three theories

What is it about Eva Moskowitz that attracts so many enemies?

Eva Moskowitz.
Eva Moskowitz.

Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, who has done some seriously good work in the past, this week took his pistol-like investigative skills to the skull of charter school operator and eternal politician Eva Moskowitz — first in a story on the erosion of parent voices in the city schools, and then in a story on Moskowitz’s salary. Gonzalez challenges the salary, which he reports as $371,000 last year (Moskowitz says the real figure is $250,000 plus a $60,000 bonus), suggesting that she should give some of her pay back to her charter schools.

This is hardly the first criticism that’s been thrown at Moskowitz, who previously served as the chair of the City Council’s education committee and ran for borough president of Manhattan, losing to Scott Stringer after the teachers union campaigned against her. As Gonzalez reports, her critics include “educators, parents, the teachers’ union and Harlem political leaders.”

Why’s there so much hate for a woman who has decided to spend her days starting schools for poor and mostly black children in Harlem? There are now many charter school operators in this city. Why focus on Moskowitz? I asked around today and collected three different theories:

1) This theory is the one that’s implicit in Gonzalez’s report: She deserves the scrutiny because she’s not what she claims. She claims that her charter schools are unfairly underfunded by the state — but then she rakes in a big salary herself. She similarly claims to want to improve public education — but then she goes along with a Department of Education plan to move her charter school into an existing public school, effectively allowing the city to go over the heads of parents and, as Gonzalez put it in an another piece this week, “rezone a public school.” (Only about 30 families will be displaced.)

2) The second theory comes by way of a charter school official who asked not to be named because he hadn’t shared his thoughts with Moskowitz. He told me that Moskowitz suffers a style problem. Rather than approaching the district public schools with respect, Moskowitz makes a habit of dismissing their work as unacceptable.

“‘You’re trash,’ is what the message is. ‘You’re trash, and get out of the way, because we know what to do and you don’t,'” the official said. “No person can say that. I don’t think any person has that authority. Especially someone who hasn’t run a successful school for more than a few years.” He said the better method, practiced by several other city charter schools, is to develop relationships of respect and trust, to work together rather than to fight the old system. “Even the KIPP people,who have a much logner track record of success, they speak with a level of humility,” the official said.

3) The third theory is Moskowitz’s own. She acknowledges that she doesn’t work in the same style as other charter school leaders might — but she thinks that’s a good thing. Here’s how she put it to me:

We have to always be respectful of people because being nice is the right thing to do and important, but I think we have a moral obligation to identify schools that are not working for kids, and unfortunately there are a lot of them. If that’s disrespectful – if saying that a school is failing is offensive – I think that we can’t be politically correct and sacrifice children in the process.

The result is that she’s willing and eager to declare schools as failures, and to urge that they be replaced with something new. And the result of that is a powerful challenge to the status quo that she says can mean a high price for her. “Even at considerable personal and professional cost, I’ve never been afraid to raise the bar and to do what I think is right for children and teaching and learning,” she said. “And that’s incredibly threatening.”

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.