breaking news

State names 123 city schools to improve or close by 2015

New York State’s No Child Left Behind waiver has spawned a new list of struggling schools that education officials could close if they don’t post dramatic improvements by 2015.

That list includes many schools that were identified as struggling by the state in the past and have undergone deep reform interventions or begun phasing out, but now labels them as “priority schools.” In New York City, there are 123 priority schools, nearly double the schools once identified as “persistently low achieving” because their students performed poorly on state tests and posted low graduation rates.

The schools are being called priority schools because their statistics are grim, officials said. The state determined which schools would be identified as priority based on four-year graduation rates (under 60 percent) in high schools and a student growth formula from state test scores in elementary and middle schools that places the schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, per guidelines set by the federal government.

The districts will have just three years to improve these data points, according to a release the State Education Department published late this afternoon, and must submit transitional plans for each priority school by October. And for the first time, State Education Commissioner John King will have the authority to require districts to close the schools that fail to make gains.

Districts generally have several options for funding reforms in these schools through federal School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top Innovation Funding programs. But New York City has fewer.

Because the city and the teachers union have yet to agree on a teacher evaluation plan, state officials said the city is only eligible to receive funding to implement the most stringent of interventions: school closure over a four-year period, through a process known as phase-out, or school “turnaround.” But turnaround is for now off the table because the city lost a lawsuit over its plans to use the turnaround model in 24 schools earlier this summer. It is appealing the decision, but is not likely to see a resolution soon.

SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the city would be eligible to receive funds for priority schools it decides to close in the coming school year, and that officials expect the city to propose closure for some of the schools on the list this fall.

Before priority schools, there were Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI), a list of hundreds of schools that the state required to devise improvement plans under NCLB guidelines. The list grew every year, and schools put on the list never came off it.

The new waiver guidelines mean that far fewer schools will have an improvement status compared to previous years. But the interventions for these schools will be more aggressive and more extensive. Ira Schwartz, SED’s assistant commissioner for accountability, told reporters that the new lists hold schools to higher standards than the SINI list did, but at the same time makes the list of schools under pressure more manageable.

“We appplied college and career standards to create these lists. We were testing against higher standards and [we] incorporated growth similar to what we’re doing with teacher and principal evaluations,” he said. “We think this list is more right-sized.”

School districts will also be able to redirect some funds that were once used to fund after school tutoring to new initiatives in the priority schools. The school improvement plans must include an extended learning day and a small increase in parent engagement program spending.

Schwartz said there is a chance some schools could be removed from the priority list if they post significant improvements in the coming year. But once a school begins implementing a reform program, it must stick through it for three years and be accountable for the end results, even if it shows improvements in the short term.

More than a dozen of the city schools that the state identified for intensive improvement, including Christopher Columbus High School and Jamaica High School, won’t have a chance to try. That’s because the city has already began phasing them out as part of a four-year closure plan.

The other priority schools on the list that will be closed within the next four years are: Norman Thomas High School, Washington Irving Academy, John F. Kennedy, Monroe Academy for Business/Law, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, Paul Robeson, Beach Channel, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education, Jane Addams, and Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education.

The state’s list features all 24 of the former “turnaround” schools the city unsuccessfully moved to close this year, and a handful of schools that opened under the Bloomberg administration—some as recently as 2006 and 2008. The list also has one city charter school: Williamsburg Charter High School.

In addition to the priority school list, the state named 70 school districts, including New York City, as “focus districts,” because their ethnic minority students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners have performed particularly poorly on the state’s reading and math exams, and have graduation rates far below average. From there, New York City selected more than 200 schools as focus schools, where it must now develop school improvement plans that target the populations of students that are most in need of help.

Many of the priority schools are high schools, but most of the schools that the city picked as focus schools are elementary and middle schools. Two charter schools, Opportunity Charter School and St. Hope Academy Charter School made the focus list.

New York City schools also made up a good portion of the state’s list for top-performing schools, called “Reward and Recognition Schools.” Of the 250 schools on this list, 55 were from New York City. These are schools that have either made the most progress on student achievement and do not have significant achievement gaps.

As part of the recognition, the schools will be rewarded between $150,000 and $300,000 to expand their models of success into more schools or more grades. The state education department said it plans to release yet another list this fall, called “Recognition Schools” that meet most, but not all of the criteria.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the new lists might motivate the city to close more schools, but the focus list is likely to encourage officials to create improvement plans in schools that have never had ones before.

“They’re already saying they want to close more schools, but they’ve never had a plan for how to help a struggling school,” he said in an interview. “If your crowning achievement is closing more schools than ever before before you leave [office,] that’s the single biggest piece of evidence that [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] is doing a bad job.”

David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the City University of New York, said the new lists do not seem to represent a significant departure from the NCLB criteria, which determines whether schools are in good standing or not based on similar categories, such as the performance of high needs students. But he said it’s possible they could still motivate political decisions in the city this year.

“Here is a newly prominent sign that there are still so many failing schools in New York City, he said.  “The SINI list became like wallpaper and nobody noticed it. This may encourage the Mayor to close more schools, but it also highlights the number of schools that are still low performing.”

State Education Department Memo on priority, focus and reward schools:

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.