collaborative thinking

Struggling with special education, charter schools join together

Chancellor Dennis Walcott discusses special education in charter schools at the kick-off conference for a new collaborative.

As the director of special education at the DREAM Charter School, Jacqueline Frey knows firsthand the difficulties charter schools face when serving students with disabilities.

One issue, she said, is convincing the city that her school’s plan to serve each disabled student is sound.

And when she wants to bring her teachers up to date on the best ways to serve students with disabilities, she has to figure out how to compensate for the training that pricey consultants might be able to offer.

“If I’m a mom and pop charter school, I can’t afford to do that for myself,” Frey said. “It helps to find other schools in the same situation.”

Connecting charter schools with similar special education needs is the chief goal of the New York City Charter School Center’s Special Education Collaborative, which builds off of local efforts to boost special education at charter schools that have been going in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn since 2007. The $1,500-per-school entry fee pays for monthly training sessions, access to counselors and consultants, and an annual conference.

The citywide collaborative, which about 90 of the city’s 136 charter schools have already joined, comes at an opportune time. Both of the state’s charter school authorizers, the State University of New York and the Board of Regents, are pushing new charter schools to build capacity for more higher-needs students, including more special education students, this year, into their school designs. And at the collaborative’s first conference last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE would be pressing charter schools to “up the ante” in how they serve special education students.

The pushes are in part a response to criticism that charter schools do not enroll a fair share of special needs students. In recent years, the proportion of students with disabilities at charter schools has actually risen to nearly the city average. The challenge now, advocates say, is to serve disabled students well.

One obstacle, they say, is the very lack of bureaucracy that is often cited as charter schools’ greatest efficiency. Where district schools are situated in networks that can provide support and training for special education teachers, charter schools are on their own.

“The DOE has really grown their charter school office, but around special education it’s still a big question,” said Dixon Deutsch, the collaborative’s director.

The former director of special education for the Achievement First charter network, Deutsch said he has seen how charter schools operating on their own sometimes struggle to teach disabled students. When Achievement First schools were just starting out, they had only a handful of special education teachers on staff.

“I realized that we were doing a disservice to the kids and families that we were working with,” he said. “Kids were leaving our system and we didn’t really have the staffing or knowledge to figure out how to serve this particular population.”

By the time the network had grown to 10 schools in two states, he said, it had 60 special education instructors,giving the teachers a larger set of professional resources and colleagues to draw on.

The collaborative aims to replicate that growth, especially for schools whose leaders aren’t shooting to franchise, Deutsch said.

“The role this collaboration can really play is to bring different experts from the field together to learn from each other, to network, to see classrooms in action, to see principals in action, to make sure folks are coming together to improve special education,” he said.

Kevin Pease of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts shows teachers how to use puppets to engage students in storytelling at a breakout session.

More than 150 people attended last month’s conference, which featured seminars on classroom management, teaching literacy, and responding to behavior problems, among other topics. The training was geared toward filling in the gaps in support teachers are receiving from their principals and DOE officials, Deutsch said.

In one seminar, teachers and counselors from a number of city charter schools workshopped potential responses to students’ behavioral issues. One teacher asked the group what she should do when one of her students paces around the classroom to avoid doing schoolwork. The seminar leader, Elizabeth Fong, a therapist, suggested creating a new consequence for the student for doing his work that is more desirable than the pacing—an “avoidance behavior,” that was allowing the student to skip assignments.

Kim Madden, director of legal services at Advocates for Children, an advocacy organization for students with disabilities, cautioned that extra training is no substitute for adding more teachers who are certified in addressing a broad range of disabilities.

“There’s a huge spectrum of disabilities, so a student who needs something more intensive than something that can be done as an add-on to general ed is sometimes a challenge for charter schools,” she said.

But Madden said any effort to serve students with special needs better is a positive step for the city’s charter schools.

“Historically we have seen that charter schools have not served the students with greater needs, so I think it’s great that the schools are making an effort,” she said. “Certainly there’s a lot of room for improvement, in both charter schools and the DOE.”

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.