a wider net

More students qualify for gifted programs; DOE credits outreach

A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows
A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows the number of children qualifying for gifted programs in each district, compared to last year.

Nearly 50 percent more incoming kindergartners scored high enough on two nationally normed assessments to be eligible for a seat in a gifted and talented program, according to data released today by the Department of Education. The percentage of test-takers who qualified also increased, from 18 to 22 percent.

The jump in participation shows that the standardized procedures the DOE established last year for admission to gifted programs are gaining traction, DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob told me today. “It reflects that families are more familiar with the way we’re running the admissions process,” he said.

The increased number of students eligible for gifted programs could be seen as a feather in the cap for the DOE, which has said it wants to expand access to gifted programs to children citywide, particularly in communities that have not had robust gifted programs in the past. Jacob told me the department this year ramped up its outreach to prekindergarten programs in districts where too few children took the tests and scored high enough last year to warrant opening programs.

“We wanted to find as many children as possible in the city who could meet the standard that we set,” he said.

In terms of sheer numbers, some of the biggest gains happened in districts that already enroll many children in gifted programs, including the districts comprising Staten Island and most of Manhattan below 96th Street.

Children are eligible to join a gifted program if they score in the 90th percentile or higher on two nationally normed assessments; children who score in the 97th percentile or higher can also apply to ultra-elite citywide programs.

The DOE has said it will add as many as 175 seats in citywide programs, bringing the total number to 435; a total of 1,345 incoming kindergartners scored high enough to jockey for coveted spots, ensuring that many families who apply to citywide programs will not be placed in them. The total number of students qualifying for gifted admission is 3,231. All of the children, including those who qualify for the more selective programs, are guaranteed a spot in a district program if they want one.

Families will receive their children’s scores this week. The next step is for families of eligible children to submit an application ranking the programs in their district and, if applicable, elsewhere in the city. The DOE will match families with programs based on their preferences and demand for each program and will let families know where they’ve been accepted by mid-June.

The department has said it expects applications to gifted programs to siphon away some of the enrollment crunch that has left families on the waiting list for their zoned school at more than 100 schools around the city. It will not be until the end of the school year, when families are required to accept or decline the gifted program they’ve been placed into, that waitlists at overenrolled schools should start moving, Jacob told me today.

The admissions process is substantially the same as last year, when it debuted to some rocky results, including a drop in the number of children in poor districts gaining admission to gifted programs. But there are some some changes, Jacob told me. First, he said that while the department hasn’t yet set a minimum number of students for a gifted class, the number will definitely be higher than the one used this year, when programs were permitted to open with as few as eight students.

Also, the DOE is trying to make it easier for families to evaluate their options. Last year, many parents reported finding it difficult to figure out which schools were holding open houses and when. This year, the DOE is maintaining a schedule of open houses for all schools that families of eligible children can rank.

Even with the increase, most families still do not participate in the gifted screening process. When the DOE first announced the standardized G&T admissions procedures last year, it said it planned to screen every child for eligibility this year. It dropped that plan last May as a result of budget cuts. Jacob told me today the decision to scrap universal screening was also a response to an outcry from some parents who said they did not want their children tested. He said the department is instead focusing on outreach to continue increasing the number of families seeking G&T screening.

From my conversations with parents, it’s clear that there is much room for improved outreach. When I was at the lottery for the Harlem Success network of charter schools two weeks ago, I asked all the parents I spoke to whether they had also had their children screened for gifted programs, in addition to applying for charter schools. Only one had, and several told me they didn’t know they had the option or found out about it only after the deadline had passed.

I spent way more time than I should have tonight looking at the numbers. Tomorrow, I’ll post a little more analysis about the data released today.

2009 Gat Results

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.