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Summer Reading 2015: How Does Gentrification Subtly Reshape Public Education?

Author and urban studies expert suggests that ‘parallel’ school systems spawn charters geared toward city’s new ‘advantaged’ elite

summer 2015 marks

Hoboken has long been at the center of a debate over how much the city’s gentrification has contributed to the desegregation – or further segregation –of its public schools.

Molly Vollman Makris -- an assistant professor of urban studies at Guttman Community College, part of the City University of New York -- took on the topic of Hoboken’s changing face and its impact on public education, looking at hard data and research but also speaking to residents, educators and others to get their insights into the more nuanced forces at work.

In this section of her book, “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City,” she examines what she calls the “parallel” public school systems in one city. (Note: The author uses pseudonyms for the existing schools.)

Chapter 5 -- The ‘Golden Ticket:’ Gentrification, Charter Schools, and a Parallel School System

You rely on word of mouth . . . all the other moms were like, “Oh my god, the world is going to end if we don’t get into a charter school!” Interview, white advantaged mother

It’s not about being afraid to put your kid in public school, it’s like being the only one in your group that didn’t get the lottery, didn’t get the Golden Ticket. Interview, district advocate

These charter schools act like private schools . . . they kick the African Americans and Hispanics out . . . they are re-languaging Brown v. Board . . . use the free and reduced kids—use their names and criteria then treat like animals . . . they used my son to cut the ribbon and then harassed him. Field Notes, Black mother

They are opening a new charter, it’s just segregation! They don’t want the kids from the projects. That’s not who they want in their school. They don’t recruit them. Field Notes, Black mother who works with children in HHA

Hoboken is a “choice district.” Parents can choose one of the three district run public elementary schools. This has allowed one of the elementary schools in particular to “gentrify” faster than the others, while the one geographically closest to public housing, Washington School, is far behind in terms of racial and socioeconomic integration. Yet all three of the district run public elementary schools are majority minority, with more than half of the student body qualifying for either free or reduced-price lunches. So, if the advantaged parents are not sending their children to the traditional public schools, where are they sending them?

A growing number of white middle-class families are choosing to raise children in an urban setting, and many of them are choosing the charter schools. There are three charter schools in Hoboken, and many of the advantaged parents seem to view the charter schools, in addition to private schools and moving to the suburbs, as preferred alternatives to the district’s public schools. This chapter identifies who chooses charter schools in Hoboken, who does not, why, how charter schools are influencing the education of low-income children of color in public housing, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Who Attends Charter Schools in Hoboken?

The charter schools in Hoboken look very different from most charter schools in New Jersey, where the majority are in low-income, high-minority, urban districts with a majority minority student population and higher-than-state average of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. White, middle-class advantaged Hoboken parents founded the charter schools, which are largely used by advantaged children in Hoboken.

As one founder said to me, “Someone from one of the charter advocacy agencies came to a meeting I went to; it was like all the charter schools. He was like, ‘This is first group of white charter parents I’ve ever been to.’”

In the 2012–2013 school year, 606 students were enrolled in charter schools in Hoboken (noncharter district enrollment was 1,613). There are three charter schools: (a) Dewey Charter School, a progressive school, opened in 1997; (b) Hudson Charter School, opened in 1998, presenting a service learning theme; and (c) Espagnol, opened in 2010 as a dual language school with content imparted in both Spanish and English.

Each charter school has an extensive waiting list. For example, Espagnol has 171 students on the waiting list for kindergarten. During data collection, a fourth charter school, DaVinci Charter School of Hoboken, applied to be a STEM school but did not receive a charter from the state. DaVinci is included in this chapter because it is a recent example of who attempts to establish charter schools and who is interested in accessing them.

The district public schools and charter schools are serving different student populations. The charter schools serve a population that is whiter and less economically disadvantaged than the district schools. While Washington is 97 percent economically disadvantaged, Hudson Charter is 5 percent. While Washington is 4 percent white, Espagnol is 61 percent white.

It is apparent, not only in the hard data and in my observations but also to all residents of Hoboken, that these charter schools are attracting significantly different populations in terms of race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status than the district-run public schools. One new mother in Hoboken said, “I walked by that charter school the other day—it was all White parents wearing Luis Vuitton.” Of another charter school in town, a young man (not a parent) said, “I walk my dog by that school during drop-off in the morning; the street is lined with Mercedes.” One woman who grew up in public housing and now works with a charter school in Hoboken said that the school has only one child from the “projects.”

These are not the charter schools of Harlem and Newark, and they have very little in common with schools such as KIPP and North Star. They do not have a mission, as these other urban charter schools do, to serve low-income children of color, to close the achievement gap, or to bring children out of their family and neighborhood circumstances. They are created to continue the cycle of education and advantage, not to change it for low-income children. As such, these schools do not have the intensive militaristic discipline of some “no excuses” charter schools, and they do not have exceedingly long school days or school years to prepare students for testing and keep them safe and engaged inside the school building. The test scores are generally higher than those at the district schools, but the population served is also higher income.

The charter schools in Hoboken are oriented to their particular themes and missions (bilingual education, progressive education, service learning).

These types of charter schools are at times criticized by opponents as “boutique charter schools” and are becoming increasingly popular and the center of debate in suburbs. All of the charter school administrators and advocates with whom I spoke freely reported that they were actively working on diversifying their student population. Yet, charter school advocates argue that their population reflects more accurately the current demographics of Hoboken than do the district-run public schools.

However, an analysis of American Community Survey data shows that approximately 27.8 percent of the school-age population in Hoboken is below poverty level. Charter schools underrepresent this demographic, since they have 5–18 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged. On the other hand, in Hoboken overall, only 11 percent of the residents live below poverty level. Charter school advocates could argue that they are retaining families that would otherwise relocate, helping to make schools more reflective of the overall population, and that, if there were more charter schools, more advantaged school-age children would live in Hoboken. However, in the current climate, charter schools are under-representative of the low-income school age population and district schools are over-representative.

Molly Vollman Makris, “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City,” published 2015, is reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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Molly Vollman Makris, “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City,” published 2015, is reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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