam’s theatre department, which offers an internship program at St. Lawrence High School.

         “I have interns I don’t have to pay a penny to work with my students and they like the energy of the college students,” Easton says. “The head of theatre department there wants to grow the program for their summer internship programs as well.”

School math enrichment programs would have been abolished as well, if not for Ginger Armpreister, a junior high school math teacher, who offers more challenging problems to students with higher math skills after school and free of charge.

         “I’m no longer paid for it, but it offers the brighter kids a chance for math enrichment, which is something most schools around here don’t do,” Armpriester says. “It’s important preparation for college to get them to sharpen their problem solving skills now.”

         Guidance counselor Dustin Stover says he is seeing the effects of the school’s cuts on the students’ education. The school provides Distance Learning, which allows students to watch a televised class at other high schools or the local colleges. Most students lose out on that opportunity, however, because the other schools’ schedules usually conflict with St. Lawrence’s classes.

         “I feel like we’re failing to prepare students, especially top students, which is really frustrating as a counselor and a teacher,” Stover says. “We graduate students and they come back to us and they say they couldn’t deal with an above algebra pre-calculus and calculus class.”

         Stover is worried that the media and New York legislators don’t care about rural students in Upstate New York as he said the conversation usually centers on city schools.

To be sure, high needs rural schools are certainly not the most troubled schools in New York State. The lowest test scores and graduation rates, as well as the largest class sizes can be found in New York City schools, whether they are charter schools or public schools.

“There are some students who live without running water or electricity here,” Stover said. “I know things are bad in the city, but we have similar problems. I feel like we’re kind of forgotten about up here.”

         Superintendent Stephen Putman said he believes the graduation rates and test scores can improve if children receive better literacy programs. St. Lawrence received state aid for a reading First Grant for kindergarten through third grade beginning in 2005. Reading First grants provide assistance to states and districts that need support for professional development. The school eventually lost the grant and tried to maintain the program by hiring a kindergarten assistant to allow for smaller class sizes and better attention to students. The school doubled its prekindergarten program to allow for 36 students instead of 18 students.

Stephen Putman
 “We’re constantly monitoring our progress with data,” Putman says. We know we need more phonetic awareness. We’re getting lots of services and targeted help to kids so we can get them to progress through the grade levels so they’re ready to graduate.”

         Karen O’Gorman, a junior high English teacher, said students are disadvantaged at home as well as at school. Many students are not reading at home, which leads to poor literacy in high school, O’Gorman says. She said high school literacy could improve once students who benefitted from the kindergarten through third grade reading programs come of age. Until then, however, the school will have to compete with schools like Massena School District, which has an international baccalaureate program.

Karen O'Gorman

         “When our students here have to compare to Massena’s baccalaureate program, it’s never fair, because we have bright students looking at RIT and Clarkson and even Harvard, but they don’t have the portfolio that other students do,” O’ Gorman says.


   The opportunities students receive at rural high needs and low needs suburban schools are vastly different from one another. The differences can be seen in the availability of advanced classes that prepare students with the critical thinking skills they will need in college.

         Depending on where a student is born, however, he or she may never take the advanced classes that will bolster a Harvard University application or find themselves studying in the same classroom as special needs students, failing to stand out from the crowd.

         On the other end of the education spectrum, Scarsdale Public Schools is renowned for its competitive education. The high school was given the Gold medal in U.S. News and World Report’s prestigious school rankings. St. Lawrence High School does not have any ranking.

         Scarsdale has a 99 percent graduation rate. The school is adding two teaching positions this 2012-2013 school year. Scarsdale recently added Mandarin to their language classes and is considering replacing books with tablets in the future.

         Its public school system is a five-minute drive from the center of town. The 1917 building’s gothic arched windows and well-worn fa├žade lends the school an ivy-league sensibility.

   The school benefits from a 3.39 percent tax increase in Scarsdale and 2.22 percent tax increase in Mamaroneck in the 2012-2013 budget year. The $141 million budget will allow the school to make infrastructure upgrades and repairs, replace the ventilation system in the gym, remove asbestos above the school’s stage, and replace the lighting and stage rigging system. Scarsdale Superintendent Dr. Michael McGill suggests using the current school year’s budget surplus to lower taxes for the 2013-14 school budget.

         Scarsdale high school serves 394 students. The large number of students helps the school divide students by skill level in English, math and science classes. Students can take an honors level course, which requires a grade B+ or higher in the prior year’s course, an accelerated class or a skills class. Teachers review the student’s performance by grades and class participation to decide which category a student falls into.

         Parents are allowed to override the decision if they believe the teacher’s decision is not accurate or if they argue they can provide extra help at home. The majority of parents override the decision because they want their child in a high level course, says high school math teacher, Lynn Potter, who makes these decisions for the math department.

         “Sometimes they want a child to be on a lower level because they figure they can get a higher grade,” Potter says. “But most of the time they want them taking high level classes because colleges want high levels, so you think your child will be better off in a higher level course.”

         Unlike most schools, Scarsdale does not teach Advanced Placement courses. The school teaches Advanced Topics courses and curriculum is approved by school administrators.

         Ann Liptak teaches a high school 12th grade Advanced Topics English class from 9 to 9:50 a.m. For the majority of class time, Liptak asks students to interpret a Shakespearean sonnet, LXXIII, which compared the passing of the seasons to the evolution of a person’s life. Liptak used her Smart Board to present a photo slideshow of seasonal images associated with certain lyrics.

   “‘In me you see’st the glowing of such fire.’ What would that mean?”

“His youth is like the light,” a female student wearing a Princeton sweatshirt answered. “He is fading away to black like the ashes, but even then you have a moment of vitality.”

   Liptak is confident parents have accepted the drastic change from Advanced Placement to Advanced Topics courses. “Our kids are going to competitive colleges and there are less kids taking the advanced placement exam,” Liptak says.

         If students are continuing to attend illustrious colleges such as Harvard and Yale, it isn’t simply Advanced Topics classes they should be thankful for. The school’s resources, from Smart Boards in every classroom to individual laptops for every teacher in the district, are difficult to top.

   The school has a two-floor library, which formerly served as a gymnasium. The library is equipped with more than 20 computers in the open common area and study rooms separated by glass, where teachers often bring classes for research purposes. The skylight and tall potted ferns reach the second floor stairs, making the space look more like a Victorian observatory than a library. The library is filled to capacity at 1:30 p.m. Students silently click away at the keyboards or quitely converse as they flip through books.

         Students can also visit the math center if they wish to study. The math center, open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., allows students to seek extra help in math. The school pays Eleanor Landeau, a teacher’s aide, to work at the math center full-time. She does not have any other commitments.

         Students are armed with the resources they need to graduate, but the school has higher ambitions than maintaining their 99 percent graduation rate. The school’s senior year courses are designed to put students at an advantage in college, allowing students to take a year-long course in marine biology during their senior year.

         For the right-brained, the art department boasts an art gallery where students can display their art instead of posting them in the hallway. The school hosts art shows based on the themes the students study in each of their classes. Students can take computer graphics and architecture classes as well as standard drawing and painting courses.

What Experts Say Should be Done

School Size

         These inequities exist for a myriad of reasons, from school size to a complicated and ineffective funding formula, says John Sipple, a researcher for Cornell University’s Center for Rural Schools.

         Rural schools such as Brasher Falls face unique challenges, due to their small size, poor resources and already learning disadvantaged student population. These schools are also losing student population, as more families move to cities or outside of the state.

         “Broader demographic changes like population loss and an aging population that is now older and young kids leaving the area once they graduate are all contributing to this,” Sipple says.

         To better explain how loss of population is hurting public schools in rural areas, Sipple gave an example of a school that enrolls 100 students. “A school of 100 kids is losing enrollment. Let’s say it’s 2 percent a year. If two students are lost, the school loses state aid for two students,” Sipple said. “That could be $28,000 in state aid. How do you make that up? Which teacher do you fire? When the scale of loss is small, it’s harder.”

         These hard choices could be minimized, Sipple argues, by merging schools to form larger districts. There are many challenges to this solution, however. Students would have to take long bus trips from one stoplight towns to less remote school districts, demanding more resources for transportation. Some parents may resist the idea, as it would become more difficult to pick up their child from school.

         The biggest obstacle to these mergers are school boards, which are dominated by a status quo culture, Sipple says.

   “Current policy needs the Board of Education to vote yes, and both communities to vote yes a second time. There are six votes for two districts and not more than six districts have merged in 15 years,” Sipple said.

         Assuming mergers do work, Sipple argues that New York State’s funding formula is the biggest obstruction to reforming high needs rural schools. After the 2006 court case, Campaign For Fiscal Equity vs. New York State, the state government promised to change its funding formula to become more equitable. New York State does not fully fund its schools.

         “There was a high watermark of optimism, because finally there would be a fair share of state money. The court studied it forever, and the state promised they would find the formula because the formula wasn’t fully funded,” Sipple says.

         The state’s previous commitment to adjust the state formula became null and void once the recession hit. New York State Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch presented a new fiscal plan, using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) that further reduced the amount of funding set aside for education.

         “When the bottom fell out of the state and Wall Street, the formula was less than fully funded. When they looked at how cuts are done, it hit poor rural schools more,” Sipple says. “It was not as severe a year but after that (2010-2011 budget year) there was the same magnitude of cuts.”

Transient Students

         Assuming that the state legislature and governor had the political will to reform the state’s funding system, rural schools may continue to struggle. Rural school students are starting school with a poorer vocabulary and fewer at-home resources than their suburban counterparts.

         Kai Schafft, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor, studied the lifestyle of rural poor students and their relationships to the high needs rural schools they attended. Schafft found that many impoverished children moved to another home more frequently than wealthy children, making it difficult for schools to keep records of the student.

         Schafft studied 300 rural school districts and found a wide variance in in the levels of student mobility experienced by those school districts, ranging from almost no turnover to over 40 percent annual turnover. However, the most disadvantaged communities were disproportionately affected.

         The mean rate of transiency in the poorer school districts was found to be about twice that of wealthier districts, which were had on average, 8.8 percent turnover as opposed to 15 percent in disadvantaged districts. Furthermore, school administrators expressed concern that their schools may be affected by the low-achieving mobile students on school testing assessments. 

         Schafft took an especially close look at the Lamar School District, which qualifies as a high need school.  Like Brasher Falls, enrollment in reduced lunch programs is high, at 46 percent eligibility. In between 2003 and 2004, 15 percent of Lamar school district students were classified as special education students and 17 percent of mobile students were CSE classified. The majority of mobile students, 62 percent, were eligible for free and reduced lunch compared to 45 percent of exiting students.

         Those numbers make sense since most of the families studied moved out of their original home due to financial instability. The greatest percentage of families, at 11 percent, moved because they were evicted and 10 percent left temporary DSS housing. Other families left because they lived in poor conditions, the housing was too expensive, or the building was condemned. In total, 65 percent left housing out of necessity not because they found a better housing opportunity or decided to buy a home.

The Vermont Model

         Dr. Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Rural Schools Association at Cornell University, said New York needs to abandon the formula system entirely and emulate Vermont’s model for school funding. Fraser has met with school boards in upstate New York to convince school boards to pressure local legislators into supporting the policy.

         Vermont’s state funding has accounted for 87 percent of all school funding after a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court decision. The court struck down the previous state funding system in Brigham vs. State of Vermont and directed the legislature to come up with a new system that would eliminate inequities across the school districts.

         There is a two-part statewide school property tax. For businesses and commercial property there is a single rate established each year by the legislature. For local residences, there is a different rate determined by the state legislature annually. The local residence rate determines a per pupil spending amount and calculates the residential tax rate needed to fund that level of spending, according to The Rural School and Community Trust.

         The money from that property tax is distributed to schools on a per pupil measure, taking into account poverty and other cost factors. The local school district can raise the residence property tax rate if its board members believe the funding is insufficient.

         To make the system even more complex, but some would argue more equitable, there is an income sensitivity policy, which limits the amount of any property tax homeowners making less than $97,000 must pay. There is also a luxury tax on high spending districts. If a district spends 125 percent more than the previous year’s average per pupil cost, its income sensitivity limits are doubled for the portion of the budget exceeding 125 percent of the annual per pupil cost.

         “There is a high level of state support for the Vermont model,” Fraser says, pointing to the political will demonstrated in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. “All non-residential property is taxed at the same rate, which allows for them to spread more wealth across every student in the state.”

         The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, The New York State Council of Superintendents and New York State United Teachers, among others, have pressured politicians in Albany to address the issue of funding inequity but it remains an unpopular subject among legislators.

         Some upstate New York legislators such as state Senator James Seward, Assemblyman Pete Lopez and have pressured the governor and legislative leaders to address the state’s original promise to adjust the state funding formula.

         At the moment, however, Fraser says he believes the hurdles are greater than the advantages because legislative and gubernatorial leadership are not focused on rural high needs schools.

         “The winners are going to try to hold on to what they have and the losers don’t have the political clout,” Fraser says. “The formula has a huge impact on what programs are offered leading to big disparities in educational opportunity.”