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Dominican families balance schooling with extended trips home

Gregorio Luperon High School serves newcomer students, most of whom come from the Dominican Republic.

It begins in early December. Students pop into the attendance office at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics brandishing plane tickets like doctor’s notes. Then the absences start, weeks before the winter break begins. And then comes the rolling return of students, stretching to the waning days of January.

The annual ritual that takes place at Gregorio Luperon also plays out in other pockets of the city that, like Washington Heights, have many students from the Dominican Republic.

Extended mid-year absences are by no means limited to Dominican students: The New York Times reported this week about post-vacation enrollment flux at Chinatown schools. But educators and community organizations say the phenomenon is especially pronounced at schools with many families from the Dominican Republic — and that the impact can be significant.

About 15 Luperon students missed some amount of school this December and January because they were in the Dominican Republic, according to Luperon’s attendance teacher, and two still hadn’t returned last week.

“They want to see their families back home, especially if they haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Mireya De La Rosa, an assistant principal at Gregorio Luperon who immigrated from the Dominican Republic herself.

Gregorio Luperon — a bilingual school that accepts recent immigrants from Latin America, the majority of whom are Dominican — has made efforts to curb the practice. Teachers broach the issue with families during orientation by telling them that it is not an acceptable for students to miss chunks of school, then remind students in the weeks before winter break about the consequences of missing school. Teachers are discouraged from doling out make-up work to students, so there are real consequences for leaving the country.

Now, only a “micro-, micro-minority” of Luperon families pull their children from school to return home over the holiday season, De La Rosa said.

But, she added, “For us, even five kids is a problem, because those five kids won’t do well when they come back and take the finals.”

Younger children don’t have final exams to grapple with in January, but they still lose out by missing a few days of school, said David Grisevich, an assistant principal at P.S. 152 in Washington Heights.

At P.S. 152, the scattered extended absences during the winter are like “a nagging toothache” for teachers, Grisevich said.

De La Rosa and Grisevich both suggested that the long vacations happen because young, working-class families try to squeeze the most out of a plane ticket by booking outside of peak travel days.

But the explanation for the phenomenon is more complex than just finances.

Joshua Ceballos and Jeyco Consepcion, eighth-graders at the Mirabal Sisters Campus, a Washington Heights building with three middle schools, both missed several days of school this year to spend extended time with their families in the Dominican Republic, Ceballas returning mid-January, Consepcion returning last Monday.

The boys each said that spending time with family was the primary purpose of his trip. “Everybody is there,” Consepcion said. “It’s like home.”

“Over there, it’s better. It’s more active, kids spend their time outside,” Ceballos said. He added that the fresh food is another draw: “Over here the food is fake. Over there, I go with my grandpa to the farm and we get the beans and corn and then my grandma cooks it.”

The boys also explained that schools are different in the Dominican Republic. There, schools hold four-hour shifts in the morning, afternoon, and evening from which students can choose.

Shondel Nero, an associate professor at New York University who directs NYU’s program in multilingual and multicultural studies, explained that in part because of “shift” schooling, missing school is generally not seen as a major problem in the Dominican Republic.

Religion also plays a role, said Nero, who facilitates a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. Because most Dominicans are “staunch Catholics,” they celebrate holidays well into the month of January, she said. After Christmas and New Years, there are El Dia de los Reyes on Jan. 6 and Our Lady of Altagracia Day Jan. 21.

“Culturally speaking, family and faith are two of the most important things to Dominicans. Sometimes to the detriment of education,” Nero wrote.

Vianca Caceras, a mother of three who works at Turissa Travel in Washington Heights, has pulled her two oldest children out of their Bronx elementary school in the past for a lengthy trip back home. Many of her family members – including her youngest child – live in the Dominican Republic, and she said that it was worth the money and time to travel home with her children.

“The children have 180 days in school, so five days with their family is not a big deal. The family makes sure that the child grows up healthy. It’s important,” Caceras said.

“It’s difficult because two things are important,” she added. “Seeing my other family and my country and making sure that my babies go to school.”

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.