public comment

Parents demand stronger role at council hearing on engagement

As today’s City Council hearing on parent engagement wore into its third hour, parents grew agitated that they had yet to deliver their testimony.

After listening to chancellor Dennis Walcott and executive director for family and community engagement, Jesse Mojica, discuss parent engagement with council members for hours, the parents were ready to contribute, but the meeting was scheduled to end at one.

“It’s really unfair that this wasn’t mostly parent voices,” Michelle Lipkin, P.S. 199’s PTA president, said when she took the mic. “There’s a real disconnect between the definition of parent engagement for parents and the definition of parent engagement for the department of education.”

That disconnect was made clear as parents and council members agreed that the Department of Education can engage parents all they want, but without power, the engagement is all for naught.

“There’s no big secret in what gets parents involved,” Councilman Charles Barron said. “It’s when parents actually have power.” He suggested giving parents a say over curriculum, principal hiring, and budget.

Others agreed and noted that the Panel for Education Policy, the Community Education Councils, and the school closure procedures give only the guise of engagement.

“The parents need power through legislation. Not engagement, not feedback, not any of those pretty words. We need a vote on the PEP,” Christine Annechino, president of CEC 3, testified. “We have no voice. We have no power.”

Concerns raised by council members and parents during the meeting included the cut of 57 parent coordinators earlier this year, the accountability and assessment of parent coordinators, the lack of communication about toxic school environments, and the relocation of last night’s PEP meeting. While the tone was civil throughout, the issues always came back to the fact that parents don’t just want to be kept abreast of issues in their child’s school, they want to have the power to effect change.

Similarly, Pamela Johnson, president of CEC 11, questioned, “Where does the feedback go? It looks like you’re engaging us, but there isn’t any return from the DOE.”

Walcott has made parent engagement a priority since assuming his post in April. In June he held a meeting for parents on the Common Core standards, he delivered a policy speech on the topic during “Parents as Partners” week earlier this fall, and he has been making the rounds of CEC meetings.

He has also rejiggered the parent engagement initiative within Tweed to fit with his vision. What was the Office of Parent Engagement in 2002, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy in 2007, and the Office of Family Information and Action in 2010, is now the Division of Family and Community Engagement (DFACE).

Wolcott tapped Mojica, a Bronx parent of two, for the position in July. At today’s meeting, when council members pushed about the significance of this new iteration, Mojica said changes were being made to align the work of his division more closely with the structure of the network system. He also said the new moniker reflects his goal to engage the community at large.

Mojica’s office is staffed my 95 people, 20 of whom work specifically for DFACE initiatives such as providing support for Parent Associations, training parent coordinators, and working on the Parent Academy, which is planned to launch in September. The budget for DFACE proper is 8 million dollars; the budget for all parent-related initiatives is 105 million.

Early in the meeting, councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, testified that he was pleased with the DOE’s efforts and with the appointment of Mojica but that there was still “skepticism of DOE motives and efforts around parent and community engagement.” He cited the hazy content of the DOE’s web Site, which omits certain information about DFACE and the CEC. He also cited the marginalization of parents in important decisions about charter schools and co-locations.

Wolcott spoke off-the-cuff, mainly responding to Jackson’s concerns. But in his written testimony he shared his intent to “do a better job involving our parents and families.” He committed to improving the process of CEC elections – which were poorly planned and mismanaged last year – and to offering varied ways for parents to become involved on all levels.

“The work to get our students ready for college and careers must involve not only teachers and principals, but students and families as well. Our schools can’t do it alone,” he wrote.

While Walcott brings in a new vision of what family engagement could look like, it is unlikely under mayoral control that parents will get the leverage they want to effect change.

“Their vision of what parent engagement should be is at total odds with ours,” Jim Devor, president of CEC 15. “Powerful people get what they want no matter how deep, broad, or reasoned the communities opposition might be.”

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.