breaking news

Parents, Weingarten sue DOE, Klein over charter school siting

Parents and a slew of community leaders filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Education, demanding that the department reverse its decision to shutter three struggling elementary schools and replace them with charter schools. The parents say the decisions violated state law, because they happened without any consultation of the elected parent councils that have replaced community school boards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers union; Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and a slew of parents of children at the schools are among the plaintiffs to the suit, which personally singles out Chancellor Joel Klein as a defendant. (Read the full suit here, in PDF form.)

Suing Klein and his department is a dramatic escalation of the ongoing saga over the city’s decision this year to shut down three elementary schools — two in Harlem and one in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and fill their buildings with charter schools instead. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside of the regular district bureaucracy, meaning they usually lack teachers unions and can only serve a limited number of students.

A central complaint in the lawsuit is that the changes would leave families in the schools’ neighborhoods with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them. Instead, the families could either go to a traditional public school in another neighborhood or they could enter the lottery that determines charter school admissions. The charter schools being installed in their old school building would give them preference in the lottery.

The lawsuit, written jointly by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the city’s decision “disenfranchises” families. It also accuses the city of violating state law by leaving a neighborhood without a zoned school without the approval of elected parent boards called Community Education Councils, or CEC’s. CEC’s are legally required to approve any change in school zones.

The city Department of Education had no comment today. A spokeswoman for the city’s law department, Elizabeth Thomas, said in a statement, “We have not yet received the legal papers. We will review them thoroughly upon receipt.”

In the past, the DOE has defended its decisions as the best way to serve children in Harlem and Brownsville. Just before the lawsuit became public, I spoke to John White, the city’s chief portfolio officer, about the three schools: P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem and P.S. 150 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

White argued that school officials and the chancellor have an obligation to provide students with the best quality school they can find. He pointed out that while at P.S. 194, for instance, the most recent test scores show that about 60% of students cannot read on grade level, every charter school in the same district, District 5, that received a city report card last year got an A.

The charter school tentatively slated to enter P.S. 194, Harlem Success Academy 2, has not yet had students take state tests, and does not yet have a progress report. But city school officials point out that the school network is massively popular: Last year, 6,000 students applied for 500 seats at Harlem Success.

“The overwhelming evidence in New York City is that charter schools en mass are performing as well as or better than the larger set of our schools that have the same populations or the same challenges,” White said. “That’s just not something that we can disregard.”

Parents filing the lawsuit counter that what they deserve is to be included in the process of school improvement. “It’s not that we’re not aware of what things need to be improved,” said a parent leader at P.S. 194, Ta-Tanisha Rice. “But you didn’t even ask us as parents! You didn’t even ask the students themselves.”

Rice said she only learned that P.S. 194 was being shut down in a meeting in December, where White and the city’s chief parent engagement officer, Martine Guerrier, asked parents not whether they wanted the school to be shut down, but what kind of a school they wanted to create in its place. “You’re not considering our goals, you’re not considering our ideals for our students!” Rice said she told White and Guerrier that day.

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.