The controversy over Key West’s charter schools rocked the school board during last week’s meeting. “How do we know this is not going to be another white-flight school?” asked longtime school board member Andy Griffiths about a new charter middle school. Some fear an exodus of white students toward charter schools will leave the district run public schools with insufficient resources and failing grades. For others, the specter of re-segregation is simply intolerable.
The numbers are telling: Key West’s Horace O’Bryant [HOB], the district run public K-8 school, has only 27% white [non-hispanic] students and 71% of its students receive free or reduced lunch while barely 3 miles away Sigsbee Charter School has 66% white [non-hispanic] students and only 2% of students qualify for subsidized lunches.
We decided to update and republish our previous investigation into the re-segregation of Key West’s schools; the tricks of the trade:
Monroe County’s Secret Roadmap to Re-segregation
by Arnaud and Naja Girard….
It’s 7:30 am at the bus stop on Truman and Emma. Eleven-year old Dimitri is about to climb into the morning school bus. Like him, most of the kids sitting on the bus are African American. Like them, he has a mere 54% probability of graduating from high school with his classmates; a stark difference from his white brothers, who have an 85% graduation rate [Those numbers are an average for the past 3 reported years).
When we interviewed parents in Bahama Village about this disparity their responses raised an unexpected red flag.
“That is why I didn’t want my son to go to HOB,” says the mother of a fifth grader, “He’s going to the white school.”
BP: “The white school? What do you mean? What white school?”
Mom: “No, it’s just the way we talk. I mean Poinciana.”
BP: “You guys call Poinciana the white school?”
Mom: “Well, yes.”
So, what are they talking about? Is it just a matter of perception or has Key West somehow re-segregated its school system?
This morning we are following the orange bus on its way to Gerald Adams Elementary School on Stock Island. The bus stops in front of one public housing “project” after another: Porter Place, George Allen Apartments, Fort Street Apartments. By the time it parks in front of Gerald Adams, behind 4 other orange school buses, a large majority of the young children pouring out with their backpacks and new clothes are either black or Hispanic. Of the 554 students at Gerald Adams this year only 103 are white [non-Hispanic]. That’s a drop from 141 in 2014.
On their long journey to school however these kids have passed three other elementary schools without stopping: Sigsbee with 476 students, where only 5% of students are black. Montessori with less than 2% blacks. Strangely enough, the third school, run by the District, Poinciana Elementary, like Sigsbee and Montessori which are charter schools, has no school buses. Parents must drive their children to school and many students are “out of District,“ enrolled in the school by choice after being placed on a waiting list.
“Well of course, this is the best school,” explains the crossing guard as we stand on the sidewalk watching the traffic.
“Why aren’t there any school buses?” we ask.
“I don’t know,” says the man.
“But the kids from Bahama Village are being bused all the way to Stock Island.”
“Ah, you noticed that,” says the man who is African American and he adds with a smile, “I have no comment.”
Sixty-two years ago the Supreme Court, in Brown v Board of Education, unanimously declared segregation in schools a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their [minority students] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,” wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
We decided to take a look at the issue of racial integration in Key West schools. Along the way we learned that of the 553 classroom teachers in Monroe County only 5 are black, and at least one guidance counselor was found to block black students from honors classes.
What we learned is that segregation in Key West is less an ugly beast breaking through the door than a pervasive old stench creeping back out of the walls. It is done, so to speak, in our sleep by simply not questioning a myriad of innocuous practices, which ultimately happen to result in serving the old prejudices.
So here is the Monroe County secret roadmap to re-segregation; the tricks of the trade.
THE BUS ROUTE TRICK
According to Patrick Lefere, who is in charge of school transportation, school buses don’t service Poinciana because the district border around the school doesn’t extend past the statutory two-mile requirement for bus service.
For segregation watch-dogs, it is precisely the geographic design of those districts which is suspect. The fact is, school buses basically round up kids from all the public housing “projects” and the Bahama Village neighborhood and ship them all to relatively low-income Stock Island [Gerald Adams] or to HOB. Those two schools teach a completely disproportionate percentage of minority and low-income students.
Under Florida Statute 1002.33(20) the bus system must be used to assure that a charter school’s enrollment mirrors the community’s racial diversity. If Sigsbee and Montessori charter schools decided to do outreach in the black community, the school district would be obligated to assist with its buses. In fact, the District does provide buses for two charter schools: Big Pine Academy and Key West Collegiate Charter.
THE CHARTER SCHOOL TRICK
When the Florida legislature adopted the 1996 statute allowing public schools to be formed as “charter schools” the goal was to foster “innovative teaching methods”. Privately run charter schools are considered public schools and are fully funded with taxpayer money.
Critics however claim they are a pathway to re-segregation. School board member Andy Griffiths pointed out, during a recent board meeting, that charter schools in Key West have become “white flight schools”.
Teachers we interviewed complain that an exodus toward charter schools is leaving the public schools with a disproportionate number of “problem students”: the ones from Haiti or Cuba, who barely speak English, and others with difficult social circumstances.
In theory, charters schools may not discriminate, they must be open on a first-come first-served basis. In reality, however, they have established a system of preference that favors family members of existing students and teachers. This helps preserve the original group composition (usually predominantly white). Charter schools generally require mandatory participation of parents. Critics claim that this helps to keep at bay students from low-income struggling families whose parents are intimidated or unable to come to school to volunteer during the day.
We considered the claim that Sigsbee’s racial imbalance is the result of being a school of choice for the military. In fact, blacks comprise 22.9% of US Navy personnel, a higher percentage of blacks than are currently enrolled in Key West schools [14.8%]. The military preference argument does not explain why only 5% of the Sigsbee’s students are black. [See demographics for all Monroe County schools here.]
Sigsbee Elementary became a charter school in 2011 and now has 476 students enrolled. 315 of them are white [non-Hispanic]. Sigsbee has a 65.5% white [non-hispanic] student population while Gerald Adams has 22.4%.
Sigsbee Charter School is not only racially imbalanced; it also receives more money than the other public schools. In addition to a $325,000 state grant received when it first opened, the school obtained a $ 570,000 grant in 2011, which it used for the creation of a state of the art science program. In October of 2015 the school received an additional $500,000 grant which is being used, in part, to expand after school programs to include kayaking and snorkeling trips.
Charter schools are also more likely to receive substantial donations from a higher number of affluent parents. While only 2% of Sigsbee students were eligible for free or reduced lunch this year, HOB and Gerald Adams were at 71% at 78% respectively. Arguably some charter schools manage to be not only separate, but also unequal. [See information on free and reduced lunch for all Monroe County schools here.]
THE STUDENT TRACKING TRICK
In sixth grade most Key West students are re-concentrated into one school – HOB Middle School. This is when “teams” and “honors” classes are introduced.
The creation of an “honors” track and a “regular” track results in a school comprised of two parallel universes, where African American students are almost totally absent from “honors classes”.
In recent years student academic tracking has become very controversial throughout the country. One debate made the news when the principal and two assistants [at Gilroy High in California] resigned in protest over the school board’s decision to introduce honors classes. Principal Wendy Gudaluwics was concerned that Hispanic students wouldn’t enroll in honors classes even if they could do the work because their parents might not be aware the classes exist and wouldn’t push their children to take them.
Her concern fits to a tee the honors enrollment process used in Monroe County. The following is a quote from MCSD’s report to the State on the status of equality in education in Monroe County schools:
“Through academic counsel with students and parents, 9th through 12 graders are enrolled in Honors courses.”
In such a system, the amount of family support rather than just merit is clearly a determining factor. Many minority and low-income students, like some in Bahama Village, whose families may have been torn apart by poverty or have issues with the justice system, are at a huge disadvantage.
It gets worse:
We previously reported on an alarming tendency of at least one Key West High School guidance counselor to push white students toward an honors track while blocking black students.
“We each went to see the same guidance counselor with our moms, the same week,” Naomi told us. “Bhajan was put in honors classes, but I was told I could absolutely not take honors classes.“
Our video interview of Naomi and Bhajan shows two teenagers who grew up together living on boats anchored behind Wisteria Island. Neither had gone to school before or had kept any home-school records. Neither had been tested in any way. The only difference between them was Bhajan was a white boy and Naomi was a half-black girl.
“He got all the honors classes he wanted and I had to take a remedial class!” says Naomi, “I was bored to death. My first essay was about Halloween. I thought it was pretty good. The teacher gave me a C because she said she believed it had been plagiarized!”
At this point, no one is going to convince Naomi that she has not been the victim of racism. We recommend you don’t even try.
An isolated incident or a systemic problem?
The numbers speak for themselves: In 2013 black and white students were graduating from Gerald Adams with almost identical FCAT reading scores [65% of blacks and 66% of whites were proficient in reading].
However, the information we’ve received from current students tells us there are as few as 3% black students to none at all in most of the honors classes. Enrollment in honors classes is discretional, there is no clear prerequisite, and it escapes outside control because the enrollment lists are confidential.
No one can know for sure how many Naomi’s in Monroe County’s school system are floating in the pool of disillusionment and broken dreams, performing precisely to the low level expected by a system which has seemingly given up on them.
“Regular Classes”: Code for Substandard Minority Classes?
The issue of “honors classes” vs. “regular classes” is not about whether the “honors” academic standards are too high, but whether they are in fact too low.
All of the teachers, parents, and students we have interviewed seem convinced that the “honors classes” are in fact regular classes. Which would mean that the so-called “regular classes” are in fact substandard classes.
Because they are wrongly identified as “regular” classes, “the system” can sit back and relax when in fact administrators should declare a state of emergency in those “regular classes” and send a remedial cavalry to the rescue.
Low expectations rather than rescue efforts seem to be the common denominator for “regular classes.”
“In fact, it totally depends on the teacher,” said one student who recalls having had a geography teacher, Mr. Eggers, who completely turned his “regular” class full of “problem” students into a “very motivated group.”
BP: “How did he do that?”
Student: “I don’t know. I think he was just asking more of everybody.”
“Random” Team Assignments Based on Cultural Choices
Another suspected tracking method is the assignment of students into two separate “teams” when they enter HOB Middle School. According to school administrators, assignments to the “A” team or the “B” team are completely random. It’s just a fluke that the “A” team has nearly all of the top honor roll students and the “B” team has the bulk of students with the lowest test scores. Some parents are not convinced.
“Look,” said one parent, “It’s simple, the “A” team has all of the band students and the “B” team has the P.E. students. You can’t be in both. If you’re a kid from Bahama Village, playing the Oboe or the French Horn for hours at band practice might not seem all that attractive. You want to play football so you end up on the “B” team and that’s one of the ways they manage to separate these kids.”
One last thing:
NO BLACK TEACHERS TRICK
Many studies on school segregation and closing the racial academic achievement gap stress the importance of same race role models. But when it comes to black students, the reality is that Monroe County School District has almost no African American teachers. There are 451 white [non-Hispanic] teachers, 78 Hispanic and only 5 black teachers . That is less than 1% of the total 553 classroom teachers in the District.
With a Masters Degree in Political Science and a teaching degree, Bahama Village resident Sonny Reves was once a black man trying to get a job teaching in Monroe County’s public school system. “I always wanted to teach,” he told us, “I finally managed to get a job in a special grant program. It was an extra-curricular educational program, but when the grants were terminated after six years, we all hoped we would be transferred over to the public school system. I was the only black teacher in the group and the only one who was not hired.” Sonny recently retired as a cable TV installer for Comcast, never having managed to get hired as a teacher again. “And I tried,” he said shrugging his shoulders.
When we ask about the lack of black teachers we are told it is simply impossible to find any. As a point of comparison however Miami-Dade shows 5018 [23.7%] black teachers and Broward County 3,604 [24.5%] black teachers. It is hard to believe that a good faith effort could not lure a few goods ones into our so called “paradise.” [See stats for all Florida school districts here.]
HOW TO FIX IT
“We used to all be friends when we were in elementary school. Then you get to middle school and everything seems to change,” laments one student.
School Board member Andy Griffith is well acquainted with the problem. In a 2014 interview with The Blue Paper he said:
“Reform demands competition. Charter schools and corporate vouchers come on the scene offering parents a choice. Parents who are involved in their children’s education make the best partners in order to educate children. Choice results in involved families leaving the conventional schools. Our minority schools in Key West have 79% free and reduced lunch [an indicator of poverty] and our charter schools have 7%. Some competition. But choice is good right? Well choice results in segregated schools in a small community. But segregation is bad right? Yes, it is but we can’t seem to find the answer to having both.”
Our question is this:
How hard would it be to hire more black teachers? To redraw the districts and bus routes so as to balance out the racial diversity of the schools?
Certainly, the charter schools should be required to take care of their fair share of social and constitutional obligations. Under Florida Statue 1002.33(7)(8), charter schools must actively pursue efforts to mirror the racial mix of the community and the school board has the power to close the doors when they fail to do so.
Finally, we should stop pretending that the non-honors classes are “regular” classes, admit that those classes are producing substandard results, and make immediate efforts to bring those students up to speed and do so until racial tracking has become irrelevant.
Some parents we talk to are concerned that not having honors classes would handicap the brighter students. There are those, however, who advocate for interactive schooling where the brighter students in a subject help teach those that are struggling. Many studies show that students who learn by teaching end up with a much better understanding and better retention of the material than those who simply cram for a test.
Finally, it is hard to find anyone to argue against vocational education for those students who have no use for college, yet that issue remains completely ignored in practice.
Key West is failing many of its minority students. On such a small, affluent island shouldn’t the school system be a model for the world?