Calling for change in Douglas County

PARKER – Teachers, students and parents packed a middle school auditorium and spilled into the hallways during a school board community forum Tuesday night that was long on criticism and short on answers.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County teachers' union, spoke Tuesday about staff morale, which a survey says is plummeting.

Some 20 speakers, many of them teachers, used the occasion to vent concerns about deep cuts to schools that have swollen class sizes and to accuse board members of starving public education in their quest to implement the state’s first district-run voucher program.

Students also took up the cause, with a group of high school students calling themselves SMART – Students Making A Reliable Tomorrow – telling board members “the quality of our education is declining.”

Katie Kade, a senior at Chaparral High School and one of more than a dozen students who attended as SMART, said she has 43 classmates in her Advanced Placement math class: “It really is affecting us at our schools.”

Susan Meek, a parent and former district spokeswoman who lost her bid for a school board seat in November, was warmly applauded as she questioned why the district’s fund balance continues to grow.

“At the same time, we have higher class sizes, we have increased fees for families, we have bus fees,” she said. “Why aren’t the available resources being maximized in the schools?”

But much of the focus Tuesday night at Sierra Middle School was on teachers, as union president Brenda Smith presented the results of a survey showing employee morale has fallen steeply in recent years.

“What you see is an outcry for change,” she said. “This survey solidifies we have a problem.”

Smith said the union contracted with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates – a firm previously used by the district for finance studies – after district leaders brushed off her concerns about staff morale.

More than 2,400 teachers and clerical staff responded to the survey, conducted in November and December, which used the same questions as prior district surveys to track trends.

Smith described the results as “astonishing,” with only 14 percent of respondents agreeing the district is headed in the right direction, down from 77 percent in 2007-08. Only 23 percent said they feel district leaders support their work in the classroom, down from 71 percent in 2009-10.

“It would be easy to say it’s just because of the economy,” which has led to four years without raises, she said. “But it is a direct result of the direction the district has taken in the past two years.”

That’s when a newly elected conservative majority on the board hired a new superintendent and went to work on a voucher pilot that was later stopped by a Denver judge.

Douglas County's school board community forum Tuesday in Parker drew a standing-room-only audience, many of them teachers.

Smith said Augenblick is continuing to sort through the responses to the open-ended questions contained in the survey and more details will be available within the next two weeks.

“We ask you tonight to join us to change the direction of the district and return the focus to our students,” she told board members, who have yet to formally respond to the survey results.

In fact, board members had little to say in response to questions from speakers, despite being goaded by audience members. It’s common practice in some larger school districts, such as Denver, that board members listen but do not answer questions during public comment sessions.

Board member Justin Williams did question one of Smith’s recommendations, which was “no more cuts” for Douglas County students.

“I don’t know how we could guarantee that there’s not going to be more cuts,” he said, noting cuts aren’t the board’s fault. “They’re the legislature’s fault, they’re the principals’ fault and they’re the teachers’ fault.”

It wasn’t clear what he meant but the remark drew hisses and shouts of “boo” from audience members.

Pam Mazanec, a voucher advocate who spoke after Smith, also found little favor with the crowd.

“I’ve heard about the survey that the union was able to get. I say that survey and results mean nothing … if we do not know the why behind this crash in morale,” she said, her voice nearly drowned out by the audience.

“I would also add that some of the behavior here tonight, I hope they don’t allow this from their students,” she said, adding, “This is a good reason why many parents want school choice.”

As Mazanec walked back to her seat, a male voice in the crowd shouted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and applause broke out.

District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials are not ignoring the survey results, though they’re uncertain how employees were selection for inclusion. The district plans to resume its own climate survey this spring, after suspending it during last year’s strategic planning, and will ask similar questions of a broader audience that will include staff and community.

“Is it feedback, is it something we’re going to pay attention to?” he said of the union’s results. “Certainly.”

Brenda Smith, union president, addresses the school board on staff morale

Crowd response to Smith and board member Justin Williams’ subsequent remarks

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.