over protest

City panel votes to close three more schools, bringing total to 27

Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.

Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.

It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents’ questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.

Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.

“You will never hear me be disagreeable with you,” he said. “The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you…the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree.”

If audience members heard Walcott’s plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.

Wearing light blue shirts, parents and teachers from Coney Island Prep Charter School sat across the aisle from parents of students and teachers at I.S. 303, who wore orange shirts. Per tonight’s panel vote, Coney Island Prep will move into I.S. 303’s building next year, claiming classrooms that the middle school’s teachers said they need for high-needs special education students, but that city education officials have decided they can do without. Throughout the evening, parents and teachers from the two schools traded shots over which was the better school and why the charter school couldn’t move to another building.

Of the three schools that the panel voted to begin phasing out next year, Bronx Academy proved the most controversial. A large group of students, parents, and teachers attended the meeting tonight to defend the school against closure, citing its students’ improving credit accumulation and Regents passage rates.

In the last seven years, Bronx Academy has seen four principals come and go. It is currently on the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools. Yet in September, the school began the process of transforming itself. It was given a new principal, Gary Eisinger, and it formed a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a community-based organization that offers students counseling and support. Bronx Academy also switched from semesters to trimesters, allowing students to 18 credits a year instead of 14.

“I’ve worked in transfer schools, and I’ve never seen a principal work this hard,” said Kevin Towns, an advocate counselor with Good Shepherd. “The data you’re [the DOE] using is from the old regime. These people have been here eight months — let’s be real.”

But Department of Education officials said that they had seen enough of the school’s progress to decide that it wasn’t enough to justify keeping Bronx Academy open.

“The principal has come into a tough set of circumstances, and you do see the impact of his leadership in that school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see. And well below what we see across transfer schools citywide.”

Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said that only two-thirds of Bronx Academy students were showing up to school every day and only a quarter are passing their Regents exams. Many students are still earning too few credits to graduate on time, he said.

“What I’m seeing is the culture in that school has changed and that is powerful and that is what has generated the positive energy, but the academic expectations have not changed,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Anita Batisti, who directs Fordham University’s school support organization, which oversees Bronx Academy, said she couldn’t understand why the city would want to close an improving school.

“I ask you, please give us more time,” she said.

Monica Major, the panel member appointed by the Bronx borough president, said the DOE was rushing to close a school that was just beginning to show signs of improvement. Although Major proposed that the panel table its plans to vote on the school’s closure, her motion was voted down. The panel also voted to open a new transfer school called Bronx Arena that will replace Bronx Academy.

“Marc, I’m really hoping Arena only gets eight months, the same amount of time you gave this school,” Major said to Deputy Chancellor Sternberg.

Asked after the meeting whether eight months would be enough time to judge one of the city’s 11 transformation schools — many of which have been given new principals and support after years of little progress — Walcott sidestepped the question.

“We can’t tolerate slow, incremental change,” he said.

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.