BURLINGTON - A high incidence of poverty limits opportunities for students at Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler elementary schools in Burlington's Old North End. The school board appointed a task force to examine this problem. In June, the 15-member group released its recommendations: They voted unanimously to seek socio-economic integration, or SEI, in all six of Burlington's elementary schools.
It's not quite clear how SEI would be carried out, or when - the school board won't discuss how to act on the recommendation until it meets November 14. But the idea of sending lower-income kids to schools in middle-class neighborhoods, or vice versa, is proving controversial, and parents are already staking out their positions. A group of those who oppose the proposal have formed Burlingtonians for Responsible Change, at www.nobusforus.com, and planted lawn signs advertising an open-mike speak-out at Hunt Middle School on November 8. A group supporting the task force has launched its own website, www.burlingtonsfuture.com. Meanwhile, many on the sidelines are wondering what this could mean for their children.
At issue is the composition of Burlington's six elementary schools; Burlington High School and the two middle schools would be unaffected. Students typically attend whichever elementary school is closest to home, so the student body reflects the neighborhood's population.
One commonly used indication of students living in poverty is enrollment in the free and reduced lunch program. At the C.P. Smith School in the New North End, 32 percent of the kids qualify for the subsidy. But more than 90 percent do at Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler, in the Old North End. The Old North End schools also educate a greater proportion of the city's refugee and immigrant kids; 33 percent of students at Wheeler are English-language learners, compared with just 10 percent at Smith, and 4 percent at Edmunds, on Main Street.
This distribution results in dramatically different learning environments, according to the task-force report, which is available at the Burlington School Department website. In addition to English-language instruction, students at the Old North End schools require a variety of special learning and behavioral services, which drives up their per-pupil costs. At Barnes the price tag is $13,162 and at Wheeler $14,248, while at C.P. Smith, it's only $8929.
This increased spending hasn't resulted in higher test scores for the Old North End students; in spite of extra services, kids living in poverty continue to have lower test scores than their middle-class peers.
The task force believes SEI would remedy this disparity. Ideally, they'd like each school to have roughly 47 percent of its students in the free and reduced lunch program, and they'd like to spread around English-language learners more evenly. The task force is not considering race in its redistribution, though the report notes that both Barnes and Wheeler have significantly higher percentages of minority students than do the city's other elementary schools.
The task force says it's not just seeking to help the poor kids. The report argues, "All students should have an equal opportunity to learn from, and with, those unlike themselves."
Task-force members have suggested three ways to implement SEI: 1. redistricting 2. creating magnet schools and 3. replacing K-5 schools with larger K-2 and 3-5 institutions. School board member and ex officio task force member Amy Werbel has said the last option is the least likely to be implemented, given the lack of support it has received so far from parents and teachers. The task force also proposes expanding pre-school, extending school hours and providing programs for parents and caregivers.
The group held a number of public forums in September and October to discuss these recommendations; the most recent took place at City Hall Auditorium last Thursday.
At the meeting, which drew about 100 participants, task-force members - five parents, five educators and five community representatives - met with small groups of parents and residents to talk one on one. Before breaking into small groups, task-force members explained why they voted the way they did.
Anne Tewksbury-Frye, a teacher at Wheeler, said she often has a disproportionately high number of challenging students in her classes. Replacing some of them with higher-achieving kids would alter the atmosphere, she said. "If I just had a few more role models, I know that things would be better."
Tom Treat, one of the parents behind the "No Bus for Us" campaign, dismisses her optimistic outlook. "The role-model thing can go in either direction," he warns. Treat, who has two children at C.P. Smith, worries that disruptive kids might upset his children's classroom. "I'm sorry those kids got dealt the parents they got," he says. But, "I am afraid of importing them into my school."
Treat complains that the task force hasn't engaged the public in an objective discussion of SEI. He questions the data the task force has used to support its recommendation, and says examples of failed SEI experiments should have been part of the report.
He also objects to the small-group format of the meetings. "It's totally controlled," he says. He would have preferred an open-mike format, through which members of the public could address the entire group. Treat organized an upcoming November 8 open mike to provide such a forum. "I fear that we have a rogue school board that has tunnel vision," Treat charges.
Amy Werbel disputes Treat's assessment of the meeting format. She says the public forums were set up the way they were because SEI is a complicated issue. "If you have open-mike night," she says, "you have, what, 40 people speak?" She points out that the task-force forums elicit feedback from everyone in the room, and facilitators collect questions, which they bring back to the task force to answer.
Werbel adds that the format forces residents to interact with other participants. "We want to force them to talk to their neighbors," she says. "Hopefully talk with people whose perspectives are different from their own."
Dawn Moskowitz, a parent whose daughter attends first grade at Champlain School in the South End, praises the task force for getting Burlington residents debating these issues. "I don't think it's acceptable for our community to have segregated schools," she says.
Moskowitz, who is helping to organize the Burlington's Future campaign, calls Treat's group and their tactics "offensive" and "disrespectful." She offers, "They were very motivating, actually."
Moskowitz doesn't necessarily endorse all of the task force's ideas, but she calls the report "a good start." Her group will meet on Wednesday, November 1 at 7 p.m. in City Hall Auditorium to craft a statement of support for equitable educational opportunities.
Not everyone has chosen sides. Lynn Sutton, a parent with four young daughters - including three at Edmunds Elementary School - attended Thursday's forum. She expressed support for SEI in theory, but said she wouldn't want her daughters to have to travel to a different school.
"I want there to be a really good solution," she said. "I'm just very concerned about breaking up a community that is functioning by redistricting. On the same hand, I wish my school could have been more integrated when I got there."
Sutton says she's heard other Edmunds parents say they'll move or pull their kids out of school if Burlington institutes SEI. She's not sure what she'll do. She says, "I just want to know more."