Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/08/national/08CAMB.html

Cambridge Schools Try Integration by Income
New York Times
May 8, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. This city has joined a small but growing movement to use income, not race, as a primary factor in assigning students to schools.

For 4-year-old Noah Chisholm, that has meant attending kindergarten at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy this year, a school where most children are poor enough to receive free or discounted lunches. Noah, whose parents are both architects, is among a small group of middle-class children who school officials hope will have a powerful impact on improving achievement for all the school's children.

Noah's assignment to Fletcher-Maynard was primarily driven by his family's income, but it also helped the district meet another goal for the school: greater racial balance. Noah is white. Fletcher-Maynard's 264 students are predominantly black or Hispanic.

Cambridge's goal in turning to economic integration is twofold: raising the academic performance of students and achieving racial balance, without resorting to race-based formulas that are increasingly being rejected by federal courts.

In addition to Cambridge, school districts in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; South Orange-Maplewood, N.J.; Manchester, Conn.; St. Lucie County, Fla.; and San Francisco have adopted economic integration plans in recent years.

In LaCrosse, Wis., the first district to endorse economic integration when it did so in the early 1990's, scores have risen, and the district has a very low dropout rate, despite a relatively high poverty rate.

Proponents of economic integration say there is ample evidence that all children learn better at schools where middle-class students are in the majority.

"While there are a handful of exceptions, in general high-poverty schools don't work," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, an educational researcher at the Century Foundation who is a leading advocate for economic integration as the way to raise achievement among poor children.

But critics say that the way to help low-income students make educational gains has to be more effective teaching not moving children around. "There's something wrong with the assumption that if you've got too many low-income kids in a classroom, you can't teach them," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has extensively researched race and education. "My response to that is: No excuses. Start to educate the kids."

Dr. Thernstrom and others also say that economic integration has no relevance for large, predominantly poor urban school districts like Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. "What are you going to do helicopter the kids in?" Dr. Thernstrom said. Supporters of economic integration counter that children in poor urban areas should have the opportunity to cross district lines and attend middle-class schools.

Just as racial integration of schools was resisted by many whites, middle- and upper-income families may object to economic integration. Moreover, some civil rights advocates say that economic integration does not go far enough in achieving racial integration.

In Cambridge, however, the idea gained momentum a few years ago. The belief here is that if any place can make economic integration work, it is this mixed city, with its ultraliberal reputation and its 7,000 public school students some the children of professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others born to single mothers receiving public assistance.

Educators here point to the Morse School, where they said an influx of middle-income students in the mid-1990's helped turn around what had been a low-performing, unpopular school.

Cambridge has 15 elementary and middle schools and one high school. While the city spends $17,000 a year on each public-school student, the schools' quality is considered uneven. The student population, about 40 percent of whom qualify for a free or reduced-rate lunch, is 40 percent white, 23 percent African-American and 11 percent other black, 14 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian.

For 20 years, Cambridge's voluntary approach to racial integration which relied not on forced busing but on giving parents considerable choice in schools was considered a model by educators. Many children did end up riding buses to schools, but with Cambridge only 6.2 square miles, no one had to travel very far.

Across the river in Boston and in Lynn, though, where parents were contesting race-based integration plans, Cambridge school officials became concerned that their own plan was vulnerable to legal challenges.

Officials were also worried about a handful of schools including the two that became Fletcher-Maynard that had high concentrations of impoverished students and low state achievement test scores. Schools in Cambridge were fairly racially diverse and, in theory, open to everyone, but middle- and upper-middle-income parents tended to choose certain schools, and poor parents others.

Two years ago, persuaded by the work of Mr. Kahlenberg and others that one way to help the low-performing, high-poverty schools was to raise the number of middle-class students attending them, the Cambridge school committee adopted a plan that emphasized socioeconomic integration in student assignments.

At the same time, it allocated extra resources to low-performing schools like Fletcher-Maynard; officials hoped not only to improve achievement, but also to attract more middle-class parents to those schools. The plan, which will be phased in over three years, began with this year's kindergarten class.

Economic integration is turning out to be controversial in a city where low-income and middle- and upper-income parents and white and minority parents often have very different ideas about what makes a good school.

Noah Chisholm's parents, Scott Chisholm and Afshan Bokhari, were not happy when they learned that he had been assigned to Fletcher-Maynard. It was not one of the three schools they had listed as preferences. Only about 10 percent of parents in Cambridge do not get one of their three choices.

In assigning students, the district uses a complicated lottery that takes into account family income, siblings, proximity, and as a last resort if a school falls out of racial balance race. Under the new socioeconomic diversity, the district classifies low-income students as those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, while those who pay are considered middle-income.

Alex Ivan, whose father is a biotechnology scientist and whose mother is a neurologist, was also assigned to Fletcher-Maynard. Noah and Alex are among the 4 children of the class of 13 who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They are also the class's only two white children.

"First we were, sort of, `Hey, how do we get out of here?' " Ms. Bokhari recalled. She added that the school's racial or economic makeup did not concern her but that she had known nothing about the school when Noah was assigned there.

Still, Noah and Alex's parents were won over by their sons' teacher, Ali Barr, and her assistant, Betty Snell. They were also impressed by the other kindergartners, and by the principal, Robin Harris.

Ms. Bokhari said she had tried to convince a friend to send her two children to the school. But she said the friend, a computer programmer, preferred a school with a lot of demanding upper-income parents. "She says, `I want the rich moms to help me bring up my children,' " Ms. Bokhari said.

Her friend has a point. Middle- and upper-middle-income parents tend to be more aggressive about making sure their schools have everything, from top teachers to special arts programs, experts said. "Middle-class parents provide quality control," said Nancy Walser, a member of the Cambridge school committee and the author of a guide to the Cambridge public schools. "They're like canaries in a mine."

Some people fear that under the plan middle- and upper-income parents will flee the Cambridge system if they must contend with unqualified teachers and inadequate resources.

Ms. Bokhari, who has degrees from Wellesley and Harvard and is pursuing a Ph.D. in art history at Boston University, said that when it came to her three children's education, what mattered most was achievement. She said Noah would probably return to Fletcher-Maynard next year. After that, she is not sure. Her oldest son, Essah, a second grader at another public school where, Ms. Bokhari said, he was not sufficiently challenged, would be attending Shady Hill, a high-achieving, $14,000-a-year priate school. Noah may eventually follow, she said. Her third child, who is 2, is not yet in the school system.

One of Noah's best friends is his polite, serious classmate, 6-year-old Omar Maxwell. Omar's family lives in public housing two blocks from Fletcher-Maynard. In contrast to Noah's parents, Omar's mother, Keyonna Maxwell, said that the school's proximity to her home was one of its most important attributes. She is attending nursing school, and likes the convenience and safety of having Omar close by.

Ms. Maxwell said she did not believe her son needed middle-income classmates to succeed. "It all depends on the teachers," she said.

With all its benefits classes capped at 17 students, experienced teachers, the district's only full-time art teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade, computers for all fifth graders and above Fletcher-Maynard still has 47 vacancies. There is a waiting list of low-income children from the neighborhood. But under the plan the available slots must be held for middle-class families.

"The only way they're going to come is if we increase the test scores," Ms. Harris said, adding that she was not waiting for middle-class students.

"If we had 100 percent children of color and poor, we'd still get the job done," she said. "You set the bar high, and they excel."