big plans

Thompson: Let mayor keep school control, but limit his options

Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via Azi's Flickr)
Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via ##http://flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/2376506857/##Azi’s Flickr##.)

As the debate over mayoral control mounted this winter, Comptroller William Thompson, himself a mayoral hopeful, conspicuously did not address the essential question of whether the mayor should control a majority of members on the city school board. Today, Thompson revealed his position: The mayor should appoint every board member — but he shouldn’t have unlimited choice.

Instead, according to a plan that Thompson outlined before Assembly members at a hearing on school governance in Brooklyn this morning, the mayor should select board members for two-year-long terms from a slate of candidates put forth by a 19-member “nominating committee” representing a diverse set of interests. Under the plan, the committee would be composed of

  • Five members appointed by the Mayor;
  • One member apiece appointed by Borough Presidents;
  • Four parent members chosen by the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council;
  • A teacher selected by the United Federation of Teachers;
  • A principal chosen by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators;
  • A college or university president selected by the New York State Education Commissioner;
  • A member of the business community appointed by an organized business entity selected by the Mayor; and
  • An education school faculty member selected by the college or university president member

In a statement, Thompson said the arrangement would allow the mayor to set education policy but would ensure that the perspectives of parents, teachers, and education experts are included in the decision-making process. A chief complaint of Mayor Bloomberg’s control over the schools since 2002 is that those constituencies have been ignored.

The man most considered most likely to join Thompson in the mayor’s race (other than Bloomberg himself), Rep. Anthony Weiner, has said he supports “unfettered” mayoral control, with the mayor continuing to control most seats on the city school board.

Thompson’s full statement, which includes his proposals for strengthening parent involvement and monitoring education department data, is below the jump.

THOMPSON UNVEILS PLAN TO IMPROVE MAYORAL CONTROL OF NEW YORK CITY SCHOOL SYSTEM 

Thompson plan establishes stronger educational board, improves parent input, and calls for independent audit of test scores and graduation rates

New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. today unveiled a proposal to improve accountability and transparency in the New York City Department of Education by establishing a committee to appoint a stronger educational board and increase involvement of parents in the education of their children.

“As we look ahead to the sunset of mayoral control, we should reauthorize the law, but we must strengthen it and do a better job of enforcing its existing provisions,” Thompson said in testimony before the New York State Assembly Education Committee in Brooklyn. “With an enormous stake in their children’s educational success, parents must have a true voice in the decisions that impact their children’s schools…It is time to put the ‘public’ back in public education.”

You can view the Comptroller’s testimony at www.comptroller.nyc.gov. This was the second time Thompson testified before the Committee on mayoral control. The Comptroller testified at a February 6 hearing, expressing his support for mayoral control but sharply criticizing the Mayor and Schools Chancellor for shutting out parents and allowing no-bid contracts to balloon.

At today’s testimony, the Comptroller proposed that the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) current Panel for Education Policy (PEP) be replaced with a 9-member school board appointed by the Mayor from a pool of nominees recommended by a nominating committee comprised of a cross-section of New Yorkers committed to student success. The board would serve fixed, two-year terms, be responsible for all matters of policy and serve as an appeal board for certain actions of the Chancellor.

Additionally, Thompson proposed that the nominating committee have 19 members, consisting of:

  •        Five members appointed by the Mayor;
  •        One member apiece appointed by Borough Presidents;
  •        Four parent members chosen by the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council;
  •        A teacher selected by the United Federation of Teachers;
  •        A principal chosen by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators;
  •        A college or university president selected by the New York State Education Commissioner;
  •        A member of the business community appointed by an organized business entity selected by the Mayor; and,
  •        An education school faculty member selected by the college or university president member.

Accordingly, the committee would nominate three candidates for each of the nine positions on the board – to be chosen by the Mayor. At least four of the nine must have a professional background in education, finance or business management.

“Under this system, based on models from Boston and Cleveland, the Mayor would continue to appoint the Chancellor,” Thompson said. “The mayor and the Chancellor would also continue to exercise broad authority to direct policy, with the difference that – unlike the current system – voices representing students, parents and individuals with a wide range of education expertise will have a means to be heard.”

Thompson concluded his testimony in noting that he and others are calling not for an end to mayoral control, “but a commitment to making it more transparent, more accountable, and more inclusive.” Thompson added: “We must commit ourselves to the goal that every child entering the New York City school system is given the best opportunity to walk out of high school prepared for college and ready to take his or her place in the new economy of the 21st century.”

Additionally, the Comptroller unveiled other proposals to improve mayoral control:

School Leadership Teams

Thompson recommended amending State Education Law to specifically state that District Superintendents’ annual evaluations of principals consider a principal’s record in developing an effective, collaborative School Leadership Team. “There must be a meaningful effort by principals to engage parents, not just lip service,” Thompson said.

Community Education Councils

The DOE routinely ignores existing statutes governing Community Education Councils (CEC), rarely consulting them before schools open or close and not involving them in developing district report cards. The DOE has narrowly interpreted the Councils’ statutory role in school zoning, denying them a voice in program offerings in their districts and schools. Thompson said the law should clarify the Councils’ role in school zoning to ensure that they have a voice in deciding what programs are offered.

Additionally, Thompson noted that 9 of the 11 voting members of the CEC must be a parent of a child attending a school in the district and is selected by the President and Officers of a Parent Association (PA) of Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Thompson instead proposed that all PA and PTA leaders in a district meet and select from their members the nine to sit on the CEC.

District Family Advocates

Thompson noted that many District Superintendents spend a substantial amount of time outside of their home districts, which takes them away from reviewing school budgets, evaluating principals and assisting parents. As Superintendents have been pulled away from their role in assisting parents, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy has tried inadequately to fill the gap. There currently are at most only two Family Advocates per district, and many districts only have one.

Said Thompson: “Because they report to Tweed rather than the District Superintendent, their ability to resolve parent concerns is limited.  Families currently have no place to go for effective help other than the principal – or Tweed. For that reason, I believe that the District Family Advocates should be reassigned to report to the Superintendent.”

Testing

Thompson called for an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates. He said that concerns over data manipulation have arisen over the Department’s trumpeted gains in test scores and improvements in graduation rates. “If the public is to trust the City’s claims of gains, we must remove both the incentive and the opportunity to manipulate results,” the Comptroller said.

“This goes to the heart of the educational mission to give our young people the skills they need – and the city needs – to compete in the new century,” said Thompson.

Thompson noted that the DOE’s budget nearly doubled – from $12.5 billion to $21 billion – since the mayoral control law was passed. “A lack of improved achievement to align with increased resources,” he said, “threatens not only our students’ future, but the very future of our city.” 

Procurement

In earlier testimony, Thompson faulted the DOE for avoiding fair and open competition in the awarding of City contracts, noting the soaring rate of non-competitively bid contracts. Thompson said the DOE has executed millions of dollars in contracts forged outside of the competitive bidding process.

“With its top-down approach, the current administration has sought to avoid debate and public scrutiny, while fundamental decisions regarding education reform have been made by executives with no education background,” Thompson said.

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.