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City to give longer school day, literacy help to middle schoolers

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx on Monday.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a new phase in the Middle School Quality Initiative at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx.

For thousands of sixth-graders at 20 city middle schools, the school day is about to get a lot longer.

The schools will offer an hour of intensive literacy tutoring and 90 additional minutes of community-inspired programming such as yoga and gardening, as part of the city’s latest effort to spur improvements in the lowest-performing middle schools.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced today that they are adding 40 schools to the city’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Twenty of those schools will be randomly chosen for the three-year extended day pilot program.

Walcott made middle schools his priority when he took office, rebranding  an initiative that Quinn had spearheaded as MSQI and expanding it to include focuses on literacy, teacher collaboration, and using data to drive instruction. Since then, MSQI has grown from 18 to 49 schools, and in the fall, it will include 89 schools.

“These two things together, a longer day and high needs intense literacy training … We know that’s part of the solution to get children reading on level,” said Quinn, who is running for mayor, at a press conference at one of MSQI’s original schools, Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “When you can read on level, the sky’s the limit.”

The city listed literacy as a top priority for the middle schools from MSQI’s start, but an exhaustive search last year for city schools that do literacy particularly well turned up no examples. Now, the department is partnering with a group that so far has specialized in math instruction, not literacy, to develop the curriculum for the extended day program.

Harvard University’s EdLabs — run by Roland Fryer, the sociologist whose studies have also brought the city experiments in performance pay — will work with the city to create the curriculum and train tutors to send into the schools. The paid tutors will each work with just four sixth-graders, and all sixth-graders will be required to spend an hour daily in tutoring sessions. EdLabs plans to measure the success of the literacy tutoring by comparing students with tutoring to students in similar schools without literacy tutoring.

To fill the other 1.5 hours of the extended day, the city is turning to a community-partnership model that some of its schools have used before. The After-School Corporation will work with the DOE to help schools bring in paid “community educators” from organizations such as the YMCA and Settlement Houses, according to TASC’s Susan Brenna. What a school offers in those 90 minutes will depend on what it wants to put its resources into and what community organizations have to offer, she said, citing service projects and gardening programs as examples that TASC has seen before.

Teachers at the schools may also choose to stay the extra hours, and they will be compensated for their time, Brenna added.

The MSQI expansion and extended day pilot program will cost $6.2 million. It’s being funded by $4.65 million in grants from the New York City Council, Robin Hood and the Carson Family Foundation. The DOE is also contributing $1.55 million.

Because the city and teachers union have not reached a deal on teacher evaluations, the city cannot compete for state funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made available for schools who want to extend their days.

Extended day programs have drawn criticism for being too expensive for schools to fund without private donors. But Quinn said the city would come up with the funds if the pilot succeeds.

“Will it cost more money to take it citywide? Of course it will. But when we know it works, we’ll have to make it a priority and make that happen,” she said.

In a statement, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is also running for mayor, said the pilot program did not go far enough.

“Either you believe every child deserves a safe place to go after school or you don’t. We don’t need another pilot project or half-measure to prove these programs work,” he said. “What we need is the will to fund them and make them available to every working family.”

De Blasio has proposed a plan to fund extended learning time by taxing households who make more than $500,000 a year.

But another critic of past middle school improvement efforts said he was optimistic that the latest initiative could be different. Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who chaired the City Council’s original middle school task force, said the extra time and formal literacy program could improve student performance the way that past city efforts have not.

Noguera, who sits on the The After-School Corporation board, said he is glad that community organizations will be brought into the schools.But he said he is concerned that intense tutoring at the end of a long day could turn students off.

“A lot of schools are already struggling with keeping kids engaged. To do another hour that they just had a full day of may not be something kids want to partake in. And it will be a lot of wasted money if kids don’t show up,” he said. “Hopefully people closer to the kids will understand it’s not simply a matter of grinding the information into their heads.”

City officials and advocates for extended learning time say they are not worried about demand.

“We do not expect parents to opt out,” Walcott said. “We see them saying give me more, more, and more.”

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.