parent power

Parents with Families for Excellent Schools start to get political

Parents talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: "What are the characteristics of a quality education?"
Parents involved with Families for Excellent Schools sit in a small group discussion to talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: “What are the characteristics of a quality education?”

Regina Dowdell stepped up to the microphone and made an honest admission to the room full of fellow parents.

“I personally didn’t know exactly what the mayor did,” said Dowdell, whose daughter attends Girls Preparatory Bronx Charter School. “I think that’s an important focus today.”

Then a PowerPoint slide with the words “Why the mayor matters” flashed onto the screen, followed by slides explaining that the mayor chooses the chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board.

The education policy tutorial was part of Families for Excellent Schools‘ first town hall meeting, aimed at turning parents affiliated with the 18-month-old group into a political force in this year’s mayoral election. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on parent-to-parent training and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from local and national foundations, is one of several trying to mobilize parents as a voting bloc this year.

The group’s top priorities are school choice, teacher evaluations, and ensuring that charter schools have access to public space. But rather than to tell the parents what to think, said Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge, the purpose of Saturday’s event was to start a conversation for the 200 parents in attendance to begin understanding the policies they can push for.

“This is about developing a statement of principles that these families can use, on which they would hold a mayor who’s here for 10 or 12 years accountable,” Kittredge said. “It’s my hope, if we’re doing our job right, that folks here feel like they’re helping to found and grow an organization that’s not going away.”

More than 5,000 parents from more than 50 schools — almost all charter schools — have attended at least one event or training session during the school year, according to the group.

“Parents can be a political force if they really come together as advocates,” Kittredge said. “But that requires some real learning about what those policies are and how they work.”

On Saturday, the parents divided into 12 groups, with one parent facilitating each table’s discussion based on prompts such as, “What are the things you look for when choosing a great school for your child?” and “How do you know that a school is preparing students for success in college and beyond?” Then the groups brainstormed answers and voted on which issues should be considered top priorities.

Some of the responses fell neatly in line with FES’s agenda. Dowdell, for example, said she was especially worried about how the next mayor will deal with charter schools.

“Bloomberg has always been a huge supporter of charter schools,” she said. “It’s kind of scary that he’s not going to be here anymore.”

But the two ideas that parents brought up most often — the need for safer schools and more parental involvement — spanned education’s ideological divide.

“Parents need to be educated about the system, not just involved,” said Marcia James, who is the PTA president at her child’s KIPP Academy charter school. She added that she thought rivalries between public and charter schools are misguided. “Do not think of it as charter versus traditional public schools. Think of it as what will help our children.”

Carl Powlett, whose son attends Excellence Boys Charter in Brooklyn, said he came to the event because he wants to get more men involved with parent organizations.

“It’s the kind of traditional role that men in our community think women should take on and they’re simply not willing to take the time,” he said. “Mothers are raising these kids by themselves even when there’s a father in the home and we need to fix that.”

FES will hold another town hall meeting for Brooklyn parents April 30 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The Harlem and Brooklyn town halls will prepare parents for FES’s mayoral candidate forum in mid-June.

FES does not plan to endorse candidates, and Kittredge said 60 percent of parents in the group have not yet decided whom to vote for. He also said the organization is less concerned about election day and more focused on the years to come.

“We want to work with whoever the next mayor is to be focused on issues that our families care about,” Kittredge said. “This is less about picking a victor and more about making sure families’ voices are heard.”

Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate's personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to and whether they have children.
Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate’s personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to, and whether they have children. Anthony Weiner was included as a potential candidate. “If he does end up throwing his hat into the ring, people should know what he’s all about,” one FES staff member said.
Before Saturday's event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, "What is the biggest challenge facing your children?" and "What is your biggest dream for your children?"
Before Saturday’s event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, “What is the biggest challenge facing your children?” and “What is your biggest dream for your children?”
After Spanish-speaking parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first.
After parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first. Two of the discussion tables were solely dedicated to Spanish-speaking parents and all of the FES presentations at the event were translated to Spanish for these parents.

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.