College finance idea hits nerve

Sensitive future debates about funding state colleges – and other issues – were previewed Wednesday as a state advisory panel held a key meeting in its process of drafting a new strategic plan for the state system.

The liveliest discussion was sparked by a misunderstanding over a subcommittee idea about how to divide state tax dollars among different kinds of colleges.

Campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

While that misunderstanding was quickly smoothed over, the question of focusing scarce tax revenue on the colleges that most need it is sure to come up again during the deliberations of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

Three other big ideas surfaced Wednesday received less immediate attention but are certain to be debated later.

The steering committee, initially created by Gov. Bill Ritter and then formalized by the new higher ed financial flexibility law (Senate Bill 10-003) has given itself an October deadline to finish a proposed strategic plan for consideration by the new governor and lawmakers during the 2011 legislative session.

The panel is wresting with such issues as the funding crisis facing state colleges; low college attendance and completion by Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of Colorado’s population; whether the state has the right mix of colleges, and whether the current system allows easy enough student movement between colleges.

The steering committee is being advised by four subcommittees, and Wednesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for detailed reports from those panels. Subcommittees studying accessibility and the “pipeline” to college made presentations. (Detailed reports will come next month from the subcommittees considering financial sustainability and the role and mission of state colleges.)

Given that the committee is moving toward decision making, Wednesday’s meeting drew larger attendance than has been the case for past meetings, including University of Colorado President Bruce Benson; School of Mines President Bill Scoggins; Nancy McCallin, president of the Community College System, and a bevy of higher ed lobbyists.

A financial concept advanced by the Accessibility Subcommittee got things stirred up during the meeting.

Benson said he was “very concerned” about a proposal that seemed to suggest taking some tuition revenue and institutionally raised financial aid money from richer institutions (such as CU) and giving it to other schools, like state four-year colleges.

Meg Porfido

Meg Porfido, chair of the Accessibility Subcommittee, said, “That was not the intention.”

Two Democratic legislators. Reps. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge on speakerphone and Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder in person, also chimed in to oppose any shift of tuition and financial aid funds from CU.

“That’s not the proposal,” said Jim Lyons, steering committee co-chair.

Panel member Don Elliman, with a little irritation in his voice, noted that there was a wording problem in an initial draft of the subcommittee document that was corrected before Wednesday’s meeting.

Don Elliman

Lyons also reminded Benson that the subcommittees were carefully constructed to include representation from all levels of the higher ed system. Later in the meeting, after Benson had left, Lyons joked, “I was tempted to tell him we put that in there just to see if he was paying attention.”

(One lawmaker told Education News Colorado later that CU officials had sent around an e-mail raising the alarm.)

The idea that the subcommittee is considering will be controversial enough if it’s eventually adopted as part of the strategic plan. That concept is reduction of state per-student aid at schools that have greater capacity to raise tuition and outside funds – like CU-Boulder – so that scarce state tax dollars can be concentrated at schools like Metropolitan State College and other four-year schools, which serve higher percentages of first-generation, minority and low-income students.

“There are market forces that allow different kinds of institutions to raise different amounts of money,” Porfido said.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
CU President Bruce Benson

“Other people perhaps don’t try as hard at CSU, Mines and CU,” Benson replied. “Other institutions should be out working on this [fund raising] too.”

Earlier, Porfido said, “If you’re talking about limited unfds … more general fund [state tax dollars] should be put toward the base and middle tiers,” referring to community and four-year colleges. “That’s not thinking that everybody loves.”

The Accessibility Subcommittee floated two other interesting ideas, offering automatic college admission to Colorado students who have appropriate high school records and letting state-funded financial aid go directly to students rather than to institutions.

Among its tentative suggestions, the Pipeline Subcommittee proposed consideration of further integration of the departments of education and higher education.

But, none of those three ideas generated much discussion.

The steering committee next month plans to hear reports from the sustainability and mission subcommittees, do a draft of the strategic plan in August and conduct a series of public meetings around the state in October.

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.