mind the gap

Panel: Path to college-readiness paved with hard-to-fund plans

Panelists discuss obstacles to college readiness at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs.

In an ideal world, the Department of Education would install dedicated college counselors in each city high school, according to Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky.

But doing so would cost the city more than $600 million, he said, so the department is trying instead to close the college-readiness gap with free or low-cost solutions, including training staff members at each school to offer college advice and tweaking the way school performance is measured.

Polakow-Suransky made the comments last week while appearing on a panel on college-readiness hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs. The center is set to release a report next month about why so few city students graduate with the skills they need for college — and what can be done about it.

Interviews with hundreds of students at struggling high schools conducted as part of the center’s research revealed that most had high aspirations for themselves, but few understood that simply graduating from high school would not ensure success in college. The findings reflect a dim reality: In 2010, when the city touted a 61 percent four-year graduation rate, just 21 percent of students who had entered high school in four years earlier met the state’s college-readiness standards.

The city’s main strategy for closing that gap is the Common Core, new learning standards that are supposed to push students to develop critical thinking skills required for college-level work.

But making sure students have the academic skills and knowledge to hack it in college is necessary but not sufficient to ensuring that they succeed there, said David Conley, a researcher who students college readiness. They also need “soft skills” such as persistence and “transition knowledge” about how to navigate the admissions process, he said.

Ideally, a dedicated college counselor in each school would provide the full complement of college-preparation skills, agreed the panelists. But even if the city could afford it, there is actually no way to get counseling training that’s focused on the college admissions process, said Richard Alvarez, the head of admissions for the City University of New York. Instead, licensed guidance counselors must juggle other responsibilities alongside managing college applications for hundreds of students.

Nonprofit organizations shoulder some of the burden, helping students develop study skills, visit colleges, and apply for financial aid. Some even supply full-time counselors for individual schools or campuses. “This is like an alternative that really works,” said panelist Fernando Carlo, who runs an activist group that helps staff “Student Success Centers” that supply college preparation training at some campuses.

Polakow-Suransky said the department is in the middle of training point-people at each school to offer college advice to students and teachers alike. He said the department is also encouraging schools to look to peers who have been more successful at promoting interest and energy around college attendance.

As an example, Polakow-Suransky pointed to Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School’s annual parade to the local post office to mail college applications. “Those kinds of culture rituals and making it at the heart of the school’s community don’t actually cost money,” he said.

The city is also starting to measure whether schools are teaching the “soft” skills students need for success in college, he said. On this year’s quality reviews, reviewers will look for the first time for evidence that students are being encouraged to ask for help and try again after falling short, both markers of whether a student has the inner resources for tougher work in a different environment.

The department is also poised to factor a set of college readiness metrics into each high school’s annual progress report for the first time this fall.

“We’re trying to put pressure on [schools] through a number of means, by offering them these resources but also saying to principals, ‘Your grade on your progress report is going to depend on how many kids actually enroll in college,'” Polakow-Suransky said.

“Principals are not totally happy with us about this because they feel that, ‘I can get a kid into college but then that period from May to September when they’re supposed to go, all kinds of things that are outisde of my control can happen,'” he added. “And what we’ve been saying is, ‘Yes, that’s true. But if you lay this foundation well and you see this as part of your responsibility, a lot more kids are going to get there.”

Sheena Wright, who heads the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, said lead time alone was inadequate preparation for the new accountability metrics.

“With the … stick that schools are going to be held accountable in terms of how their students persist through college, there really does need to be a complementary investment in the resources,” she said. “I don’t think training is going to be sufficient — you know, kind of identifying a leader that already exists in the school that already has five other jobs — but a real investment in someone who … that’s what they do.”

And Wright said she doubted that principals would be eager to share what works in their schools when they know that the city’s accountability system measures their performance against a “peer group” of similar schools. She proposed that schools get credit for how schools in their communities perform in the aggregate, to create incentives for sharing.

“That’s been very challenging for us in our neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been extremely difficult to break down the walls with some of the school leaders to say, ‘You’re doing a great job. How do we share it with the school down the street?'”

Polakow-Suransky said he had heard that concern before, but that it was misplaced.

“Actually there’s very little to be gained by not sharing information with other schools,” he said. “People don’t necessarily understand that. … Each year when we do the training on the progress reports, we try to explain it again.”

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.