for the sake of argument

At Dewitt Clinton, tackling progress report as informational text

Ann Near, right, looks over her school's progress report with teachers on teaching social activism.
Ann Neary, right, looks over her school’s progress report with teachers at a conference on education and social activism.

When it came time to teach her ninth graders to write a research paper, Ann Neary, a teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School, decided that rather than write about a topic distant from their lives, students would try to decipher the school’s city-issued progress report.

The idea formed in November, when the city announced that Dewitt Clinton was so low-performing it might be closed. The school had just received an F on its November progress report, Neary told teachers at a conference about education and social activism hosted by the Museum of the City of New York over the weekend.

The city ultimately opted not to close Dewitt Clinton, though the Panel on Education Policy voted last week to shrink the school and move two new schools into the building. But back in November, when it still looked like the school might close, students got to work.

“We were really rallying around this issue in the school,” Neary said. “So I adopted it as a way to teach research.” An assistant principal had just asked all Dewitt Clinton ninth-grade writing teachers to assign a Common Core-aligned research paper, Neary said, and urged them to focus on non-fiction texts that included graphs for students to analyze.

“It wasn’t an assignment I thought would be interesting to my students,” she said. “I thought the F would be more meaningful to them.”

She used the same grading rubric, but rather than focusing on the nutritional content of foods, as the assignment originally suggested, the 78 students in Neary’s three classes looked into how the school got its failing grade and what each element of the complex progress report meant.

Neary began her presentation at the conference the same way she began one of the early lessons in the research paper unit: She divided participants into small groups and handed out sections of the eight-page progress report, which the city uses to evaluate and compare schools.

Several teachers pointed to parts of the report that they weren’t sure how to interpret.

“This is hard text to break down. Even teachers have to work to understand it,” said Anna Staab, who teaches eighth grade at the Leadership and Community Service Academy. She said she was particularly struck by Neary’s description of information students were able to pull out of the text that their teacher had missed.

“If kids can decipher this text, the skills will be transferrable,” Staab said. She has also worked with students to research a topic connected to their school, in her case, the Integrated Co-Teaching model of special education. “We’ve done research on the history of ICT,” Staab said. “If kids come into ICT and don’t know what it is, sometimes they see a stigma attached to it.”

After the conference participants reflected on their efforts to make sense of the progress report, Neary described walking her students through five essential research steps.

Neary says all of her students wanted Dewitt Clinton to stay open, though they were only three months into their first year at the school. The step they found most difficult, she found, was understanding “claim and counter-claim.”

“They wanted their claim to be that you shouldn’t close our school, and they didn’t want to have anything that would speak against that,” she said. At first, they resisted the idea that showing that they understood opposing arguments — an integral part of the Common Core, and one that Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky emphasized in a guest lesson at Bronx Academy of Letters last year — could strengthen their credibility.

Neary said two students chose to write a paper supporting the claim that Dewitt Clinton should in fact be closed as a personal challenge.

Students less comfortable with writing began the process by generating their claims as though they were posting a message on Twitter. “Let’s use your skills at tweeting by synthesizing your claim statement in 15 words or less,” Neary wrote on the assignment.

To help complete another research step, “thinking about diverse stakeholders,” Neary required students to attend an “early engagement” hearing at the school and take notes on the range of people for whom the issue seemed to matter.

The next three steps, “looking for evidence,” “highlighting support,” and “keeping logs,” made up the bulk of the project.

Neary said students’ first instinct was to look on Wikipedia for information about their school. Once they began to find information on the Department of Education’s website and in newspaper articles about progress reports and the school closure process, they got to work making sense of what they read. Students highlighted information that supported their claims and logged their findings, before ultimately packaging their research into a three-page paper.

One student focused on the B-rating the school received in “college readiness,” the only category in which it didn’t receive an F. She researched other schools that received a B rating and compared those schools to her own.

“That girl dug and dug and dug and dug,” Neary said. “And each day she’d get more excited, because she was getting more information.”

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.