Growing pains

Eyeing national expansion, School of One founder leaves Tweed

Joel Rose, founder of the School of One, is leaving the New York City Department of Education

The founder of the School of One, one of the city’s most touted educational innovations, will expand that model nationally — by leaving the city Department of Education that helped him create it. The founder, Joel Rose, announced his move in an email to colleagues this morning.

The School of One is part of a national effort to re-imagine how teaching and learning happen at schools by taking advantage of technology. At the three schools that work with the School of One model in New York City, teachers still lead instruction, but they do so with the aid of a “learning algorithm” that creates a personalized program of study for every student.

The idea is to free educators from the more rote elements of school and let them, as Rose put it to us in 2009, “focus on is the hardest part of the equation, which is delivering great lessons.” In the first pilot of the program, a summer math program launched in 2009, School of One reported that its students learned significantly faster, citing externally commissioned research.

The three schools will continue to operate under the guidance of the Innovation Zone, or iZone, team inside Tweed Courthouse. But with Rose’s departure, the national apparatus around School of One — from press attention to large foundation grants — will leave the Department of Education and follow him to a new nonprofit he plans to create.

The move raises questions about New York City’s capacity to act as an incubator for educational innovation. For one, will programs incubated by the iZone stay in New York City for the long haul? Or will they follow the School of One’s path: attracting national attention for a few years and then seeking another home?

Students at the School of One's summer pilot program in 2009.

Those interested in innovating K-12 education often complain that local school districts erect only barriers to change. Outside contractors must navigate behemoth bureaucracies, waiting several years until they can get permission to do business with the school district. And the political nature of school districts, whose management is often constantly shifting, creates worrisome instability. Under a new mayor, who would appoint a new schools chancellor, would the innovation survive?

The School of One was seen in some quarters as a counter-argument; it showed that a school district was not only embracing change, but incubating it. With Rose’s departure from New York, School of One could reverse into a case study.

Figuring out how the new national organization Rose creates can continue to work with New York City may prove to be complicated. City conflict of interest rules prohibit previous city employees from contracting with the city until a substantial period of time has passed.

Rose’s email says that he made the decision to leave New York “with mixed emotions.” But he argues that the innovations that have won School of One national attention are best expanded outside the framework of the city government. Spreading the model to other cities, Rose writes, is “something that I believe can best be accomplished through the sustained efforts of an independent organization with a national scope.”

Rose’s next step, he writes, will be to create a national nonprofit to do that work.

Here is Rose’s full e-mail.

Dear Friends,

It is with mixed emotions and a profound sense of gratitude that I am announcing today my transition from the New York City Department of Education to lead a new non-profit organization that will develop and scale innovative school models for students across the country.

Arriving at this decision was not easy as NYCDOE has been a wonderful place for building and implementing School of One. Indeed I can’t think of another place where School of One could have emerged than in NYC schools over the last two years. I depart with only fond wishes and respect for the team I worked with and for the leadership that made this work possible.

But now is the time to create the foundation for broader impact. Innovation is part of our nation’s strategy to address the moral and economic imperative of improving our schools. New school models that both personalize learning and leverage the time and talents of teachers hold great promise, particularly given the budgetary challenges our schools are experiencing. Delivering on that promise will require the development and scale of these kinds of innovations, something that I believe can best be accomplished through the sustained efforts of an independent organization with a national scope.

The School of One team will continue to support the NYC program in my absence and will be transitioning to fall under the leadership of the NYC iZone. Jonathan Werle, who currently serves as School of One’s Director of Administration, will serve as the project manager. I’m confident that under their leadership, School of One is well positioned to be sustained into the future.

Thank you again for all of your support over the last two years. If you’d like to stay in touch, please drop me an email at [REDACTED] and I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.

Joel

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.