strength in numbers

City plan to shrink Wadleigh draws vocal and official opposition

Ninth-grader Geronimo Miranda joins sixth-graders Ariyelle Ceasar, Tiane Jackson, Cheyanne Young and Nia Manerville in describing Wadleigh Middle School's positive qualities at a school truncation hearing Jan. 26.

A who’s who of elected officials and Harlem leaders turned out Thursday to defend the Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts against the Department of Education’s plan to close its middle school.

About 200 parents, students, activists, and staff packed the school’s auditorium Thursday evening for a public hearing on the proposal. Just before, officials who included City Councilman Robert Jackson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Comptroller John Liu all held court in the packed lobby of the Harlem campus. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the city’s NAACP chief, Hazel Dukes, also spoke at the hearing.

They said the city was giving up on a neighborhood institution by moving to close Wadleigh’s middle school. Jackson promised to call Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to air his opposition to the plan.

Wadleigh’s 440-student high school would remain open under the plan, as would another middle school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, which narrowly escaped closure this year after earning an even lower progress report score than Wadleigh’s middle school. A charter school, Harlem Success Academy I, is set to move its middle school grades into the building, according to a plan the city set last year.

The charter school co-location plan drew quick and fierce fire during the hearing. Perkins, an outspoken critic of charter schools, said Harlem Success had a track record of an “antagonistic relationship” with the local community and should not be given more space.

Department of Education officials said they sought to close Wadleigh’s middle school not to make room for the charter school but simply because keeping it up and running is unsustainable. It has just 94 students and last year earned a D on the progress reports the city uses to judge schools.

“With a school that is performing at this level at this size, is it possible to make it successful?” asked Shael Polakow-Suransky, a deputy chancellor, during the hearing.

In response, shouts of “Yes” emanated from the audience, which frequently interjected through the five-hour-long hearing. At times, they chanted until officials were drowned out.

Anthony Klug, a teacher and the school’s union chapter leader, said the departure of a math coach, guidance counselor, and dean had caused the middle school’s performance dip last year. Restoring those resources would help turn the school around, he said.

He drew cheers when he told the DOE officials listening to the testimony, “Closing a school is not difficult to do. It’s assisting the school that’s difficult.”

Klug told me he believes the middle school’s closure would “significantly negatively impact, if not destroy,” the high school’s arts programs.

“We have eight arts and specialty rooms, and so basically the last two years they were trying to colocate a third school in the building, not recognizing that these arts rooms take more space than schools that don’t offer these programs,” he said. “Dance kids are going to need more than a 500-square-foot room. Shrinking our school is the first step to ending [that program].”

Polakow-Suransky said during the hearing the building had more than enough space for Wadleigh to share space with another school and also maintain its arts programs.

But closing the middle school could take a different toll on Wadleigh’s arts programs, by reducing the number of students prepared to participate in them in high school, people said at the hearing.

The comments developed a theme that supporters of another performing arts school, who included staff from Wadleigh, outlined at its closure hearing earlier this week. Closing arts schools that serve low-income students would cut off a rare option for those students, argued supporters of both Manhattan Theatre Lab High School and Wadleigh. The schools have a close relationship: In 2006 Evelyn Collins left her job as Wadleigh’s assistant principal for the arts to head Manhattan Theatre Lab.

A handful of middle and high school students were the first to speak at the hearing. Standing in a line on the performance stage, the students said the school’s performing arts focus draws neighborhood students like themselves.

“This is a visual arts school that is trying to make the arts better so we can fulfill our dreams,” said sixth-grader Tiane Jackson. “Do you really want to be responsible for crushing dreams?”

Hall, Wadleigh’s principal, did not speak during the hearing. But FDA II’s principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, went to bat for Wadleigh.

“We serve the same students, we serve the same community,” he said. “Our school has some of the same struggles that Wadleigh has. We are working tirelessly every day to make it better.”

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.