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Class Dismissed? 

Meet the parents who are buying into the Old North End's schools

click to enlarge Lawrence Barnes' students - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • Lawrence Barnes' students

It’s Monday morning at 10 till 8, and a group of girls has gathered to jump rope in the schoolyard of Lawrence Barnes Elementary in Burlington’s Old North End. As other kids, parents and teachers pour into the Champlain Street entrance, the slap of rope on asphalt ticks off the minutes before the morning bell rings.

The children at play radiate a kaleidoscope of colors. A few Somali Bantu girls wear pink and blue headscarves with red and green skirts; their freckled classmate Mabel Prine, 9, is attired in earthy corduroy pants and a brown jacket with white, furry trim. As the schoolkids frolic, a bright sun climbs above the hedges and reflects off the top of a swing set.

Mabel’s mom, Barb, is standing quietly in the background. A new parent at Barnes, she’s smiling, but looks a little nervous — the playground is still unfamiliar territory for her daughter, whose entire education to date has occurred at home. Observing the game, Prine confides, “This is the first time she’s gotten in line, so I’m very excited.”

Prine, a Legal Aid lawyer who has lived and worked in the Old North End for 25 years, knows that Mabel comes from a more privileged background than do her Somali classmates. But recognizing that difference can be a positive aspect of her daughter’s learning process, she believes. She is one of a growing number of middle-class, mostly Progressive, parents in the Old North End who are coming around to that view. Instead of opting out, they’re buying in, and giving the city’s poorest schools another chance.

Mabel Prine is one of four formerly home-schooled kids enrolled at Barnes this fall, according to Principal Paula Bowen, who says she’s given more tours to prospective parents this year than any other since she started the job six years ago. Principal Joyce Irvine, from nearby H.O. Wheeler Elementary, sees a similar trend. She reports that her school’s PTO numbers have increased “drastically” in recent years.

What’s fueling the growing interest in Old North End schools? How do parents make up their minds about where to send their little learners? And does socioeconomic or cultural diversity really make a difference in learning environments, anyway?

Barb Prine, for one, believes it benefits Mabel “to have two Somali friends and see the world through that lens.” The 9-year-old recently pointed out the injustice of a “paperwork contest” in which non-English-speaking parents were placed at a disadvantage. Prine notes, “One of the things that she’s learned at Barnes is that fair rules evenly applied can be unfair if a kid is starting well behind the starting line in the race.”

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The jump-rope game in front of Barnes offers an apt metaphor for Burlington’s public elementary schools: In one sense, it’s a model of cross-cultural cooperation; in another, it’s a reminder that the future of the city’s schools is still up in the air. That’s because, for more than a year, parents, teachers and administrators have been hashing out proposals for reorganizing a socio-economically skewed school district.

Practically everyone involved in the discussion concurs that the city’s elementary schools are “unequal.” Under guidelines imposed by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — which comes up for reauthorization this year — Barnes is classified as “failing.” But disagreements abound over what the school board should do about it, if anything. Some are calling for rearrangement of school districts or reconfiguration of existing schools; others counter that such changes might disrupt existing neighborhoods. Underlying these debates are age-old concerns about class, race, poverty and prejudice.

One thing is indisputable: Lawrence Barnes and nearby H.O. Wheeler have higher rates of poverty than do the other four schools in the district. Barnes and Wheeler staff have traditionally served the vast majority of their students with either free or “reduced” lunches — a standard measure of poverty that’s linked to federal education funding. By comparison, fewer than half the kids receive lunch assistance at the city’s other elementary schools, according to school-district figures from the past five years. Edmunds and C.P. Smith Elementary schools, located in the more affluent Hill Section and New North End, respectively, have the lowest incidence of poverty citywide.

It’s difficult to measure direct correlations between income and academic achievement, but parents and administrators alike seem to agree that poverty inhibits scholastic success. District Superintendent Jeanne Collins reports that levels of parent involvement at Barnes and Wheeler are “significantly” lower than at the other four schools. In 2005, a School District report found that Barnes and Wheeler kids — who were more likely to come from “mobile” households — did worse on tests and tended to be absent from school more often than those at the other four elementary schools. Barnes and Wheeler grads also had a greater chance of being suspended once they reached middle school.

Collins notes that socioeconomic inequality has been a topic of discussion in Burlington for more than two decades. The debate intensified in 2003 and again in 2005, when then-superintendent Lyman Amsden proposed moving the district’s administrative offices to Barnes, which would have ceased to be an elementary school. Negative neighborhood reaction scuttled the plan. So in January 2006, the school board commissioned a task force to suggest tactics for improving the academic performance of kids from low-income families.

At the head of the task force was Stu McGowan, a UVM grad who has become a colorful Old North End icon — literally. An educational filmmaker and real estate entrepreneur, McGowan and his youthful crew are responsible for the paint jobs on most of the neighborhood’s neon-colored abodes — structures that have come to symbolize both urban renewal and gentrification. McGowan’s daughter Emma went to Wheeler and is a senior at Bard.

Americans “talk about sex lives and bowel movements,” McGowan states bluntly. “But we don’t talk about class.”

But the taks force report did, when it appeared six months later. It contained three proposals that would implement some form of “socioeconomic integration,” or SEI, within Burlington’s six elementary schools. One explores breaking them up to serve populations of either kindergarten-to-second-grade or third-to-fifth-grade students. Another considers re-drawing school-district boundaries, which would require that some kids be bussed out of their current home districts. A third proposal praises the concept of “magnet schools,” which focus on special disciplines. The theory goes that kids from all over the city would want to attend a “sustainable” school that partners with Shelburne Farms — even if it’s Barnes. Ditto an arts program at H.O. Wheeler that would be run by the Flynn Center.

This May, Collins issued a report supporting, in concept, a combination of redistricting, magnet schools and streamlined social services. “The minute it happened,” McGowan remembers with a bitter chuckle, “I knew the shit storm would descend on the city.”

It did, in the form of a series of impassioned public meetings. Most of the bitterness came from parents in a section of Ward 1, in the northeast quadrant of Burlington, which is currently served by Edmunds. The proposed lines had been redrawn so the kids there would instead go to Barnes and Wheeler. At one meeting, Steve Flemer told the crowd that he bought his house on Booth Street so that his kid could go to Edmunds. With his son by his side, he bellowed, “There’s nothing more American than selecting your housing based on the school district.” Such comments inspired accusations of classism and segregationist thinking.

The “shit storm” definitely slowed down the SEI train, which was supposed to pull into the station — for a school board vote — by September 1. There’s still no sign of it. As of August, a straw poll showed school board members favored magnet schools, but opinion was split on the question of redistricting. Most oppose allocating more resources toward Barnes and Wheeler. On October 2, a board agenda committee will meet to revisit a potential closure of Barnes.

In the meantime, parents can still bypass their neighborhood schools by requesting “variances” — waivers that allow them to transfer their kids to other school districts without having to provide detailed justification. Between 2003 and 2007, 401 Burlington parents did just that; only 59 were denied, according to school-district data. Last year about 200, or 10 percent, of Burlington’s elementary school-aged kids opted out of the public schools altogether.

On a wall in McGowan’s living room, a hand-painted sign by Burlington artist dug Nap reads, “You should feel good, but not that good.” In a way, the statement captures how this dad feels about the current school board debate. While he’s happy to hear race and class issues discussed openly, McGowan complains that some Burlington groups have “shanghaied” the public discussion, to the detriment of kids in all sections of town. “We’re supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the United States,” he says. “If we can’t solve this issue, how will anyone else solve it?”

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Megan Munson-Warnken has taken up McGowan’s challenge. She’s a co-owner of Viva Espresso, a coffee shop that opened last year on North Winooski Avenue. Coincidentally, it occupies the ground floor of a building McGowan once painted bright yellow. Munson-Warnken intends to send her kids to H.O. Wheeler, the Old North End’s other, slightly larger elementary school, with just under 200 students. Though Wheeler doesn’t appear to do as much outreach as Barnes does — its website is virtually dysfunctional, for example — the school’s officials have also noticed increasing parent involvement, especially among middle-class families. Munson-Warnken’s 4-year-old son Mark will enter the school next fall.

A recent Saturday morning finds Munson-Warnken serving coffee and bagels at Viva Espresso. When the 32-year-old barista finally has time to sit down for a quick interview, she’s honest about her ambivalence. Having taught in both public and private settings, she admits she’s a little wary of the former. “I’m committed to public schools,” she declares, “but in classrooms that have 22 to 30 children, where teachers get them for 45 minutes a period? You know, I have issues with that.”

Despite her reservations, Munson-Warnken maintains she wouldn’t send her kids anywhere other than Wheeler. She also has a 2-year-old. “I think it will be great,” she speculates. “If not, we’ll make the changes we need to make based on their needs.”

Munson-Warnken’s friends Colby Kervick and Garth Allen relax at a side table. Their two sons romp in a children’s play area of the shop. The married couple has been involved in the Old North End community since 1991, when they moved to the area as college students. Kervick, 35, teaches in the special-education department at the University of Vermont. Allen, 34, is a clean-cut accountant who coaches soccer and Little League baseball. He also volunteers with a “Reading to End Racism” program at Wheeler.

Two years ago, the couple’s son Turner, now 7, started at Wheeler Elementary. The parents note positive changes in the boy, albeit untestable ones. “Turner has new social skills,” his mom observes proudly. “Because he’s been exposed to lots of different types of kids, we can go anywhere, and he’ll approach kids and invite them into a soccer game; it doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter if they don’t speak the same language as him,” Kervick adds. “He’s able to connect with them and have fun.”

Turner’s brother Declan, 4, will start kindergarten at Wheeler next fall.

Though Kervick and Allen contribute time and money to community activities, they bristle at the suggestion that their commitment to Wheeler is a sacrifice or a gesture of good will — they even had reservations about being interviewed for this story. “At the end of the day, we’re all Burlingtonians,” Allen suggests.

According to the part-time coach, socioeconomic integration of the school district is a long-term process that requires patience. “We’re talking about people building community, trying to break some of the barriers that exist in our larger society,” he says.

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Heather Riemer, 39, is fully committed to that vision. An active parent-teacher organization rep, she and her husband Jonathan have lived for eight years in a trim white house just a few blocks from Barnes Elementary. She’s a former union organizer who now works at a local renewable energy firm; he’s an independent contractor employed part-time at the Flynn Box Office. Their kids Eliza, 8, and Simon, 6, grew up in the neighborhood, Riemer says, so Barnes was a logical choice.

Riemer doesn’t consider the neighborhood school second-rate. Last May, she joined a multicultural delegation of parents in a public “speak-out” over potential plans to close Barnes. “Through that process, we realized that there were a lot of misconceptions about the school,” she recalls.

In fact, a lot has happened at the 150-student school since former-Superintendent Amsden first attempted to close it. In 2003, Barnes joined the Shelburne Farms-run “sustainable schools project,” a partnership whereby the nonprofit organization aids in developing environmentally oriented curricula. Last year, Barnes parents helped children design and paint a new mural on the school’s eastern façade. And just this summer, parent-involvement coordinator Sara Osaba organized a summer camp for 60 neighborhood kids.

According to Riemer’s calculations, standard measures of academic success don’t reflect the richness of a Barnes education. She says it’s impossible to draw solid conclusions from the “failing” grade when some children are transient — Principal Bowen reports that more than 50 kids have already moved in or out of school this fall. “Our teachers have done evaluations at the beginning and end of the year, and it’s pretty amazing what happens in that space of time,” Riemer asserts. “And that’s not what’s getting reported to the federal government.”

She presents similar criticisms of the city’s attempt to combat poverty. The current redistricting proposals are designed to even out relative percentages of kids receiving “free and reduced lunch.” Not surprisingly, Riemer is opposed. About SEI she says, “You know, it’s not worth the cost of bussing . . . tearing up the neighborhood to get the ‘magic’ number of half the kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch.”

Riemer contends that Barnes pride transcends socioeconomic and racial distinctions. Less affluent parents appear to agree. At the school, where 80 percent of children received food stamps last year, parents from the local Somali Bantu community have expressed resistance to redistricting plans. In May, some of them joined Riemer and other Barnes families at the parental speak-out.

One such parent is Adoul Methiang, whose son Deng, 9, attends Barnes. The 30-year-old Sudanese mother of five came to Vermont just over a year ago from a refugee camp in Egypt. Methiang stresses that Barnes has been a highlight of her experience in Burlington so far — so much so that she wouldn’t consider moving out of the neighborhood. “We got a new Section 8 [housing offer] this year,” she says. The placement was in South Burlington. “We said, ‘Maybe we’ll move somewhere else.’ But my kids said, ‘No, we love Barnes.’”

Melissa Perry, a 21-year-old single mom, feels the same way about Wheeler. Her 5-year-old daughter Hailey started school there this fall. Given the choice of sending Hailey to Edmunds, Smith or Champlain — all “richer” schools — Perry says she’d decline the opportunity. “If Hailey were bussed across town, it’d be harder to arrange play dates. . . and gas is expensive!”

Perry says she’s frustrated by the public discourse about social inequality. “I don’t even know if it’s about money anymore,” she says. “As a parent, I’m seeing that it’s about how you take care of your child. Do they sit in front of the TV all day, or do they read books and color?”

“I’m who everyone’s talking about,” she says. “I’m poor, but my kids are well rounded.”

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Next month, Viva Espresso’s Munson-Warnken will host an informal networking session with prospective Wheeler parents of, collectively, nine other young kids. Some, she reports, have already committed to the school. Others, such as 28-year-old Rebecca Rouse, are conflicted.

>The day after Munson-Warnken relays her thoughts over coffee, Rouse, 28, is lounging in her apartment on nearby Oak Street. Despite the edgy plug earrings and camo pants, she’s amiable and welcoming. While she chats with a reporter at the kitchen table, her son Morgan, 4, maneuvers a plastic snake.

When she moved here from Atlanta in 2005, Rouse recalls, “It didn’t really matter to me how diverse the schools were. I was just really excited to be in Vermont.” Over time, her feelings changed. Now she’s concerned about what she perceives as Wheeler’s poor academic reputation relative to other Burlington schools. And she’s been dismayed to observe the school-district debate devolve into what she terms a “segregation issue.”

Rouse lives on the northern side of Roosevelt Park directly across from Melissa Perry. The location is significant: It’s where the Center City Little League team recently won its first-ever citywide championship. Her neighbor Stu McGowan, who has been head umpire of Center City Little League for almost 20 years, extols that victory as a product of collaboration between middle- and working-class parents.

Rouse didn’t catch that game — she was busy working at a local garden center. But, like McGowan, she values neighborhoods that are racially and socio-economically integrated. Now unemployed, this single mom wants her son to be surrounded by children from working-class and immigrant households. She praises Munson-Warnken’s efforts to unite prospective Wheeler parents.

Deciding on an elementary school is another story, however. At present, Rouse is considering three schooling options for Morgan: Wheeler, the private Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne, or the multi-age “Dovetail” learning program at Edmunds. Having talked with Munson-Warnken, she’s more inclined to give Wheeler a “fighting chance.” Still, she claims to be on the fence, noting that her thoughts on Wheeler are still “unresearched.”

Data notwithstanding, school decisions may ultimately be based on the most rudimentary indicator of all: gut feeling. “I figure this is a really good time,” Rouse deliberates, “because I’ll have until next fall to decide if I see enough parental involvement has accumulated [at Wheeler] . . . Over the next year, if I can get into meetings, meet the principal, just get an idea of how the place is run, then there’s a good chance I would put Morgan in there, because it does make the most sense.”

As her son picks up a coloring book, Rouse concludes, “This is Vermont — we should have the best schools. I mean, it shouldn’t just be myth, we should follow through with that.”

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Mike Ives

Mike Ives

Bio:
Mike Ives was a staff writer for Seven Days from January 2007 until October 2009.

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