Q: I’m a principal in a suburban town on the East Coast. My district has made a commitment to open up some spots to educate students from a low-performing urban school system nearby. Most of these kids are Black, while most of the kids in our town are White or Asian. There’s a long waiting list because our schools are significantly stronger. We always promise a certain number of spots, but we don’t make any guarantees about how many students we’ll accept per grade, or which of our schools will have openings. It’s very much dependent on enrollment numbers. The thing is, though, that some of our schools never seem to have spots available — year after year, these principals claim their enrollment is oversubscribed. I’m suspicious, to say the least, and I’d like to flag the issue, ideally without making an enemy of my colleagues. I think we could be serving more children, so I see this as a matter of ethics. And it’s not about my own workload, by the way, as I’d continue to educate the same number of kids from the program no matter what the other principals decide. What do you see as my best options?
A: If you’re a principal in a town as opposed to a large county, then I suspect you know these other principals fairly well. That said, you can’t know their motivations if you don’t ask them. And if you do ask, you might find out that their schools really are overenrolled, or that they offer a unique special education program that stretches their resources too thin, or that they’re already struggling to serve a relatively high-needs student population (compared to your own school). I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about why they’re turning away students. And even if their explanations fail to justify their behavior, talking with them could point the way toward a workable solution, or you might inspire them to change their minds and participate in the program.
I recognize that they might not have good motives. And, clearly, your gut is telling you something isn’t right. So after having those conversations with your peers, it’s quite possible you’ll conclude that they’re flat-out lying and simply want to turn kids away. In that case, my next step would be to figure out whether anyone is tracking the program’s enrollment numbers. (If no one is doing so, then that’s an important oversight to bring to the district’s attention.) You might also look for any other relevant data, such as the number of years these schools have been claiming overenrollment, or their actual enrollments in those years.
To get answers, you could contact your superintendent or the school board. And if what you discover is concerning, you could testify at a public meeting and/or rally the support of parents. I find it interesting, too, that the head of this program isn’t pushing back on the schools that don’t participate. I’m sure they’re aware that some schools seem to have opted out. But maybe they’ve decided that it’s best not to push for students to be sent to schools that aren’t welcoming and supportive, or that don’t have enough resources. Or perhaps they’re afraid that if they provoke a conflict over this, the whole program could be put in jeopardy.
As you start investigating, you might find that you’re raising more questions than answers. It could take a while to sort everything out, and I suspect it could get messy. But that doesn’t mean you should sit back and do nothing. Ultimately, only you can decide whether your ethical obligations override your wish to avoid antagonizing your colleagues.
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