What's in a name?

Comptroller finds city underreported high school drop-outs

City school officials have underreported the number of students who dropped out of high school in the past by reclassifying some of them, according to a report released by the State Comptroller today.

The report, which comes out of an audit completed by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office in January, examines a group of students that are labeled as “discharged,” meaning they have left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state or deciding to enroll in a G.E.D. program. It finds that some of these students should actually have been labeled as drop-outs, but because of paperwork errors or school officials’ failure to follow state regulations in certain cases, they were counted as discharged.

Students who are discharged don’t count towards the city’s drop-out rate and some advocates have argued that principals can misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially. Overall, the comptroller’s report found that even with the improper discharge classifications taken into account, the city’s graduation rate was “generally accurate.”

To determine whether the city’s Department of Education was improperly classifying drop-outs as discharges, auditors in the comptroller’s office examined the records of students who started high school in 2004 and should have graduated in 2008, but were discharged along the way. They randomly chose 500 of the 17,025 general education students who were discharged and 100 of the 1,923 discharged special education students.

Through interviews with principals and guidance counselors and analysis of students’ records, auditors found that 74 of the 500 (about 15 percent) discharged general education students and  should have been considered drop-outs. For special education students, 20 of 100 did not have enough documentation to prove they had been discharged.

The report notes that in the vasty majority of these cases of improperly labeled students, schools weren’t able able to find enough documentation of students’ new schools or entrance in G.E.D. programs to satisfy the State Education Department’s requirements for discharge.

But in some cases, the report says, the students had clearly dropped out. According to the report, one student who quit high school to join the military was classified as discharged. Another dropped out and was labeled as such, but then the school changed the students’ classification to discharged and couldn’t provide auditors with documentation to show why.

DOE officials responded to the report by saying that most of the students who the comptroller designated as erroneously discharged were not hidden drop-outs. Instead, they are victims of a discrepancy between the city and state’s standards for proving students have been discharged.

“We believe that, in practice, they [the state standards] impose an unfair and unwarranted burden on school principals, administrators, counselors, and outreach workers,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow Suransky in his written response to the audit.

In response to the audit, school officials challenged some of the report’s findings. One example they cited as evidence of the state’s overly strict standards was the case of a student who left her New York City high school and returned to West Africa after her father was deported. Her uncle confirmed that she had left but because her school couldn’t verify this directly with the student’s father, auditors said she should have been labeled a drop-out.

In the report, the comptroller’s office responds that the student was discharged in 2004 but it wasn’t until May of 2010 that city officials interviewed the girl’s uncle and learned that she had returned to West Africa in 2007. For the three years between when she stopped going to high school and when she left the country, the city had no documentation proving she had been in school.

Lower East Side Prep High School Principal Marth Polin said that properly discharging students is not easy. Many of her students are recent immigrants from China and it’s not unusual for them to leave the U.S. or New York City without telling anyone at her school.

“It’s very arduous,” she said of the discharge process. “The problem is they often don’t tell us they’re leaving, and then we’re held accountable for them.”

When Polin’s students do tell her where they’re going, they still have to sit for a planning interview, sign papers saying they are discharging themselves (or their parents are), and provide a plane ticket proving they are leaving the country. Once they’ve left, they have to prove they’ve enrolled in a new school, otherwise they’re classified as drop-outs.

“I don’t think it’s entirely fair because any of us that do take a lot of immigrant kids, we do take the biggest hit,” Polin said.

“It may be arduous but there’s no other way to get around to actually verify this stuff,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. Two years ago, Haimson and Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, released a report on the city’s increasing number of discharged students.

Haimson said that because schools are graded — and sometimes closed — based on their graduation rates, principals have an incentive to use the discharge label for their students who drop out.

“It’s a combination of sloppy oversight and an accountability system which really hurts these kids the most, by having schools push them out and then lie about it,” she 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.