west side story

Backing her kid's school, actress Cynthia Nixon joins UWS war

A resolution to move an Upper West Side middle school passed on Wednesday night, but not before Cynthia Nixon — “Sex and the City” actress, Alliance for Quality Education spokeswoman, and parent at the school — was shouted down briefly during a heated public comment session.

Nixon was stepping into a fight that has been raging on the Upper West Side for months. The fight began as a discussion about how to deal with overcrowding at public schools but has spiraled into a raging debate about class and race and privilege in Upper Manhattan. Confrontations have gotten incredibly emotional — and personal: On this site, a commenter posing as Cynthia Nixon’s fictional son, Brady, from “Sex and the City” accused his “mom” of hypocrisy. And parents at Nixon’s school, called the Center School, have charged another school’s parents with racism and class prejudice, citing postings from last January on the Urban Baby Web site that called Center School students “thugs.”

At issue is a plan that would move the Center School from its current home inside a larger elementary school on West 70th Street, PS 199. Supporters of the plan tout it as an easy way to relieve crowding at the elementary school, which is growing so quickly that parents fear it will not have room to hold their younger children. Opponents, including Nixon, argue that moving the Center School exacerbates segregation by race and class. (PS 199, a zoned school, is two-thirds white, while the Center School, which draws its students from throughout the district, is half white and has a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students.)

If the plan becomes official, which it almost certainly will after Wednesday’s vote, the Center School will move to another school building several blocks away.

Nixon and other Center School parents have vehemently opposed the plan for months, making fliers and using the school’s Web site to organize protests. They also delivered passionate testimony at the meeting Wednesday, choosing Nixon and another mother to represent their cause. In her short remarks, which I captured in the video above, Nixon argued that there is a stark difference between the demographic of the Center School and the “increasingly white and increasingly affluent” elementary school it shares space with. Moving the Center School away, she said, would lead to a “de facto segregated building on 70th Street.”

The Upper West Side school war began in September, when the city Department of Education suggested two plans for how the Upper West Side could relieve crowding.

One would have moved 30 percent of students to new schools. But the local parent council that has final authority over zoning matters last week indicated that it would back a much tamer plan. That one would move only a handful of students, keep siblings in the same school, and, most controversially, relocate two schools. One of those schools, Anderson, a gifted school that pulls students from across the city, agreed to a move. The other, the Center School, where Cynthia Nixon is a parent, has spent weeks fighting tooth and nail against the plan.

The people booing Nixon were led by a growing group of parents who are zoned for PS 199 but fear that increasing crowding could make the school too packed to have room for their children. If the Center School moves out of their building, that will shore up space for their children at PS 199. These parents, who have maintained a Web site that some say contains misinformation, turned out in large numbers to the meeting on Wednesday. (Below the jump, view a video of their spokesman, Eric Shuffler, speaking out at the meeting; he, too, was booed.)

But Nixon’s contingent was by far the largest. It included not only by Center School parents but also parents from at least four neighborhood schools, who echoed Nixon’s argument about diversity. The group walked out in protest as the council prepared to vote. A number of PS 199 parents who said they supported the Center School joined them.

Also walking out — at times to shouts of “Yes, we can” — were parents from the Computer School, a middle school whose building will be Anderson’s new home, and PS 75, a diverse elementary school whose zone was trimmed in the resolution.

Council members said they had no authority to involve issues of diversity in the rezoning process. “The [Community Education Council] does value diversity. We’ve talked about it,” CEC 3 member Jennifer Freeman told me after the meeting. “We were working with the tools available to us so the main topic in this conversation had to be overcrowding. We would welcome the opportunity to talk about diversity more.”

During the meeting, one council member explained that she wanted to deal with issues of race and class segregation in the district but that now was not the right time to do so.

“If not now, when?” audience members shouted at her.

That council member, Danielle Moss Lee, ultimately abstained from voting. She was the only council member present who did not vote in favor of the resolution.

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.