Model Lesson

Bronx principal marshals colleagues around arts enrichment

Sixth-graders at M.S. 223 drew Andy Warhol-inspired portraits during summer arts enrichment program

Angel Angel, 13, missed playing in seven baseball games last month so he could mentor students at his middle school, M.S. 223.

But Angel, a rising eighth-grader who is also an avid guitar-player, welcomed the opportunity to forgo his usual summer activities to help 96 incoming sixth-graders at the South Bronx middle school study reading, math and music for three weeks.

The summer enrichment program, which just finished its first year, is the brainchild of M.S. 223’s principal, Ramon Gonzalez, who has gained a reputation as a leader in public school management since he opened the school in 2003.

Gonzalez has touted initiatives to increase literacy and parental involvement to school community members throughout District 7, which is largely poor and low-performing. Now he is trying to turn District 7’s attention toward arts education, at a time when many schools are facing cuts to their art and music teaching positions. He is asking a handful of local principals to help him write a large grant to fund after school and summer school arts education at multiple schools in future years.

Gonzalez said he wanted to create a free summer program for his students that would address the learning-loss that some students, particularly those from low-income families, experience between June and September. He hoped offering afternoon classes in painting, printmaking, and orchestral music — in addition to trips to Broadway shows and the Museum of Modern Art —  would bring the students back each day, even though the classes were not mandatory.

Rather than try to carve $85,000 out of MS 223’s tight budget, he leveraged his connections — augmented after this spring’s appearance in the New York Times Magazine — to win funding.

Still, selling the split schedule to donors was difficult. Some pointed to a lack of research showing that arts integration would fuel academic improvements. Others didn’t see how Gonzalez’s program would fit into their funding priorities: One foundation that focuses on the arts didn’t want to help support the camp’s academic component, Gonzalez said, while another group wanted to fund academic instruction but not arts programming.

So Gonzalez approached this summer’s pilot program with a hypothesis: If you offer students quality arts education during the summer, then they will be more likely practice reading and math outside of the school year.

Gonzalez wants other principals to help him prove the point, so he is recruiting them to join him in offering arts integration programs outside the school day.

“His focus on trying to use the arts to raise reading scores is really good,” said Mary Padilla, principal of P.S. 5, who visited M.S. 223 last week for a tour of the summer program. “We need to do things differently than other districts because of all the high needs our students have. We have parents who are standing on unemployment lines, on food stamp lines. They don’t have the time to take kids to museums.”

Gonzalez plans to pitch the program to eight other principals this Friday and approach donors with his expansion plans in September. Most of the principals hail from Bronx and Harlem public schools which are outside of M.S. 223’s support network within the Department of Education, Gonzalez said, so collaborations like this one are his only opportunity to interact with them.

“You need a good body of people to effect change,” he said. “It’s the activist in me. We need to create the model to drive instruction, because this is not being done by outsiders.”

At the culmination of the camp last week, roughly 75 percent of the sixth-grade class—many of whom picked up instruments for the first time this July—performed Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and other jazz numbers to a half-full auditorium of parents and teachers.

Padilla, who sent four graduating fifth-grade students from her elementary school to M.S. 223 this year, left the school impressed by what she heard.

“You had over 100 kids participating in his summer arts program in a heat wave, on a Friday, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “This is August, when kids want to take a break and put their feet up, and these kids were in work mode.”

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.