the tormented twentieth

At council budget hearing, talk turns to high school admissions

City Councilman Mark Weprin raised the issue of high school admissions during a City Council budget hearing today.

A middle school in eastern Queens has been hit particularly hard by the limits of the city’s high school admissions system, according to a local elected official who wants a new high school program opened to serve shut-out eighth-graders.

City Councilman Mark Weprin announced during a council hearing today that 67 students at M.S. 72 in Springfield Gardens wound up without a match last week when high school admissions decisions came out. The students made up 20 percent of the eighth grade, meaning that M.S. 72 students went unmatched at twice the citywide rate.

“There are 67 kids who think they did something wrong,” Weprin said. But their only offense, he said, is that students at M.S. 72 — which posts lower-than-average test scores but has a selective program — often don’t want to go to the high school most likely to accept them.

“The zoned high school is Martin Van Buren High School, and not a single parent put it as one of their choices,” Weprin said. Instead, he said, students aim for Francis Lewis High School or Bayside High School — two of the last high-performing comprehensive schools in the city. Both have many more students than their buildings are supposed to accommodate.

Education Committee chair Robert Jackson cautioned Weprin about sticking to the assigned topic, the Department of Education’s proposed capital budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. (The council is holding a hearing about the department’s operations budget on Thursday.) Weprin acknowledged that M.S. 72’s situation is “tangential to the capital budget” but that one solution would be to build more schools to accommodate the demand at schools that are overenrolled right now.

Another solution, Weprin told Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who was testifying about the budget proposal “is to put a new program into Van Buren that would attract some of the M.S. 72 kids. It’s crazy that no one wants to apply there.”

The strategy is one that the Department of Education is trying this year at several other schools where demand for seats is low. For over a decade, the department has focused intently on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in their place, but this year, most of the large schools that the city tried unsuccessfully to shutter last year stayed off the chopping block. Instead, they’re getting new selective programs designed to boost enrollment; reduce the density of high-need students, which the state is demanding; and add academic rigor to buildings where that has been lacking.

In 2011, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch criticized the city for turning Automotive High School, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city, into a “warehouse” for needy students. This year, Automotive is getting its first screened program, in mechanical engineering. John Dewey High School, which was almost closed last year, is getting a screened health professions program, and in Queens, John Adams High School is adding performance arts and engineering programs that will be open only to students with certain grades and scores.

The strategy might not work at Martin Van Buren, whose most famous dropout might be — somewhat ironically — the Nobel laureate who designed the city’s high school admissions system. After a dramatic enrollment decline in the last few years, the school is actually serving exactly as many students — about 2,200 — as it was designed to, according to Department of Education data about school capacity. And it already does have selective programs, in health professions and math and science. But those programs attracted few applicants last year, according to data published in the city’s high school directory.

The school might rebound without any enrollment intervention. After parents protested against longtime principal Marilyn Shevell last year, the Department of Education replaced her with Sam Sochet in July. Weprin praised Sochet but said, “It’s going to take people a long time to start believing in” Van Buren again.

The discussion of high school admissions was only a brief sideshow in a hearing that focused heavily on the city’s plans to remove light fixtures that can leak toxic PCBs from school buildings. The department plans to clear 97 buildings of PCBs this summer and another 73 in 2014 using its proposed budget, Grimm said. But Jackson called that timeline “totally unacceptable” and asked repeatedly whether more schools could be cleared if the department had more money for the project. (Comptroller John Liu, who is running for mayor, has championed using “Green Apple Bonds” to raise funds for PCB removal.)

More money could potentially speed PCB removal, Grimm replied, but having enough time to work on school buildings when students and teachers are not present also factors into the timeline.

About the pace of PCB removal, which is needed in nearly 800 buildings, Grimm said, “Can we see if that could be increased somewhat if there were more resources? Yes. Can we do everything in the summer of ’14? No.”

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.