As local parents wait to find out whether the state Dept. of Education will allow a local charter school to expand by two grades, complaints from the local school board that the city’s charter schools are creating segregation may call attention to a similar situation in the district’s own public schools.
Last November, the superintendent of the Hoboken public school district, Dr. Mark Toback, wrote a letter to the then-commissioner of the New Jersey Dept. of Education, Christopher Cerf, asking Cerf to carefully consider whether a local charter school should be allowed to add a seventh and eighth grade.
His main argument was that as the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School – or HoLa – grows, it will put too great a financial burden on the local public schools. But his other argument, which has caused significant controversy since Toback’s letter became public, was that HoLa, the newest of three charter schools in the city, was (albeit unintentionally) causing racial and socioeconomic segregation in Hoboken’s schools.
Why is one of the elementary schools less diverse than the rest?
Despite Toback’s pleas, the state approved HoLa’s expansion in March. In response, the Board of Education, which supported Toback’s original letter in November, filed a petition in April with the state Department of Education to have the charter renewal, and the expansion, revoked. The board also hired an attorney for $20,000 to deal with the matter.
The HoLa community – parents of 220 students in kindergarten through sixth grade – has reacted angrily to the board’s approach, and tensions between the board and HoLa have run high. This past March, Board President Leon Gold, in an interview with the online magazine Salon, claimed that HoLa and the other charters were fostering “white flight” from Hoboken’s public schools.
“We are creating separate but equal school systems,” he said. “HoLa has now become an alternative, in my opinion, white flight school…”
The state DOE is legally required to study the possible segregative effects a charter may have on its wider community, so Toback’s request is not out of line.
But are the comments about HoLa being segregated accurate? And what if the other public schools – the ones under the Board of Education’s control – also vary along racial and ethnic lines?
Gold’s claim that the local charters foster “white flight” can be backed up by statistics. A 2010 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) showed that HoLa was 61 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent African-American. The city’s other charters, one of whom educates Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s children, have similar breakdowns. These statistics are in line with the makeup of Hoboken, but not with the public schools, who serve a population that is approximately 61 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white, and 16 percent African American.
Charter supporters have argued that the schools operate a random lottery for students, and that these schools have reached out to all segments of the community.
But it appears that charter schools are not the only places where segregation may exist.
One of these schools is not like the others
In Hoboken’s three public primary schools – Calabro Elementary, Connors Elementary, and Wallace Elementary – statistics show a student body starkly divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.
Statistics from the state DOE show that Connors School, which is located closest to the Hoboken Housing Authority projects and is attended by many of the economically disadvantaged Hispanic and African-American students in town, has roughly eight times fewer white students than Calabro and Wallace, and 20 percent more African-Americans. Students at Connors are also about 33 percent more likely to receive free lunch, a typical measure of a student’s socioeconomic status, than students at Calabro and Wallace.
And though roughly 60 percent of students at Wallace and Calabro achieve math and reading proficiency at their grade level, Connors students are doing as well. In 2012-13, only 28 percent and 43 percent of Connors students proved to be at grade level in reading and math, respectively.
Neither Toback nor Gold has said that this is a clear-cut case of segregation. Defining segregation is complicated, and it can be measured using markers other than race and socioeconomic status, Toback said.
“Something to keep in mind is that there are socioeconomic and racial differences, but there are a lot of ways to slice and dice these things, and there are many ways to look at this,” said Toback in an interview on Thursday.
Furthermore, the Hoboken school district, despite running on a neighborhood school system, does not require students to attend their neighborhood school. When registering to enter the school system, parents are allowed to list their first, second, and third choices. First choices are granted more often than not, said Toback.
The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) describes schools with fewer than 10 percent white students as “intensely segregated.” According to USDOE data, 43 percent of Hispanic students and 38 percent of African-American students in the country attend such schools.
Connors is 63 percent Hispanic and 32 percent African-American. Only 3.9 percent of its students are white.
Gary Orfield, a professor of education at the UCLA Civil Rights Project, a group that studies the effects of race and class in public schools, recently offered a sobering indictment of diversity in today’s public school system to neaToday, the official magazine of the National Education Association.
“What we’ve seen over the past two decades is a slow but steady increase in the isolation of Black and Latino students. It’s not just an issue of race. There is ‘double segregation’ of race and poverty,” said Orfield. “Few people want to address these issues, but we must talk about the value of diversity and the success of stable, integrated communities so we can start to reverse these dismal trends in our schools.”
Toback said he is aware of the demographics of Hoboken’s elementary schools and acknowledged that Connors’ lack of diversity, while unintentional, is less than desirable.
“We know there’s an issue,” he said. “It’s not like this is something that’s unknown to us or the community, and we’ve tried to figure out how to improve it in the past. This is not a new thing for us.”
But does it need to be forcibly changed? In fact, Toback tried to do so three years ago.
The Princeton Plan
In his first year as Hoboken superintendent, Toback floated the idea of overhauling the way the public school district divides students into its various available school facilities. Rather than having neighborhood schools, Toback suggested a switch to the Princeton Plan.
In 1948, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court would rule school segregation unconstitutional in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the Board of Education in Princeton, N.J., decided to divide students not by neighborhood, race, or class, but by grade level. Early childhood students attended school in one building, elementary school children in another, middle school in a third, and high school in a fourth. The system is currently used in various Hudson County districts, including Weehawken, Union City, and West New York.
“The issue was that we didn’t have a lot of connection between each of the school communities. So the idea was that we could bring all the schools together to strengthen the community through the Princeton Plan. It’s used to create equitable demographics throughout a district,” Toback said. “Based on the facilities we have, the idea was to have Calabro and Brandt as early childhood schools, Wallace would accommodate first through fifth grades, and Connors would be a middle school.”
Under Toback’s proposal, Hoboken Junior-Senior High School, which houses seventh and eighth graders, would have remained ninth through twelfth grades only.
But the plan was shot down before it ever came to a Board of Education vote. Parents were concerned about transportation – why should an uptown parent of a preschooler have to walk half a mile to Calabro?
Toback said that the circumstances simply would not have allowed the Princeton Plan to succeed.
“We don’t have a centrally located campus, we have neighborhood schools. We didn’t have the means to transport kids at the time,” he said.
How do parents choose?
So if one of Hoboken’s three elementary schools, Connors, performs as poorly as it does on state standardized tests, why do parents send their kids there? The main reason is that it’s in the neighborhood. Despite the city’s mile-square size, shuffling around young children can be tough, especially in bad weather with no car.
“While we don’t have geographic boundaries that compel students to attend a certain school, the students who go to Connors are students who want to go there,” said Toback. “The convenience of a neighborhood school doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong being done to segregate people.”
So why are there so few white students at Connors? Even if the Housing Authority projects are located just two blocks from the school, and most of the children who live there are minorities, there are also a significant number of white families who live in the area, which includes some of the city’s most expensive condominiums.
A Caucasian mother of HoLa students who lives near Connors, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, said it’s an open secret in the neighborhood that Connors is the worst of Hoboken’s three elementary schools. And she also said that most mothers, especially those who belong to an online forum called “Hoboken Moms,” are aware of how to rig the registration process to avoid their children being sent to Connors.
“You just say on the form that you need aftercare,” she said. “Connors doesn’t have aftercare, but Calabro and [Brandt and] Wallace do.”
The mother also said that she only knows of one case where a parent who requested to have her child placed outside of Connors was denied the option. That woman, who lives in the Hoboken Housing Authority projects, is convinced that her address was the only factor that worked against her. But Toback said that the registration forms are processed fairly and thoroughly. The default option, if no special requests are made, is to place students in their neighborhood school.
“We look at other issues like location; we work to balance classrooms by gender, but we do ask for a preference and when we do, we ask parents to explain [their preference],” said Toback. “Connors is the only school we have in the southern part of town, and so the children there come from that neighborhood. That’s the closest school to the Housing Authority.”
Toback also said that he does not believe that there is a perception among parents that the elementary schools are segregated.
The mother of three said that some parents are turned off by the school’s test scores – thus, their reasons for preferring Wallace or Calabro are not based on race or class. But however innocent the intentions, the situation can create a dangerous cycle, and not just in Hoboken.
According to neaToday, “When a school becomes segregated by income and race, it’s difficult to break that cycle. Concentrations of poor or minority students – and often, poor and minority go hand-in-hand – combined with low school performance drive middle-class families away, further distilling the concentration and exacerbating its effects.”
But what about HoLa?
So, was it unfair of Toback – who is superintendent of the public schools but has no jurisdiction over the charters, which are overseen by their boards of trustees – to argue that HoLa’s expansion is having segregative effects on the Hoboken community?
The superintendent said that although diversity in the public schools is largely outside the district’s control, the state is legally required to monitor any segregative effects within the charters.
“This is a nationwide issue and there have been many concerns expressed regarding charter school enrollment,” he said. “They enroll a different demographic than the demographic in the normal public schools. But there’s a very different enrollment in our charter schools, and the enrollment has changed over time. The question is, is the situation getting better or getting worse?”
In fact, there are statistics that support Toback’s claims. According to figures compiled by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a non-profit, pro-charter advocacy group, the demographics of Hoboken’s charter school population are in stark contrast with state averages. Most charters are designed to give disadvantaged students an alternative to failing public schools, and so their populations are such that the majority of students are Hispanic or African-American.
According to NAPCS figures for the 2010-11 school year, New Jersey charter schools are attended by 61 percent African-American students, 25 percent Hispanic students, and only 10 percent white students. But in Hoboken, where most minority students attend the public schools, the charter school demographics are nearly inverted from state averages – 59 percent of students are white, 25 percent are Hispanic, and only nine percent are African-American.
The contrast, according to Barbara Martinez, the president of HoLa’s board of trustees who works for a pro-charter think tank in New York City, is due to Hoboken’s population overall, and is not indicative of a plot to segregate the schools.
“I think you can’t really compare Hoboken to the state average because most charters in New Jersey are in places like Newark and Camden where the majority of the population is black or Hispanic,” she said. “That’s not the case in Hoboken.”
The city’s other two charter schools, Elysian Charter and the Hoboken Charter School, were started in the mid-1990s to provide families with alternatives to the existing public schools, which had a poor reputation at the time. Groups of “reform” politicians have come and gone on the school board, with the current group, Kids First, supporting Toback’s move against HoLa and touting improvements they say they have made in the public schools.
Several years ago, a group of educators in Hoboken attempted to start a science and math charter school, the Da Vinci School, but the Board of Education took a stand against it, claiming too many resources would be taken from the other public schools.
According to Board of Education figures, HoLa’s expansion to sixth grade, reflected in the 2013-14 budget, will cost the district $575,000 – but both sides of the debate have argued over the meaning of this number and whether federal or state aid covers it.
Toback said regardless of the motives, apparent segregation in the charter schools warrants a comprehensive study by the state.
“There’s a requirement for the commissioner to look at the segregative effect. No one has ever said HoLa has systematically found a way to rig their system to create a certain demographic in their school,” he said. “What we are saying is that there is an issue of de facto segregation. Whatever process there is now is leading to a result that we think the Department of Education should look at.”
Gold did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org