paradigm shift

Complaint targets elite HS admissions process, not just outcome

A chart in a civil rights complaint about the city's specialized high school admissions process shows the acceptance rates for students of different racial groups. (Click to enlarge.)

It seemed like a good strategy: To boost the tiny number of black and Hispanic students at the city’s most elite high schools, the city this year expanded access to programs meant to prepare eighth-graders for the schools’ admissions test.

But that approach is fundamentally broken, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

“More tutoring and more test prep is not the answer,” said Damon Hewitt, LDF’s director of education. “We need a real paradigm shift.”

The complaint calls for a new way of admitting students to the city’s eight specialized high schools. The schools have long screened students by ranking their performance on a one-time exam, a practice that was written into state law in 1972 for the three schools that were then open.

But that approach has yielded student bodies that do not reflect the city’s demographics — or even the demographics of the students who take the test. Last year, black and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of test-takers, but they represented only 14 percent of admitted students. At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective and least racially diverse, just 25 black and Hispanic students were offered seats.

Along with several community groups and legal groups, the Legal Defense Fund — which sprung from but is not actually part of the NAACP — is asking the federal Office of Civil Rights to push the city to advocate for changes to the admissions process. The office cannot mandate changes, but it can make the city’s federal school aid contingent on changes to the admissions process to make it more equitable. The office has 180 days to respond to the complaint.

The complaint suggests several alternatives to the current admissions process. First, it says the city should adopt a “multiple-measures” approach to assessing applicants, by looking at their grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and life experiences. Although the process could seem onerous when 30,000 students take the high school exam each year, many other selective schools already assess students according to multiple measures, Hewitt said.

The city should also compel all of the specialized schools to participate in an expanded version of a program that has allowed black and Latino students who score just below each school’s cutoff to win admission by participating in a summer program, the complaint argues. Currently, the city’s most selective schools opt out of this program.

And the complaint argues that the city should also reserve some seats at each school for top students from across the city. In 2010, Stuyvesant High School’s ninth-grade included students from only 22 of the city’s 32 school districts, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented. The final component hews closely to what John Garvey, a former CUNY administrator, proposed in a 2010 piece in the GothamSchools Community section.

“The woefully small percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools is not a new development, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it,” Garvey wrote at the time. “Here’s my suggestion: The Department of Education should adopt a proportional admissions plan for the exam schools that would offer admission to the highest-scoring students from each of the neighborhoods of the city.”

City officials say they couldn’t do anything about the admissions process even if they wanted to.

“State law requires that admission to specialized high schools be based solely on an exam, and we want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code,” said Erin Hughes, a Department of Education spokeswoman, in a statement.

Hewitt contested that argument. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are named in the 1972 Hecht-Calendra Act. The other five specialized schools, which all opened under the Bloomberg administration, have been designated as specialized schools but do not have to remain that way, he said.

“The city could change its policy today,” he said. “There’s no reason why the city and the state and complainants and experts can’t come to the table and hammer out a workable, fair, just, nondiscriminatory policy. This could change as fast as there is political will.”

The change has some allies in Albany. Last year, Bronx Assemblyman Karim Camara was one of several legislators to initiate bills that would alter the Hecht-Calendra Act. Those bills didn’t make it into law last year, but Hewitt said he hoped lawmakers would try again this year when the legislative session begins in January.

Because the specialized schools contain only a tiny fraction of the seats across the city’s high schools, changing their admissions processes would affect very few students directly. But Hewitt said large numbers of students would benefit nonetheless.

“The message that this longstanding discriminatory policy sends is a very horrible one — it’s that even if you work harder than the next person and even if your grades are better than the next person, you still might not get the opportunity that that person gets,” he said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s complaint is below.

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.