problem solvers

Students look close to home for civic engagement lessons

Young Writers seniors fielding questions during Citizenship Night

“Don’t be nervous,” Academy for Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.”

The seniors had spent the last six weeks brainstorming problems that effect them and the world, researching different perspectives on those problems, articulating their own policy recommendations, delivering persuasive speeches about their point of views on the issues, and working in groups to compile all of the research and findings on display boards. The groups targeted problems ranging from gentrification to cyber bullying to prostitution.

Citizenship Night was the culmination of the Center for Civic Educations’ Project Citizen, a curriculum Lazar implemented to promote students’ responsible participation in government. Approximately 15 “civic-minded” evaluators – mostly teachers, a couple journalists, a few external education stakeholders – perused the 24 trifold poster boards, clipboards in hand, pushing students to articulate their problems and proposed policies.

On one side of the cafeteria, the group that weighed the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution was continuing the debate amongst themselves.

Gabriela Diaz said that legalizing prostitution can open doors for women, providing them with legitimate business opportunities.

“It’s always going to be there,” Diaz said. “If we legalize it, we can contain it.”

“That doesn’t make it okay, ” group member Faith Rogers contested. If prostitution was legalized, she said, then a lot of the other problems her classmates had researched – like human trafficking and domestic violence – would be exacerbated.

Across the cafeteria, the cyber-bullying group was at consensus about how their problem of choice could be addressed: a virtual attack button. The button would be available on computers for victims to activate when they have been bullied, sending an alert to the police. While the group was unsure that they could logistically garner the financial support and legislative backing for their idea, they found the project valuable nonetheless.

“It made me feel like I have a voice,” Sarah Louissant said. “He’s preparing us for college. We learned about the topic and how to use our time and how to put stuff together.”

“And about statistics,” Stefanee Maynor chimed in.

“And the different techniques that you use to research,” Remy Hayward added.

Lazar noted that the biggest gap between what high school and college classes expect of students is the ability to research. In years past, Lazar had done similar civics projects with his students, but this year he tapped into the Project Citizen curriculum because of it’s emphasis on research. Much of his explicit instruction during this unit was not simply how to distinguish “good” and “bad” sources, but how to evaluate the perspective each source was from and to use it accordingly.

“You can evaluate my job on this work,” said Lazar. “This is valuable work that reveals college readiness. The Regents tests do not do this.” Lazar, who sits on an informal advisory board for GothamSchools, has long been a critic of the state’s Regents exams in history.

Grant Lindsay, an organizer with East Brooklyn Congregation (a community organization helping Young Writers transition to their new Fall 2012 home on the Spring Creek Campus), came to the event to support the school community. As a guest evaluator, the projects Lindsay saw hit close to home.

“It reminds me of when I was in high school because I was very passionate about concerns in my neighborhood,” Lindsay said, recalling the roots of his community organizing efforts. “If you give young people the opportunity to think of creative solutions, they’ll come up with really good things and they’ll succeed.”

Some groups have already taken the initiative to take their research and policy-knowledge to the next level. Rogers, from the prostitution group, is planning to join the Baldwin Foundation, three members from the domestic violence/rape group are tossing around the idea of starting a support group in their neighborhood or school, and the members of the gentrification and education group are reaching out to their communities at home and abroad, advocating for their cause.

Young Writers students filling in their voter registration forms

For example, Rifka Simmons attended the public hearing on Success Academy’s colocation in her current school building. She wrote a speech she had intended to deliver, but had to abandon it as the meeting extended past her curfew time. Still, she says, “I feel like I can be a part of the change.”

And Sydney Parsons will be traveling to Paris in April, through Our Better Angels, to compare the gentrification taking place in Harlem with that in La Courneuve.

“It’s humanly not cool to be splitting families up and removing them from their homes, where they’ve been for years,” Parsons said. Rattling off the effects of gentrification, Parsons paused to regroup her thoughts: “Sorry, I’ve read so much information that I’m getting it crossed.”

As the night wound down, Lazar delivered a “surprise” to his students before their buffet dinner. Standing on a cafeteria bench, with steaming platters of chicken and empanadas below him, Lazar announced that all eligible seniors would be registering to vote before the night’s end.

“Often politicians don’t listen to teenagers, and the reason they don’t listen to teenagers is because they don’t vote,” Lazar said. “Nothing we do the entire year makes a difference if you don’t back it up by being a registered voter.”

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.