the parent trap

Leonie Haimson exits public school parenting but not advocacy

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Leonie Haimson at a rally last month outside of the Tweed Courthouse.

Leonie Haimson’s career as a New York City education activist started when her older child was assigned to a first-grade class with 28 other students. That was in 1996, and since then, Haimson has advocated for public school parents — through her organization, Class Size Matters; the blog and online mailing lists she runs; and the national parent group she helped launch.

But her personal stake changed last summer, when Haimson ceased to be a public school parent. Her younger child started at a private high school in September, following a trajectory from public to private school that her older child, now an adult, also took.

Many of Haimson’s close friends and colleagues in the parent advocacy world have known for months about the change in her status. But she did not make it known publicly until today, after learning that GothamSchools planned to disclose the information in a story. “I myself don’t think it is either particularly interesting or relevant,” she wrote in a post on the blog she started in 2007, NYC Public School Parents, before going on to explain the choice.

“It is a parent’s responsibility to find a school that they believe best fits their children’s needs,” Haimson wrote in a statement she sent to GothamSchools before publishing her own post.

The disclosure caught some other advocates off guard.

“I’m surprised,” said Sheila Kaplan, a student data privacy advocate who has worked with Haimson in recent months. “She’s never said anything about her kids being in private schools.”

After shaping much of her identity around her role as a public school parent, decamping from the city’s public schools puts Haimson in a delicate situation. It also opens her up to questions from her many opponents in the polarized education policy debate.

For one thing, she has often pointed to where other education advocates and officials sent their own children to school as valid grounds for debate about their education policy positions. And she has been especially vocal about targeting others’ decisions to send their children to private schools.

“Why Do Politicians Blow Up When Asked Where They Send Their Own Kids to School?” she asked in the headline of one Huffington Post column. The column cited Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey as examples of elected officials whose personal school decisions contradicted their public positions about education.

But Haimson and supporters said they have only criticized policy makers who push one agenda in public schools but support a different one by sending their children to private schools that do not reflect the public agenda. Unlike those policy makers, Haimson said she wants all students — in both kinds of schools — to have small classes, an enriched arts curriculum, and freedom from standardized tests.

”I am fighting for the right of every public school parent to have what every private school parent has access to,” she said. ”The hypocrisy is Joel Klein and Bill Gates, who say class sizes don’t matter and yet send their kids to schools with small class sizes.”

It’s a position that resonates with Diane Ravitch, the education historian and activist who sent her children to city private schools.

“I don’t think it means anything for her advocacy that she enrolls her son in a private school because she wants the same things for public school kids that she wants for her son: small classes, experienced teachers, stability, a rich curriculum, freedom from standardized testing, and adequate resources,” Ravitch said about Haimson.

The school that Haimson’s child attends boasts that it has one adult on staff for every seven students and 15 students per class. In city high schools, classes have 27 students, on average.

The disclosure also opens her up to criticism by the school choice proponents with whom she is a regular foe. Haimson has criticized charter schools and private school vouchers for depriving public schools of resources, particularly in the case of charter schools, which often share space with city public schools. She has also criticized city charter schools for failing to educate their fair share of high-need students.

But supporters of the programs often base their case for the policies around the argument that choice available to parents like Haimson, who can afford to send their children to private schools when they aren’t satisfied with public options, should be expanded to include all parents.

“What is disturbing to me is she chose the best option for her [child], but she does not support my right to make the same choice,” said Joe Herrera, a parent organizer for Families for Excellent Schools whose three children attend Coney Island Preparatory Charter School.

Haimson’s choice — and the apparent difficulty she took in making it and in talking about it publicly — reflect the delicate interplay between the personal and the political in the education debate. For every advocate and policymaker with children, there are the positions one takes on a system level — and then there are the personal choices made at home. And the two do not always match.

Friends said Haimson struggled with the decision about where her son should attend high school personally and professionally. “It was not an easy decision for her, because of who she is [and] because she so passionately believes in public education,” said Karen Sprowal, a parent who works closely with Haimson.

But ultimately, Sprowal said, parents must make the decision that is right for their children. She said she is considering private school after her son, who has special needs, struggled in his school.

And Lisa Donlan, president of District 1’s elected parent council, said her daughter’s decision to attend Stuyvesant High School conflicted with her opposition to the school’s test-based admissions process.

“She said, ‘Mom, I really know you don’t believe in Stuy, but this is what I want,’” Donlan said. “I kind of had to be ashamed because I can’t put my politics and ideology in front of her choice.”

Herrera, too, said his own experience helped him understand Haimson’s school choice. “The fact is that my child was in a situation where he was not receiving an education,” he said. “It’s the same thing she’s done. She’s not waiting around for the system to be fixed.”

Even as her personal ties to the city’s public schools have weakened, Haimson has redoubled the ferocity of her advocacy work. In addition to continuing to operate Class Size Matters, which she runs with no salary on a shoestring budget from her Greenwich Village home, Haimson is also a co-founder of Parents Across America, a national parent organization that organized 2011’s Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C.

More recently, she has jumped into new causes, including opposition to a new, privately developed data system to manage personal details about students in New York State and beyond.

Last month, with Ravitch, she helped launch the Network for Public Schools, a national organization that will back candidates who support public education.

She is also preparing to launch a political action committee for the 2013 New York City mayoral election, NYC Kids PAC, that will push candidates to declare their stances on education policies.

Haimson’s supporters say she remains an invaluable resource and tireless participant in a parent advocacy movement where turnover is inevitable as children age out of public schools.

“I’ve always been scared with what happens if Leonie decides not be involved anymore,” said Patrick Sullivan, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy who runs the NYC Public School Parents blog with Haimson.

Kaplan said her surprise at learning about where Haimson’s child attends school reflected her confidence in Haimson’s advocacy.

“Maybe I feel that she does such a good job on behalf of public school parents that I assumed that she was a public school parent,” she said.

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.