And then there were three

At Columbus, students and staff grapple with looming closure

Lisa Fuentes, principal of Christopher Columbus High School in the East Bronx, at work in her first floor office.

“How many of you plan to go to tutoring?” Lisa Fuentes asked the crowd of Christopher Columbus High School seniors trickling into the first floor auditorium on a recent morning.

As she surveyed the thin show of hands, her voice shook. “Maybe 10? So I put thousands of dollars aside so you can have tutoring, and a handful of you are attending?”

“If you don’t start taking this seriously, this is going to be the worst graduating class of the entire history of Columbus,” she said.

In her nine years as Columbus’s principal, Fuentes has had countless, similarly tough conversations with her senior classes to remind them about uncompleted college applications, looming Regents exams, and missing course credits.

But she said she feels even more urgency this year, because she knows she is running out of time to reach the many students who are failing courses, missing credits, and chronically late to school.

That’s because this year’s crop of seniors is the third-to-last that will ever graduate from Columbus. The school is in the process of being closed because of its low performance, despite valiant efforts to fend off the city’s decision that included hearings, lawsuits, and two attempts at charter school conversion. This year, no new ninth-graders enrolled, and Columbus is scheduled to graduate its last students in 2014. It is now just one of seven schools sharing space in the four-story stone building that once housed it alone.

Fuentes and other teachers said they are cautious not to let the impending closure overshadow instruction. But students say they miss the ninth-grade teachers who no longer have jobs at Columbus, and on several occasions teachers have stepped into Fuentes’s office to cry.

“A lot of my good good teachers have left,” she said. “I hate the term jump ship, because of Columbus … But they told me they didn’t want to wait until the end and risk going into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool,” where teachers who have lost their jobs rove from school to school as substitutes.

Several teachers say they passed up positions at other schools in order to stay at Columbus during its phaseout. Edward Barone, who teaches chemistry, is the most junior science teacher on the staff and expects to be cut loose at the end of the school year.

“I guess I’m concerned about it, but I’m doing the job the best I can,” he said. “I had an opportunity to move to a couple of the small schools in the building. But I felt like I was still good for Columbus. I hope I’m not making the wrong decision.”

Students, too, say they have mixed feelings about sticking by as Columbus turns into a shell of its former self.

Jesse Joseph, 16, a junior, said he came to Columbus to follow in the footsteps of two older brothers. But he said he has been dismayed to see several longtime teachers leave, including Steve Bonica, an earth science teacher who went to Bronxdale High School on the building’s third floor because Bronxdale would have a ninth grade and Columbus would not.

“The teachers I have classes with today say they might not be here, like Mr. Barone,” Joseph added.

He said he would transfer to another school if he could. But he said Columbus’s guidance counselors dissuaded him because the process of transferring would be time consuming, and he might only have the option to transfer to another large, low-performing school.

Zorana Vulevic, 16, has only been at Columbus for two and a half years but is taking extra classes this year so she can graduate in 2012. “This is not a real high school education,” she said. “Health and government had substitutes because the teachers were excessed.”

In its heyday, Columbus was able to offer regular and advanced-placement core subjects and electives in cooking, health, and French. By 2010, the school had lost those electives, along with Advanced Placement science courses, English, math, and language programs. This year, students who want to take advanced courses such as physics must “go upstairs” — shorthand for enrolling in classes offered by other schools at the Columbus campus.

That’s not an option for most students. Fuentes said many of Columbus’s 760 remaining students are not on track to graduate in four years, because of factors such learning disabilities, homelessness, or criminal backgrounds.

Two-third of Columbus students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch, one quarter require special education services, and nearly 20 percent are considered English language learners.

Those proportions are sure to climb as the school continues to accept needy students, even as it grows closer to its final days.  This year, nearly 150 students were assigned to the school after classes started. Over-the-counter students are often some of the hardest to teach; many are English language learners or come from low-income families without permanent homes; some arrived in New York City just weeks before the start of school after long interruptions in their formal schooling.

Many principals balk at having their enrollments swollen by hard-to-educate students, but Fuentes said she was eager to accept them, both because they brought with them extra funding and also because she sees Columbus as a refuge for needy students.

“I’m a fool,” she said. “I take them all.”

Barone, who was one of the teachers involved in organizing the school community to defense Columbus, said the school’s closure would take away a vital opportunity for over-the-counter enrollees, particularly new immigrants, to find faculty responsive to their needs.

“We made so much progress with ways to approach this population of students. For them to be throwing that out with the bathwater is a real shame,” he said.

Fuentes said the metrics the city used when deciding that Columbus was too weak to survive didn’t capture many of the school’s successes.

“We believe in our kids and the progress they’re capable of making,” she said. “We really believed we could be successful, with the staff we had.”

Now, as the school and its staff dwindles, some remaining teachers are, like Barone, digging in.

“I feel like we work just as hard as we’ve always worked,” said Kanika Smith, who teaches AP English. “We tell the students, the school is closing, but you’re not. I’m also the coach of the cheer, step and dance team, and the senior adviser, so my goal is to keep the spirit going.”

With 10 years of experience at the school, Smith is one of its least senior teachers, and she expects to be excessed in June. But she is deferring the job hunt until then, she said, both out of a desire to defer the inevitable and out of dedication to her students.

“This building has been ‘closing’ for years,” she said. “I haven’t run away yet.”

But Vulevic, who is taking a leadership elective reserved for the school’s highest-performing students, said most students had set aside a fervor to fight for survival in favor of apathy.

“There’s not much we can do anymore,” she said. “It’s done.”

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.