tonal shift

At Columbia, Walcott says "poisonous debate" is hurting kids

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Dennis Walcott at Teachers College.

In his first speech since being named chancellor, Dennis Walcott poured on the charm, asking everyone to “dial down the rhetoric” and giving no hints of any new reforms he’s planning.

Walcott spoke at Columbia University’s Teachers College on Saturday morning, filling in for ousted Chancellor Cathie Black, who was originally scheduled to speak as part of the day-long “academic festival.”

While Black quickly gained a reputation for verbal faux pas and blunt remarks, Walcott was warm and light, cracking jokes about his recent high-profile stint making waffles for students — and even jokingly flirting with the namesake of the morning lecture, Phyllis Kossoff.

Walcott’s charm even moved the crowd to applaud the much-maligned Black.

Carefully avoiding new policy announcements, Walcott focused most of his speech on trying to bridge different sides in the reform debate. He told the crowd about his childhood in Queens — noting that he grew up, and attended public schools, in the same borough as ex-Chancellor Joel Klein — and the role that great teachers had in his success.

“Unfortunately that’s not a storyline we hear as often as we should, especially when it comes to education,” Walcott said. “The conversation we hear about is poor versus the wealthy. Charter schools versus district schools. And who is to blame for the failures of our education system.

“People on both sides of this debate have been guilty of contributing to the current polarized atmosphere,” he said.

“The poisonous debate is hurting our children, plain and simple. And they don’t have time to wait for us to grow up,” he continued. “The problems facing our schools are extremely complicated. They can’t be summed up in 10-word sound-bites. And above all they can’t be solved until we start listening and working together.”

Walcott said he wants high-quality schools in the city, regardless of whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools. “I want options. I love options. … I want people to be able to choose.”

Other highlights from Walcott’s speech:

  • He didn’t distance himself from previous administrations, saying he and Klein talked regularly and were “joined at the hip” — to the point that their wives wonder why they speak to each other so often. But he also talked up his relationship with union leaders, and especially UFT President Michael Mulgrew, as well. (Mulgrew has not exactly welcomed Walcott warmly.)
  • In an interview after Walcott’s speech, Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig pointed out that Walcott mentioned his relationship with the unions much more than his relationship with Klein. “That was very important and welcome,” Henig said.
  • Walcott acknowledged that the “problems of poverty and education are deeply intertwined.”
  • He also said the “last-in, first-out” policy of seniority-based layoffs can’t be allowed “to remain on the books.” In response to an audience question, he shot down the argument that ending LIFO might result in principals laying off the best-paid teachers, saying — not completely accurately — that the way schools are funded gives principals no particular incentive to do so.
  • Walcott said “the jury is still out” on incentive pay, but indicated he “has some ideas” along those lines that he plans to raise with the union. He said he’s very open to “creative ways of paying our teachers.”
  • He pointedly declined an invitation from a teacher in the audience to visit her charter school in Philadelphia — which is part of the Mastery chain — saying he’ll be busy visiting New York City schools instead. In fact, Walcott said he plans to spend most of his time in the city’s schools—and that the press will need track shoes to keep up with him. “I’m an open book … I’m going to be accessible,” he also said.
  • Despite a conciliatory tone and lack of specifics, Walcott said Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms aren’t dead and he won’t shy away from them. “I believe in tough decisions,” he said. “I don’t plan for a second to take my foot off the gas.”
  • Henig said that Walcott’s remarks — and the change from his predecessors in tone, style and approach to stakeholders — likely signal that he’ll assume a lower profile on the national level. “To me that’s suggesting, perhaps, a distinction from Chancellor Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee,” Henig said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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.