Beyond the Basics

Schools that build summer "bridges" for students pay a price

Ninth-graders at PTECH work on algebra problems in May.

On a muggy August afternoon last year, nearly 75 Bronx students could be found playing orchestra instruments to the tune of Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues in the auditorium of M.S. 223.

They were gathered to mark the close of three weeks of arts, music, and math instruction they received through the school’s first summer “bridge” program. M.S. 223 is one of dozens of city middle and high schools to invite to incoming students for summer classes meant to immerse them in school culture and prevent them from forgetting what they learned the previous year.

“Summer bridge is important because we think of our model as a year-round school,” said Rashid Davis, principal of Brooklyn’s nascent Pathways in Technology Early College High School. “That way we’re not dealing with that summer learning loss than can go from two to four months of material, especially for high-poverty students. We can’t expect them to magically come in here with the skills they need.”

Indeed, researchers have pegged students’ regression — known as the “summer slide” — at the equivalent of two months of school or more. City officials recognize the challenge: This summer, the Department of Education is piloting a small program in the South Bronx for students who are struggling but not failing.

But the funding for that program, Summer Quest, comes from private donors. Public funds, for the most part, are earmarked only for the thousands of students across the city who are required to attend summer school because of low test scores or poor grades.

That means schools that develop programs for incoming students who aren’t already in trouble are on their own to scrounge up funding.

Principals say they turn to outside help or struggle to find wiggle room in their annual budgets to finance the programs, which range from three-day-long orientations to six-week intensive geometry classes. The school leaders say the programs are invaluable for students who can make it, but most can’t afford to run a program large enough for every student to participate.

Prioritizing optional summer programming usually means cutting corners elsewhere.

“We absolutely have to make tradeoffs because there is no unique funding that comes in for summer bridge,” Davis said. “You have to decide to make that type of investment. [Tradeoffs] could be with supplies, or it could be half a person’s salary, it really depends.”

Davis has strongly encouraged PTECH’s rising ninth- and 10th-graders to enroll in a six-week geometry course starting this month. As the new school grows to its full size, Davis said he would like to offer six weeks of summer enrichment classes or college-level courses to every student. He also wants to give every incoming ninth-grader the chance to pass geometry before he or she even begin high school, thereby eliminating one hurdle on the course toward calculus.

Those plans will cost him. This summer’s program will cost about $30,000 in teacher wages and classroom materials for the 200 students, he said. Those funds come out of the school’s total budget of $1,005,000.

Davis said he is used to the budget wrangling. As principal of Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, he sometimes had to pull funding from his school-year budget to pay for classes for students who were mandated to attend summer school. The city allocates funding to each school for summer remediation, but the budgets are based on estimates made before students take their final exams.

Sana Nasser, the principal of Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, said she usually has no money left over after meeting the needs of students who are required to attend summer school to fund enrichment. But she is still able to run a small bridge program for a quarter of her incoming students with the help of the community-based organization Sports and Arts.

Sports and Arts pays for four of Truman’s teachers to run the program, which Nasser estimates would cost about $35,000 if she funded it from the school’s budget.

“I have not been able to pay for it with the DOE funds. I couldn’t do it financially,” she said. “Yet it is so valuable. We give them teachers that we feel are very nurturing but also know how to set rules and boundaries, because that’s really what they’re going to face in September.”

Nasser sends each of her 600 incoming students a letter inviting them to attend the summer program, which will run July 19 to August 19, but can only accomodate about 150. If more than that number apply, she selects the students with the lowest test scores and attendance rates.

Nasser said she would prefer for the program to benefit everyone.

“We find those kids that come in, they’re transition when they come in in September is a much better adjustment,” she said. “We take them on tours. We teach them how to negotiate the building, the elevators, the gyms, lunch. And they get to know the teachers. They’re coming in with the leverage of having someone they can go to — and the kids need that.”

Philip Weinberg, principal of Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, another large high school, offers 12 days of summer enrichment classes and an orientation for ninth-graders. But only the first 112 students who sign up out of his incoming class of roughly 350 are allowed to attend.

He estimates that the 60 hour-long program led by four teachers will cost his school at least $10,000 this year.

“It’s definitely a budget hit,” Weinberg said.”It’s a game of priorities. We have made the decision that offering even one third of the class an opportunity to acculturate to the building is worthwhile.”

Students who make the cut will receive math and English lessons designed to close the gaps between what they learned in eighth grade and what they will need to know for the first weeks of high school. The students also get to meet school administrators and explore the school’s Gothic-style building in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

“One of the first projects they do in math is measure the school,” Weinberg said. “It causes them to go all over the building, so the first day in September, one out of three kids in every ninth grade class will know where the next room is. We want to alleviate a lot of that fear of the unknown.”

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.