Are students of color and their families giving up on Shorewood School District?
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
A few months ago, I started hearing talk of several African-American students leaving our high school and transferring to other nearby schools, including many headed to Rufus King International High School. I knew we lost at least one star basketball player. I talked to one mom of African-American students who said she believes there is a shift happening for some African-American families. Some have reached a breaking point in frustration over lack of support academically, and a general sense of being unwanted. She described the attitude from school leadership regarding these transfers as "don't let the door hit you on the way out."
I asked Superintendent Bryan Davis for the data, and for some background. Having seen the numbers, I don't feel a lot better. When I mentioned concern about African-American students, Dr. Davis sent me a summary of things the district is doing that are aimed at addressing some of the long-running challenges that African-American students face in Shorewood. Those include trying to recruit teachers of color, sponsoring community conversations around race, professional development for current teachers around race, and a UWM study of the African-American experience at SHS.
Dr. Davis said this year's relatively high number of transfers -- 24, to be exact, up from just 11 the year before - were "due to athletics," and that the district will "keep an eye on" that pattern. (NOTE ADDED 5/9: Dr. Davis said this characterization was inaccurate and that I failed to give the full context of his answers, so I posted a follow-up post with the full email exchange).
The 10 transfers out of Shorewood High School this year by African American students is the highest in at least four school years, and disproportionate number of total transfers out in terms of percentage. While the percentage of SHS students who identify as black or African-American has hovered between 15% and 19% in the past few years, more than 40% of this year's 24 transfers out have been African-American.
White students are historically about two-thirds of the student body, so a representative transfer pattern would be close to what we saw in 2013 and 2014, when nine white students and four non-white students transferred out.
These numbers alone, of course, can't tell us the reasons behind these transfers. It could be that more students in general and more African-American students moved out of the district. Without hearing from these families directly, it's hard to know if the transfers are a temporary spike, or a troubling trend that constitutes an emergency for district leadership.
It is of course possible be that more African-American families were recruited to other schools' athletic programs, creating the spike that Dr. Davis believes is responsible for the overall high number of departures.
We can't really know, because there's not much paperwork to go on: the district gives families who transfer an optional form to fill out, where they can choose to indicate a reason for the transfer on two lines. "Many times," Dr. Davis, said, families do not fill it out.
Even if they did, I wonder how useful a form really is. I imagine sometimes there is more than one reason, and the reasons would fill more than a few lines. What if in the past year, academics had become less challenging or interesting, a favorite teacher retired, and meanwhile another school with a great athletic program was interested in you transferring there? Furthermore, once your family has decided to transfer your child, there's a long to-do list -- is giving the old school district a lengthy explanation high on that list, particularly if you feel your concerns had been ignored to the degree that you're transferring your child?
While it's difficult to know whether the disproportionate number of African-American students transferring is due to something beyond coincidence or athletic recruiting, I am disappointed that no one working for the district or any members of the school board have called for a public conversation about this pattern, even in the form of a report out from the high school principal (or athletic director, if athletics are really at the heart of it). They may be discussing privately, but that's not enough. This is a community issue.
The other challenge is lack of information and insight about transfers and non-returning students. I think the district should consider asking transferring families to take part in an optional full exit interview conducted by a neutral third party, with a report sent to the district. We could conduct the interviews over the phone, a few weeks after the transfer so that it's a better time for the family.
Collecting reports for even a few transfers could help the district identify problematic patterns, opportunities for improving support for the students who remain, and an understanding of our district's strengths. We should offer this not only to mid-year transfers, but ask families who do not return from one year to the next to tell us why they left. Did they decide that academics weren't challenging enough? Was their student searching for a particular academic offering? Was there a bully bothering the student and the situation was never resolved? Did the student have a mental health crisis and needed a change in environment? This could tell us so much about not only race-based dynamics but also about mental health, academics and simple demographic patterns in terms of families moving in and out of our district.
I am not suggesting we chase enrollment by responding to these interview answers by changing course or club offerings. I do think we should consider whether losing a family was avoidable, and if the same problems that drove away one student might still be hurting dozens more who have not left.
Dr. Davis said in his email to me that district staff do work with students enough to know more than what would appear on the optional form: "Our administrators are working with students and families on a regular basis to support them and keep them in Shorewood. This provides us with more insight on the reasons students are moving out than families typically put on the withdrawal sheet."
I take that to mean that teachers, coaches and administrators typically have a good idea why any given student is dropping out, even if it's not captured in writing.
It's good to know the administrators have this background, but I wonder whether the school board is missing the opportunity to see reports back on transfers, and to respond to issues that might be affecting students who remain enrolled in our schools. Even if the board's job is only to set policy and not to deal with operations, it seems like the reasons students leave in the middle of a school year could inform some key polities and priorities for the district.
I also hope that if anyone reading this knows more about the transfer trend than I do and can help shed light on it, that they will be part of this conversation, hopefully by reaching out to school board members and administrators, but maybe even by contacting me or commenting on this blog. If there is a chance that we are failing students of color to the degree that there is a quiet exodus, we should all be talking about it as a community and trying to address it.