Making the grade

More schools met threshold for closure on new progress reports

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefed reporters on the new progress report cards this morning.

Almost twice as many elementary and middle schools are eligible for closure under the Department of Education’s longstanding rules this year, according to the schools’ 2011-2012 progress reports.

Since 2007, the city has given schools a letter grade each year based largely on calculations of their students’ test scores. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed.

Last year, 120 schools fell into that category, and the department ultimately moved to close 10 of them. But this year, 217 schools received those grades, suggesting that this year’s closure toll could be greater than in the past.

The most dramatic change was a jump in schools receiving their third straight grade of C or below — from just five last year to 114 this year.

The striking jump is a late-onset effect of the state’s 2010 decision to raise the proficiency bar on its state tests. In 2009, just two schools had received F’s and 84 percent earned A’s. But that year, most schools saw their test scores fall, and nearly 70 percent of schools saw their progress report grades drop, too. The progress reports released today were the third since the change.

Caught in the metrics were some popular schools, such as Central Park East I and the Earth School in Manhattan, as well as 16 of Staten Island’s 52 elementary and middle schools.

It is possible that more schools than usual will start the first phase of the closure process, called “early engagement,” this year, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the progress reports today. But he said most schools with middling progress report scores would not need to worry.

“Early engagement is still going to be a significantly smaller subset of these schools,” he said. “There are triple C’s in this group that I’m not really worried about… that are nowhere near the point where we would consider them for closure.”

Progress report grades are a big factor in the city’s school closure decisions. But officials also take into account the schools’ enrollment data, safety data, and leadership quality, and other department accountability metrics.

The progress reports have drawn criticism for their complex and ever-changing algorithms and for sometimes awarding low scores to top schools and high scores to schools not considered desirable. But Polakow-Suransky said the reports have grown more sophisticated and accurate as the city has devised new ways to judge schools, such as by awarding them extra credit for helping high-needs students boost their test scores.

He touted this year’s adjustments, which include a new score for middle school students’ pass rates in core courses, and noted that most schools’ letter grades didn’t change much: 86 percent of schools received the same rating as last year or rose or fell by just one letter grade.

Tallying middle school students’ course passing rates allowed city officials to identify “a handful” of schools that had much higher pass rates in core subjects than on standardized tests.

“In the ones that we found, there really was grade inflation,” he said. “The standards were off in those schools and they needed a reality check.”

Department officials could not immediately provide a list of those schools, but Polakow-Suransky said the schools’ progress reports were adjusted so they were not unduly rewarded for having high course pass rates.

“This is the balancing act that is challenging around measuring school performance,” he said. “There’s always a risk when there’s data that doesn’t have the security of a standardized exam that this can happen.”

One metric that was not factored into the reports this year, but is set to be included next year, was a look at how each middle school’s recent graduates are faring in high school. The data, culled from the city’s “Where Are They Now?” reports that track student cohorts over several years, appeared on this year’s reports in a non-graded form.

Overall, of the 1,193 schools to receive grades for last year, 304 schools received an A, 421 received a B, 365 received a C, 80 received a D, and 23 received an F. Principals of A-rated schools receive bonuses of $5,000 to $25,000.

As has always been the case, Queens schools scored the highest, on average, compared to other boroughs. In a PowerPoint presentation delivered to reporters, department officials also called attention to the scores of charter schools and the 250 elementary and middle schools opened under the Bloomberg administration. Both beat the city average, the department noted.

Several charter school networks, including Democracy Prep and Success Academies, sent press releases touting their progress report scores. And in a statement, James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, celebrated the 45 charter schools that scored A’s, calling them ”another sign that charters are making tremendous progress,” in a statement. Seven of the top 15 schools were charter schools.

“We hope they will share their lessons broadly to help make every public school great,” he said. The statement also touted the charter schools’ performance on one piece of the progress report: student growth. About a third of city charter schools earned A’s in that section, compared to 16 percent of schools citywide.

Teachers union officials did not comment on the progress reports this year, though in the past they have criticized the reports for their heavy emphasis on test scores and for not offering principals strategies to improve their schools. Instead, the union shared a table of data from the reports showing that several of the highest-performing charter schools had very high suspension and student attrition rates. The officials said those schools were at an advantage because many students who would post low test scores leave instead, the officials said.

Union officials also noted that several other high-scoring charter schools are new and do not yet have students in all grades.

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.