Massachusetts ranks number one in the country for education, but it also ranks among the top 10 states for income inequality. Horace Mann, the 19th century educator and the nation’s first superintendent of schools, famously called education “the great equalizer.” But that ideal is being directly challenged by data that suggests income inequality fuels a disparity in education — and that these two trends seem to be reinforcing each other.
In the first of five reports across the country, the Crossing the Divide team focuses on educational divides through the lens of a high school in Springfield, Massachusetts, that is one step away from state takeover. Explore their reporting below, and follow their daily journey at xthedivide.org.
More than a 'bad school'
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — They show up every morning, funneling through the black, steel doors and past the metal detector and the security officer at the entrance of the High School of Commerce.
One student stayed up until the wee hours of the morning babysitting an infant cousin before rising at dawn to make it before the bell rings. Another was in trouble for wearing a do-rag, which covered a nasty head wound he suffered days before after being slammed to the ground and concussed in a fight on a city basketball court.
Many of the students look exhausted as they file through the school entrance, dark circles under their eyes. For some that’s because they work after school and on weekends — not just for money to spend on movies and dates, but to support their families or pay bills to live on their own. For others, it’s because they are “couchsurfers,” in foster care, homeless, or supporting themselves independently, a set of realities that school officials at the High School of Commerce say is relatively common among students.
“We have one 19-year-old junior who lost his sister in a drive-by shooting,” said Principal Diane Bauer. “She wasn’t the target of the shooting but she was shot anyway, and it’s been tough with him but he keeps coming back, we’re his comfort zone here.”
These are the students of Commerce. They persevere, much like the school itself, which has been classified as a “level four” school by the state since 2010, at risk of takeover by the state due to under-performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.
Less than five miles south of Springfield, just a 10-minute drive on Interstate 91, lies Longmeadow High School, which seems a world away from Commerce. Suburban Longmeadow is classified by the state as “Level 1,” the highest achievement level.
Longmeadow has consistently outperformed Commerce and Springfield as a district on the MCAS, which experts describe as a predictable outcome given the vastly different socioeconomic and demographic makeup between the town and the city.
“If you swapped the faculty in Longmeadow and Springfield, I’m not convinced the results would be that different,” said Paul Reville, former Secretary of Education under Governor Deval Patrick and the founder of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Education Redesign Lab.
“The deck is stacked, of course they’re going to do better; the kids in Longmeadow are high performing but they also have very high social capital, they’re learning sort of 24/7, with all kinds of opportunities and an education system that has high expectations of them with more resources,” he said.
Reville and other education experts and advocates say that it is no surprise Springfield and schools like Commerce lag behind and urge against comparing Longmeadow High School and inner-city schools like Commerce directly — socioeconomic barriers block achievement. Nearly 74 percent of the 1,250 students that attend Commerce are considered “economically disadvantaged” and receive state benefits, according to state figures. Only about 5 percent of the student body at Longmeadow High School receive that classification.
These two neighboring school districts — Springfield and Longmeadow — seem to tell the story of American education in an age of inequality, a time when surging income inequality seems to also reflect a widening educational gap between rich and poor.
Horace Mann, the legendary 19th century educator and the nation’s first superintendent of schools, famously said that education was “the great equalizer.” But these days that ideal is being directly challenged by data that suggests a hard truth: that inequality in income fuels a disparity in education and that these two trends seem to be reinforcing each other across generations.
Massachusetts, home of the first public school system, ranks among the top 10 states in the nation in income inequality, which statistics show is growing nationwide. In Longmeadow and Springfield, the picture of income inequality is especially stark. In 1980, the median household income in Springfield was about $13,000 while the median Longmeadow household earned $32,000 annually, according to time-adjusted U.S. Census data. And now, the median Longmeadow household income stands at about $111,000 while Springfield’s figure rests at about $34,000 — a nearly 400 percent increase in the gap between the town and the city.
As the income gap has widened, the performance and achievement gap in the state ranked number one in the nation in K-12 education has yet to close. By some measures, the gap can be seen to be growing. From 2009, one year after the state introduced a science portion of the MCAS, to 2016, Springfield’s average percent of students achieving an advanced score went from 6 to 13 percent. In Longmeadow, that figure was 43 percent in 2009 and 66 percent in 2016 and state averages rose from 30 percent to 43 percent.
Springfield’s marginal improvement and relative lagging behind is not uncommon and the achievement gaps between urban and suburban areas across Massachusetts are among some of the largest in the country, according to the state’s Secretary of Education Jim Peyser.
“Since education reform came to Massachusetts, we’ve seen all districts improve but not at an equal rate,” Peyser said.
“In particular, there have been a number of urban districts, Boston included, that although they’ve seen some significant gains from where they were 20 to 25 years ago, not only are they still behind some of their suburban peers, in some cases, they may have fallen further behind as gains in the suburbs have outpaced gains in the cities,” explained Peyser.
The Springfield school district, including Commerce, was once a leader in urban education. Before the white flight of the 1970’s and ‘80’s, before the vast loss of manufacturing and factory jobs in the Pioneer Valley, there was a track record of excellence in the Springfield public schools.
“We were the number one or two public school system in the country at one point,” said Henry Thomas III, President and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield, who grew up in the city. “You’d be surprised if you went around and talked to folks in Longmeadow, how many of them went to school in Springfield.”
Springfield’s five public high schools were designed as “theme schools” including a vocational school, a science and technology-focused school, and a business-centric school appropriately dubbed “Commerce.”
Nicholas McBride, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who holds a masters in education from Harvard University and graduated from Commerce in 1972, said, “I found journalism at that high school, I said ‘Ok, I can come to school for this.’”
“I didn’t grow up in the testing era, there was this holistic approach to cultivating young minds that had soul to it,” McBride recalls.
The perception of Commerce has changed vastly — many students list the school as their last choice during the city’s school choice process before entering high school. Although students, teachers, and administrators say that perception changes once students spend time at the school, the shadow of public perception lingers.
“This was a prestigious school back in the ‘70s and ‘80s but I think it couldn’t keep up with the changes in technology and the business world and students began preferring to go to the other schools,” said associate principal Celeste Femia.
“And this school is closer to the downtown area than other schools, it’s surrounded by crime, not a lot, but some and the perception has really just created a life of its own,” she added.
Reville and other experts argue that the root cause of Commerce’s achievement struggle stems from factors outside of school walls. The role of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which the Center Disease Control links to poor academic achievement is fairly common among students at Commerce. Another determinant factor is trauma.
“The trauma prevalence is huge,” said Brian Damboise, who teaches English and a journalism elective course at Commerce. “Some of the traumatic events that you hear about are heartbreaking, they’re immense and then you have the more everyday, more frequent episodes of trauma that would disrupt anyone like moving or anxiety and depression, those are commonplace, they can go unnoticed and untreated.”
The school has five counselors trained to deal with emotional and social problems for its 1,250 students, two of which are “re-engagement” specialists focused on getting students who’ve stopped attending back in school, according to administrators. But identifying students that need emotional help and support can be difficult.
“Often times, we don’t recognize that a student even has a problem until they break down,” Bauer said.
Damboise was a social worker for a Springfield organization specializing in foster care before joining the staff at Commerce, and he said he often advocated to keep children out of Commerce, the frequent last choice high school in the city.
“There was a perception that this place was not meeting the needs,” Damboise said. “All I knew was if I was enrolling somebody in school, I was to push for them not to be here.”
But Damboise saw teaching at Commerce as a welcome challenge. He says he’s fallen in love with the sense of community he’s seen within the school and what he describes as a strong sense of an “underdog mentality” among students.
Despite the apparent challenges, High School of Commerce has shown signs of improvement in recent years. Since 2012, the school’s dropout rate has fallen from nearly 14 percent to 8 percent in 2016 and over that same period the graduation rate jumped from about 35 percent to 57 percent.
Prior to Principal Diane Bauer’s arrival in 2012, there was a high rate of administrative turnover, so much so that when Bauer returned for her first day of school in her second year, the students were surprised to see her.
“On the first day, kids were coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, you’re back?,’” Bauer said. “They didn’t expect us to come back, so I think that consistency has really helped us.”
Bauer said the school has made significant strides, installing professional development around cultural sensitivity and building relationships with students.
“Once the kids get inside here and see that perception is not reality, that’s when things really change,” Bauer said.
Commerce offers students the chance to participate in the International Baccalaureate Program, a prestigious international curriculum that allows students to enter some colleges as sophomores if they complete the IB diploma requirements.
Despite the outside perception of Commerce as a last choice high school, people who know the school describe with passion the intellect and good spirit of its students.
“I met a young woman last year (at the school) that had written twelve books, she was so into literature,” said McBride, who teaches a community journalism course at UMass that works with Commerce students to empower them with storytelling skills. “I had another student who was into writing historical non-fiction, these are bright kids… You have all this beauty, all this intellect right there.”
Reville also points to the “concentrations of poverty” in Springfield and “social and economic isolation” as major contributing factors to the inequality in educational outcomes between places like Springfield and Longmeadow.
“You have kids going to school only with kids from similar backgrounds to their own and we know from research that one of the most effective strategies we could possibly pursue is putting them in school with kids from different backgrounds,” Reville said. “But a huge barrier to that particularly in a place like Massachusetts is our tradition of localism in schools where we have these local boundaries that keep us deliberately isolated.”
Springfield parent Steve Shultis, whose two daughters both attended High School of Commerce and went on to attend four-year universities on merit scholarships, advocated for such integration at the “Crossing the Divide” listening event at UMass Amherst last week.
“America won’t be divided if we’re not afraid of each other, if we move into neighborhoods with people that don’t look like us,” Shultis said. “If we’re sending our kids to school with kids who don’t necessarily look like us, then we’re not divided.”
Photo Essay: The students of Commerce
I’ve heard the narratives of what a “bad” school is supposed to be like. You picture a place particularly unwelcoming. A place where the kids doze off their studies and teachers are just putting in their time. The High School of Commerce is not that school.
Instead, my experience, spent in part behind my viewfinder, was dotted with laughter, inspiration and a reality check. I’m not much older than the students and was able to find myself relating to a lot of their stories. Universal themes rang throughout our conversations. Tales of triumph, identity, love and loss.
In our reporting we were able to see these kids through the stack of data determining their futures. We were able to ask the “why” behind the test scores rather than just accessing the “what” of a problem. We wanted to ask what it means to be finding yourself while also facing unparalleled socioeconomic disadvantages and trauma.
In this photo essay I tried to use my camera to show the complexities of existing in high school in such a pivotal time in history. I want the viewer to feel like they’re sitting at a desk in the classroom. I wanted them to see these students for what they are rather than what they’re rumored to be. Most importantly, it was my hope that the students would see themselves in the images as well and that they felt represented.
Meet one student persevering through trauma
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Tre’ana Taylor listened to a sermon about not losing faith as she replaced the little white shoes her niece would lose while running atop the pew. In some regards, the minister was preaching to the converted.
In 17 years of life, Taylor has experienced challenges that would daunt most adults. Beyond attending a public school system mostly comprised of economically disenfranchised students, she has persevered through a pregnancy and the death of her infant son, her mother’s shooting and breaking up with her first love. Despite these tribulations, she has kept her commitment to her education.
Taylor, now a senior at the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts, is working to obtain her diploma in a school with a reputation of high dropout rates, partly to honor the memory of her son. Commerce is the only high school in the district that is on the verge of administrative takeover by the state. Apart from high dropout rates, the school has consistently underperformed on the Commonwealth’s standardized-assessment test.
“I was interested in other programs in different schools,” she said, explaining that other schools in the district offered the nursing vocational track she wanted to take. Taylor, who plays the alto saxophone, also wanted to attend other schools for their band programs.
“I wanted to go to a school that had a band because I love band,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know Commerce had one at the time.”
At Commerce, she discovered ROTC and became commander of the unarmed exhibition team – step team for short. Though she studies at her last choice, last chance high school, Taylor is determined to graduate.
“I had this huge motivation when I got pregnant,” she said, “and I was like, ‘I’m going to make it for him.’”
Because she was 15 when she became pregnant, Taylor was considered a high-risk pregnancy, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Taylor explained she went into labor after five and a half months, because her uterus couldn’t carry the pregnancy to term.
“It gets me,” Taylor said about the loss of her son, C.J. “They told me if I would have been five months and three weeks, they would have been able to hook him up to the machine to strengthen his lungs. I was five days under. I lost him, but I still want to [finish high school] for him.”
Taylor also considers her prospective children when motivating herself for academic success.
“I need a high school diploma to get most jobs nowadays,” she said. “I want to be able to get older and have more kids, and I don’t want them to have to worry about money.”
Taylor’s financial consideration is reflective of her upbringing in a school with a high concentration of poverty. Of the 1,250 students in her high school, nearly 74 percent are economically disadvantaged, and a high number them are living in foster care, boarding houses or on their own, Commerce Principal Diane Bauer said.
Like many students at the high school, the trauma Taylor has endured may impact her academic performance. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, children who “[experience] some type of trauma are likely to struggle in school with language and communication, attentiveness to classroom tasks, regulating emotions, and engaging in the curriculum.”
Taylor’s first memory is of her mother being shot.
When she was 4, she and her sister waited outside of a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, convenience store as their mother was shopping. When she didn’t come back, Taylor and her elder sister walked into the store to check on her. As they entered, Taylor saw red spots on the floor and heard her mother say, “don’t let Tre’ana see my face!”
Too young to comprehend what was happening, Taylor followed the spots to her mother Ivy Lytle’s bloodied face. Lytle survived because the bullet broke on her teeth, but the assailant was never caught.
“We assume they were trying to rob her,” Taylor said, “but they didn’t take anything.” After the injury, Lytle decided to bring the family back to Springfield, where she also attended Commerce and graduated in 1992.
Taylor’s 3-year-old niece, whom she held at the Sunday church service, has become a large part of her life. Because she shares the three-bedroom apartment she lives in with six other people, Taylor, her sister and her niece share one bedroom. And apart from sharing a space, Taylor shared her after-school hours to help her family.
“She used to babysit her niece a lot,” said Lytle, explaining that the time she spent babysitting may have contributed to a drop in Taylor’s school performance.
When Taylor was making her school selections, Lytle told her she did not want her to go to Commerce.
“I remember going to school and having some of the same issues,” Lytle said. “We were given leeway and rushed through. We weren’t taught and weren’t held accountable.”
Instability, both at home and at school, can also contribute to academic challenges. Taylor’s family lost a home after a leaking radiator caused parts of the house to collapse. And Commerce has been known for high turnover among administrators. “Every document I read had a different principal on it,” Commerce’s Principal Bauer said of the 2014 start to her tenure. When she returned the next year, students were surprised to see her again.
Since 2012, the school improved attendance, graduation and test proficiency rates. Bauer attributes the improvements to a returning administrative team.
“They’ve seen some stability, so that’s helped in part. They know what to expect.” Despite the improvements, the school’s four-year graduation rate is 57 percent and the 8 percent dropout rate is nearly double than the district’s.
“The expectation levels tend to be higher in suburban communities,” said Henry Thomas III, President of the Urban League of Springfield said.
He explained that in urban schools like Commerce, “there’s a default to say if we can keep their behavior right, and if they at least make an attempt, we can move them along.”
Lytle, whose children have attended other schools in the district, said expectations are comparatively low at Commerce. “She’s allowed to lag, so she’s OK with getting a C,” Lytle said.
Taylor anticipates to graduate from Commerce next year. Though she doesn’t have specific plans, she hopes to join the Air Force to become a nurse. If she can’t do that, she intends to enter the medical field.
That’s her plan. However, if Taylor should face a new hurdle, it’s her perspective and faith that will carry her through while using the philosophy she uses to advise her peers.
“They’re not in this alone,” she said of students facing difficulties. “There’s other people who are going through the same exact thing. You always have to think: you have a story that may be horrible, but there’s someone who always has a story that’s worse than yours. But, the main thing is to pray. Even if they aren’t religious, I’d just ask them permission and pray with them.”
Story in Sound: A school divided?
Every morning, 1,100 students mostly wearing maroon polos and tan slacks funnel through the front doors of the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts. But about 60 students — in a different uniform — are using a separate entrance at Commerce. Hear the story of the new school inside Springfield’s lowest-performing high school — and what it means for the students there.
On an early Monday morning, a stream of sleepy teenagers pass under a decorative gothic arch to enter the High School of Commerce. A security guard and three administrators ask the students to show their IDs. The whole process takes about 45 minutes.
At the back of the building by the dumpster, there’s a much shorter line leading into the Springfield Honors Academy. The Academy students are easily recognizable by their white button-down shirts and ties. In less than 10 minutes, they pass through the metal detector guarded by two smiling administrators.
The Academy launched this fall with 62 freshmen selected from the top performing 8th graders across the district. High School of Commerce, on the other hand, is just one step away from a state takeover, despite improvements in its test scores.
The students at the two schools are not allowed in each other’s territories. Some Commerce students feel like this school within a school creates a rift.
“We don’t ever like see them because they have their own hallway so we never run into them,” said Erick Perez, a junior at Commerce.
“They even have their own door. Like when you come through the back, they have their own sign and everything,” said Kyshaeli Almeida, also a junior at Commerce.
Still, they say it’s not really a big deal. Sulmarie Huertas, a freshman at the Academy, says it’s difficult having two schools in one building.
“I can hear a lot of people talking about our school and how we’re treated differently, but we earned this. I know I worked hard to get here, and no one’s words will get in the way of that,” Huertas said.
Grace Howard-Donlin, the Academy’s principal, says the separation is not meant to create a sense of inferiority in the Commerce students.
“There’s always a danger of that perception that, ‘oh, this is an elitist group that’s taken up residence at Commerce,’ and this sort of idea. I think we really want to push back on that mentality, and to say that at the end of the day, all our students are equally capable of what is meant for them. And it’s up to us to pull that capability out of them as individuals.”
She says the Academy is filling a gap in the Springfield Public School district by challenging its top performing students.
“Our intent here is to just give a little more attention to a group of students who have been proving themselves all along that they want this type of learning environment that’s extra rigorous and pointing directly towards college.”
The way students are selected for the Academy is a form of tracking — basically, it’s creating a separate educational path for high achieving students.
“Sometimes it’s a logical and plausible approach. Sometimes it has a segregating impact,” said Paul Reville, a Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts.
But he points out, tracking isn’t just an issue for schools like the Springfield Honors Academy and Commerce. This can happen in a regular public high school where high-achieving students only take honors or AP courses.
“The research on tracking has shown that it’s quite negative for, particularly for low-performing students and that has a — you could argue — a deleterious effect on the system overall but probably a beneficial on those students lucky enough to be selected.”
Commerce Principal Diane Bauer says it’s not that her students aren’t smart — the problem is a lot of them are dealing with trauma or problems at home. Eighty-five percent are classified as high-needs students, meaning they’re either low-income, English language learners, or have learning disabilities.
Both the Academy and Commerce are very different schools under one roof, but they have something in common. They’re both part of Springfield’s “empowerment zone.” The Empowerment Zone is actually a public-private partnership that gives principals and teachers more control over curriculum, schedules, staff and budgets.
Principal Bauer welcomes the progress she may be able to make for Commerce with help from the Empowerment Zone.
“We’ve done surveys and focus groups with the kids here. What is it that they want? What is it they are looking for in a career or college? And then come together and look at a goal and vision for the High School of Commerce.”
With the freedom from the Empowerment Zone, Bauer says they hope to roll out a career development program for next fall. They also have a teacher-led team that’s looking into solutions specific to their school’s needs, like transportation.
For Academy Principal Grace Howard-Donlin, that autonomy allowed her to choose which teachers to hire and add a leadership class and even a no-profanity rule without a district-wide approval process. It also let her create a system to keep GPAs high.
“I feel like we have some safety nets put in place that are going to fall through any cracks. Any student drops below 75 in a class, it’s mandatory tutoring until they pull a grade up above 75. So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure GPAs are headed in a direction for four-year college success.”
If students cannot maintain the high GPA, Howard-Donlin says they may lose special privileges like college visits and extracurricular activities.
There is no public data showing whether the Empowerment Zone experiment in Springfield is working. But that hasn’t stopped the idea from catching on. Governor Charlie Baker wants empowerment zones for underperforming schools across Massachusetts. And this month the legislature’s education committee heard testimony on two related bills.
Teachers union officials initially signed off on the Springfield Empowerment Zone, but they’re skeptical of efforts to expand it statewide. They say the bills jeopardize local control and undermine teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
So, like anything involving schools, there’s a divide on whether this is the right way to go.