leadership prep

In quest for better leaders, charter sector program looks inward

Niomi Plotkin, center, talks to John Harrison and other charter school leaders during the ELF orientation.

For the city’s charter sector, the task of building better leaders begins with self-reflection.

The project of understanding what makes a good leader — particularly for charter schools, which have some of the highest principal turnover rates — is what consumes the 20-odd educators who gathered at the New York City Charter School Center this week to kick off the sixth year of its leadership training program.

When they return to their schools later this month, the educators will face diverse challenges. One pair comes from a school that has nearly doubled in size faster than expected due to make up a budget shortfall. Another is from a rare standalone school serving kindergarten through 12th graders, which will be preparing its first cohort of students to graduate and apply to college next year.

But on a recent morning, all of the participants were focused on the same question as Heidi Brooks, a professor from the Yale University School of Management, talked them through a platitude-heavy presentation about identifying leadership qualities.

“How would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you describe a great leader?” Brooks asked the group, then began taking down their answers until ink filled a sheet of poster paper.

“Positive,” “self-aware,” and “systems-aware” topped the list of traits.

Finding talented school leaders, and convincing them to stay at a school year after year, has been an ongoing challenge for city charter schools — and a problem that James Merriman, the charter center’s head, lamented at a recent state education reform commission meeting. The center is trying to chip away at this problem for a handful of independent charter schools that need well-trained, effective administrators at the helm as they grow to their full size, but don’t have the same recruiting resources as the large charter networks.

This year, the center has invited seven schools, including the New York Center for Autism Charter School in East Harlem and VOICE Charter School in Long Island City, to send one or two school leaders and teachers through its year-long leadership training program, called the Emerging Leaders Fellowship, with the goal of preparing the participants to become administrators at their schools.

ELF is designed for people who are already working in schools and want to stay there, said its director, Niomi Plotkin. She said those people are already familiar with their school’s cultural norms and can be more committed to its mission.

“It’s a different kind of sweat equity, because you’re already invested,” Plotkin said. “We find that makes for better leaders.”

Past fellows have gone on to create an online summer school and a data analysis system for tracking performance at their individual schools, and about 80 percent of fellows have become principals or administrators.

But the first lessons built into the program had little to do with school management. Instead, they focused on fostering conversations between participants and their mentors (most of whom are also their school supervisors) about leadership styles and the importance of self-reflection.

Plotkin said these questions will lay the groundwork for participants to consider what it means to be a leader as they move into more intensive lessons on how to foster strong school culture, recruit a top-notch staff, and manage student conflicts.

Liz Springer, the middle school director for Hunts Point’s Hyde Leadership Charter School, said she joined ELF program out of a desire to puzzle through those subjects within a network of other charter school administrators, which Hyde lacked. She applied to join the second cohort of the program in 2008, after she and colleagues realized they could use more help at the school, which has been expanding to span all grades. Since then, a half-dozen more Hyde teachers have completed the program, and Springer has returned to mentor more teachers in the program this summer.

“The job of being a principal is hard. We get a lot of awesome, type A, overachieving people in the charter sector, but even with that you can’t do it by yourself,” Springer said. “With autonomy comes responsibility. We have the chance to be completely innovative, but there’s a lot to think about.”

The list of a school leader’s concerns is long, she said, ranging from school culture and finance and budgeting to accountability and community engagement. ELF will cover each of these subjects in Wednesday evening sessions over the next several months. In between, the teachers have reams of photocopied lessons to read about character-building, effective team-coaching and conflict resolution.

Most of the educators who joined in the weeklong orientation said they wanted to grow professionally without leaving their schools.

John Harrison, the director of English and language arts programming at Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said his principal encouraged him to join the program to gain skills he would need to run a high school once Inwood Academy expands beyond its middle school. But first he wants to learn how to define the role of school leader so it isn’t overwhelming.

“I think for me the primary issue for the high turnover rate of charter school leaders and burnout comes from the fact that roles are more loosely defined in our schools because they’re so new,” Harrison said. “We have a lot of freedom, but it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You sign on to a particular role and you don’t always know what you’re expected to do.”

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.