School leaders go back to school

The school is called High Stakes High. Its motto? Proficiency or death. Teachers act as spies, and weak students are eliminated, Hunger Games-style.

D-21 Assistant Principal Renard Simmons presents his vision for his school, which serves credit recovery students.

No, it’s not the latest young adult novel craze. Instead, the story of a school that takes accountability a bit too seriously was part of a short video exercise for current and aspiring school leaders aimed at opening them up to creativity and teamwork and at exploring the importance of structure when thinking about transforming a school.

The video was created as part of a weeklong intensive training run by Get Smart Schools for 16 fellows whom the organization plans to support for the next two years as they develop their own visions for education and learn how to effectively manage and run a school.

The fellows, who came to the seminar from Denver, Aurora, Sheridan, Douglas County and Salida, have an average of six years of teaching experience and an average of five years of school leadership. Sixty percent of the participants are women; 26 percent are minorities.

The fellowship aims to shift principals’ leadership and management outlook from traditional problem-solving strategies toward more structural thinking.

“In the past, school leaders addressed problems and challenges by fixing the problem and restoring order,” a description of this week’s training read. “They used data and logic and created long-term, strategic planning processes based on traditional decision-making approaches.

Get Smart doesn’t believe this strategy has worked.

“As our world has become more complex, patterns change and situations don’t fit into neat boxes. This requires a different approach that relies on specific patterns of thinking and a deep understanding of systems and structures.”

“We are approaching ideas as if you are a CEO,” trainer Andrew Bisaha said.  “We want to help them create a picture [of a school] anyone can buy into.”

Fellowship details

In the first year of the fellowship, leaders are immersed in learning and application through a series of modules that include interactive coursework, simulations, case studies, reflection, independent reading and research and workplace application.  This learning is then applied in the workplace with support and feedback from executive coaches. The final project for the year is a comprehensive organizational analysis of a school and the development of a strategic plan that is implemented in the second year.

In the second year, fellows refine the skills learned in year one and apply those skills in the context of new school development or school turnaround strategy. Cohort meetings are focused on deeper analysis and more sophisticated case studies. Executive coaching targets the personal talents and strengths that have been identified for the individual leader and the coach supports the fellow to develop those talents into leadership strengths.

The video exercise was intended to get them to think about the need for a beginning, middle and end — a structure to go from vision to reality in a school. To make the exercise more realistic, workshop leaders had the fellows work a conch shell and large chunk of cheese into their films — meant to represent the challenge of meeting state or federal mandates.

Sample school vision

After the principals had fun with videos, they then used poster paper to write out a vision statement for improving a school or creating a new one.

Angelique Sanchez-Hutman, an administrative assistant at D-21, a credit recovery school in Denver, said it’s her goal to become an assistant principal then a principal one day.

“I enjoyed the idea of looking at the current reality and your vision and then building steps to get there…and seeing the gap,” she said of this week’s workshop.

Her goal is to create a dual language school for middle and high school students in Denver.

Dave Fromson, teacher and activities director at Sheridan High School, found the workshop compelling because it examined the difference between problem solving and truly creating a better school structure.

“Problem solving is temporary and bound to experience the same level of ultimate failure as you have of success vs. truly creating a new and better structure,” Fromson said. “You can change things for the good permanently.”

Fromson’s goal is to transform the school he’s in.

“I want to transform it into something in which our students are empowered to be part of creating their own postsecondary plans,” he said. “A lot of our students just don’t realize what is out there. They don’t realize what is out there is also for them.”

A school with kids who are behind

Renard Simmons, assistant principal at D-21, said he has many bright students in his school, but they’re at a third and fourth grade level academically. He wondered how people could accurately gauge their progress  — not just based on test scores. To him, it’s a major coup if a student learns to be respectful after being in a pattern of cussing in the hallway.

“I look at the student in June – that is not the same student I saw at the beginning of the year,” he said. “That kid may still be behind, but they’re not going down the hallways, saying [expletives].”

He said he’s also got gang members and there have been fewer fights this year, only a recent fight involving girls.

Simmons said he is interested in emphasizing a school that builds character, uses project-based learning and creates a sense of community. Character is the big thing for him. He tells his students that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you.

Get Smart trainer Jane Shirley said it would be key for this student population to be trained with the skills they need to handle project-based learning.

“Those students come in with a gap,” she said.

Fellow Garrett Rosa is a director of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus in Aurora.

Rosa said Shirley “helped us early on structural thinking.”

“I loved that [Get Smart] had more of a business mindset in how to operate a school,” Rosa said. “They look at it very intentionally.”

It was those interactions with Get Smart that led Rosa to become a fellow.

“The hard part of school of innovation is I am not connected to innovative leaders in Aurora Public Schools,” he said. “Having like-minded, creative, dynamic people around who don’t have blinders up to what’s possible inspired me.”

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.