Tag Archives: poverty

The Recesses of Downtown Duluth

15 Oct

On a balmy Wednesday in October, I join some fifty members of my Leadership Duluth class on a walking tour of downtown Duluth. This day of Leadership Duluth is no stray leadership lecture: it’s a day that forces us to confront reality in our city. From the CHUM shelter and food shelf to the Damiano Center food kitchen, from the Safe Haven domestic violence shelter to an open house of social service organizations, this day forces us to see people we otherwise might not see.

A one-day orientation doesn’t allow for much close contact with the people who use these resources; that’s not the point of this day. Instead, we hear from those who spend all of their time working here, the personifications of the leadership this program aims to show us. Among the most deeply embedded is Deb at CHUM, who spends her days reaching out to people on the streets of Duluth, always in some effort to bring them back in. She and her colleagues navigate the tortured paths of love and frustration, of empathy and inability to understand what motivates people to lives on the streets, the drastic turns that a life on the edge can take in a few quick minutes. It is at once both impossible and thoroughly believable to follow the logic that leads a person to the transient inconsistency of a life defined by moves from couch to couch, the transactional life on the street, the turn toward some substance to blunt the cold or pain or demons in the brain.

Whether thanks to inspired leadership or the relative ease of convincing donors to support children, Life House, the city’s largest youth shelter, boasts a warm and welcoming modern space so rare among social service nonprofits that target the poorest of the poor. As families crumble and supportive networks fray, the struggles for Duluth’s youth tick upward. And as I approach the start of my fourth decade on this planet, I now find myself looking at kids and seeing some sense of what they might become, a haunted sense that some of these fresh-faced teens loitering around downtown will someday become CHUM’s clients. A place like Life House may be the last hope for rescuing any of them.

As we walk about, it’s hard not to notice the changing face of First Street. On the west end, the News Tribune and Board of Trade Buildings are both moving toward redevelopment; on the east end, Essentia Health’s massive new hospital project stirs to life. In the middle, scaffolding covers a building at Lake and First, another conversion to housing as Duluth’s downtown catches up with where other cities’ centers were development-wise twenty years ago. Even the bland ARDC building, where I officed for a couple of years before my firm struck out on its own, is getting a facelift, its new façade a marvelously depressing shade of grey.

Another potential project looms on the near east side of First, where the city’s Human Rights Officer, Carl Crawford, delivers the tale of the 1920 Duluth lynchings in his stirring baritone. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial plaza frequently bustles with activity, often from visitors to the Union Gospel Mission up the street; today, we share it with just one young woman, who blasts some pop songs as backdrop to Carl’s sermon and sings along in painful off-key tones. None too quietly, she mutters about the white people who have invaded her space. Just the day before, a county court ruled that the Duluth Economic Development Authority may proceed with the demolition of the Pastoret Terrace building across the street, a sad but necessary ending for an architectural icon that has long since crumbled away beyond repair. First Street’s face will change yet again, and I wonder what this woman will think of it when it comes.

Carl asks us to pick out a favorite quotation on the memorial wall. Many are poignant, from Rumi to Oscar Wilde, but I pick out the Martin Luther King quote that stuck with me when I first set eyes on this then-revolutionary memorial over a decade ago: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Of all the sentiments on the wall, it seems most absent in our current discourse.

King’s words are grounded in a certain Christian theology, a legacy of service on my mind when we walk up to the Damiano Center on Fourth Street. The Damiano is on the site of an old Catholic campus in the heart of the city: it was Cathedral Elementary School before it became a food kitchen. The site of Cathedral High across the street is now a parking lot, while Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a music venue and the priests’ and nuns’ residences are now housing. Even the church has fled downtown in search of new digs, whether east to Congdon and the Holy Rosary campus or up the hill to the Marshall School, now stripped of any religious affiliation.

No doubt faith can feel absent here, and the tale of the Adas Israel congregation, Duluth’s oldest surviving synagogue and a longtime downtown inhabitant, offers a chilling metaphor for those inclined to that line of thought. Their house of worship went up in flames in September, and initial fears of a hate crime fizzled into a much sadder story of a man without a home who set a small blaze next to the building in order to keep warm. I had reached for some thundering quotes from Eichmann in Jerusalem but was left instead back in the pages of The Human Condition, ever in search of meaning in a corner of the world where life risks becoming a tautology.

The scaffolding and wrecking balls across downtown Duluth hint toward a new future, and I am an unabashed supporter: downtown Duluth above Superior Street is largely a relic of a Rust Belt city center, completely at odds with a city looking for a spurt of fresh life. For that matter, it is at odds with a more humane environment for those who drift about it because they have no other choice, and only a narrow, reflexive idea of community would reject this new development as if the status quo were in some way worth preserving. But if it does go, it will take a few stories with it, and we need to keep those stories somewhere if we are to have a true understanding of our past. Whether the it comes from the Adas Israel congregation rising from the ashes or the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial ensuring we never forget the acts of 1920 or a kid at Life House finding stability in a life that previously had none, our knowledge of the darkest moments gives us that much more appreciation for the light.

How Good Is That School, Anyway?

29 Nov

How do we measure the quality of a high school? Some schools have high test scores or send lots of kids to good colleges, but family and friends and general atmosphere probably matter far more for students’ odds at success. There are basic metrics such as the standardized tests du jour, which are very good at measuring how well students take standardized tests. The caliber of the hockey program is, of course, also an important consideration. (I jest…mostly.) Accurate measures are hard to find, though I’d still find more value in things like graduation rates and ACT or SAT scores, which, for all their flaws, are remarkably good predictors of college success. But  assumes these schools are all starting from the same place, which they simply are not. A better question asks how schools work with the students they have, rather than wishing they had.

There’s no elegant way to control for income and parents’ education and all those things, but free/reduced lunch rates are one option. What happens, for example, if we graph average ACT scores from 2012-2015 in comparison to the free/reduced lunch rates at all traditional public high schools in northeast Minnesota? Well, this happens:

act1215

Click all images to enlarge.

Three schools stand out here: Duluth East, Esko, and Hermantown sit off by themselves at the upper left end of the graph. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as basically all of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the region feed into these three schools. Those demographics are friendly to strong test scores, but don’t necessarily mean a school is doing an especially good job in and of itself. Take Hermantown, for example: it’s a growing town, and invariably, young people who consider moving there talk about “the schools” as one of the reasons. Yet this graph suggests that Hermantown’s schools do a decidedly average job—even a slightly below average job—for the population they serve. People may think they’re moving for the schools, but whether they realize it or not, they’re moving for a demographic makeup that makes it easy to have a good-looking school by traditional metrics with far less effort. This is not to pick on Hermantown, which still does a reasonably good job of things, and there’s plenty to be said for wanting one’s children surrounded by other like-minded achievers. But it does show what a disservice we do when we rate schools by the most basic metrics.

At the risk of sounding a bit smug about my alma mater, East’s over-performance is actually pretty impressive given that it is already toward the high end; that said, it’s probably worth noting that East’s attendance area, while holding more poverty than Esko or Hermantown, also contains some uniquely wealthy and highly educated neighborhoods that may pull scores up. Its large student body also probably insulates it from dramatic year-to-year swings. The larger Range schools, meanwhile, perform quite well, as does Cloquet.

Denfeld, which is too often the source of less-than-happy stories about local education, modestly overachieves compared to the region. The school’s struggles when compared to its east side counterpart are entirely predictable based on who goes there, and this data suggests that’s not really the fault of the school. There may still be reasons to be leery of a place like Denfeld if it’s failing to offer the same advanced courses or difficult for students to build a schedule that incorporates those classes, but the school itself and its instructors seem to be doing fine. Places like Proctor and Wrenshall, though, where a number of kids in the Denfeld attendance area go to open enroll, actually underachieve. Floodwood, Carlton, and Bigfork all raise big red flags. High-poverty Deer River, meanwhile, exceeds expectations by a solid margin.

But wait, this may or may not be the most accurate way to do this: not everyone took the ACT until 2016, when the state of Minnesota required all students to sit for it. This is what happens when all students take the test, not just those who want to:

act16

It’s one year of data, so the smaller sample is somewhat limiting, but the shift after the new requirement was predictable. Scores dropped across the board, since a lot of students who are not college-bound sat for a college aptitude test. Generally, this change makes well-off schools look better, and poorer schools look worse, as the steeper trendline shows. The wealthiest schools all hover around the lowest score drops, which probably reflects the fact that the bottom end in these schools is a lot higher than it is elsewhere. Meanwhile, we see big drops on the Range and in some of the poorer schools, including some schools that looked pretty good in the data from previous years, like Virginia and Cloquet. (To Cloquet’s credit, it still does pretty well.)

schoolactchg

Drop in ACT scores when all students required to take test. The statewide average drop was 1.6.

There are two very contradictory ways to interpret this: one, these schools’ great scores from before tear down the curtains and suggest they’re not really that great, but instead serve their top students well while the rest shuffle along. Two, the ACT is not a great measure of what a high school is supposed to do: not every kid is destined for college, and maybe these schools are also educating the less academically-inclined kids well, and just channeling their talents in different directions. Most likely they are both true to some extent.  (Worth noting: this region has an exceptionally high number of people with associate’s degrees or other degrees that are “less” than a bachelor’s degree, but can be tickets to good, steady employment in certain trades. At the same time, the region’s average ACT score is somewhat lower than the statewide average, whereas its graduation rate outpaces the state.)

One way to plausibly better judge a school’s performance is to measure graduation rates against free-reduced lunch rates. Even if kids aren’t going on to college, they’re still equipping kids with the basic skills and credentials for whatever they do next. Of course, one could also argue that these schools are just funneling under-qualified students through the system.

gradrate

And, sure enough, if we correlate graduation rates and free/reduce lunch rates, we get a more complicated picture than with the test score graph, and see that some poor schools do an excellent job of getting students diplomas, while others do not. Here, the three affluent schools all under-perform the trendline mildly—though maybe the trendline should flatten out somewhat at higher levels—places like Greenway, Carlton, and Bigfork do a good job of graduating their students despite weak test scores.

The fundamental point here: just because a school has lower poverty rates does not necessarily mean it is good; just because it has higher rates does not mean it is bad. And yet educational reforms that supposedly aim to improve outcomes somewhere along the line, such as making all students take college aptitude tests whether or not they’re going to college or efforts to block teachers from teaching courses for college credit—a pitiful example of credential obsession at its worst—only tend to make the rich look richer and the poor look poorer. The rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as students drain out of the weaker-seeming schools and flock to the ones that appear strong, whether or not they really are actually better. Few things make my blood boil quite like educational bureaucracy and the underwhelming efforts to get around it.

The idea of rating schools is always fraught with difficulty, and I wouldn’t want to try to reduce the complicated things that go into an education to a single number. College rankings are trashy enough, and I say that even as someone who probably puts more stock in the value of educational prestige than most. If I had to pick out a few things I’d like to see to judge a school’s performance, though, I’d look for a high school’s college graduation rate (separated out for both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees). I’d also want a raw percentage of students earning the very highest test scores (say, ACTs over 30). And I’d control it by free/reduced lunch rate, because not all success is as it seems. It’s not a perfect way to gauge schools, but it’s at least an improvement over the poverty of current methods.

Data source: Minnesota Department of Education. Northeast Range High School (Babbitt) excluded due to lack of data.