Way out

Exit strategy for students at closing schools hard to navigate

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
Edna Wilson and her granddaughter Gianee, a P.S. 64 student, protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing in February. Wilson is among those who were disappointed with the transfer options the city presented to students in schools that it is is phasing out. (Luke Hammill)

An escape route from the city’s most struggling schools that Department of Education officials touted as a significant innovation is unlikely to be an option for many eligible families, parents and advocates say.

When the city closes low-performing schools, new students aren’t allowed to enroll and current students stay on until they graduate. The arrangement has drawn criticism from state officials, families, and advocates who say high-need students see morale and support decline as their schools diminish in size.

This spring, just before finalizing plans to close 22 schools, department officials said they felt a “moral imperative” to help students who want to leave closing schools do so. They said they would mail transfer applications, including a list of possible destination schools, to all 16,000 students in the 61 schools that would be in the process of phasing out this fall.

“They presented it to families as an alternative to protect their children,” said Emma Hulse, a community organizer with New Settlement who has helped South Bronx families fill out transfer applications.

“But when the package actually hit people’s mailboxes, we realized it’s not a meaningful alternative,” she said.

The transfer rule represented a tweak to a longstanding process required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under that law, struggling students in schools that have landed on the state’s list of low-performing schools must be given the option to apply for seats in higher-performing schools. The new policy made students in closing schools that are not on the state’s list also eligible for transfer, and gave them all preference for open spots over students in other schools.

But the numbers suggest that few of the newly eligible students will end up in a different school. Last year, out of 143,141 students who were eligible for transfers, just 700 were placed in other schools through the transfer process, according to department data.

Department officials would not provide data about how many eligible students actually applied for transfers last year. But one major obstacle for those who did is that schools must have open seats in order to accept transfers. And high-performing schools tend also to have strong enrollments.

An added issue is that some schools that might be desirable destinations for students fleeing phase-out schools did not appear on the list of options the department distributed. (Transfer applications were due last month.)

Geraldine Maione, the principal at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education School in Brooklyn, said she has received phone calls from parents at nearby Sheepshead Bay High School, which will start phasing out at the end of the year. Maione said the parents want their children to be able to transfer to Grady, especially since it is setting up a new nursing program at a time when Sheepshead Bay’s is closing.

But Grady is on the state’s “Priority” list of low-performing schools, which means it can’t be on the list of schools that accept transfers — even though the city gave Grady a high B on its most recent progress report. Another nearby school, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, also cannot take Sheepshead Bay students for the same reason.

“We’re being measured by too many different rulers,” said Maione, who has struggled to maintain her school’s enrollment in recent years. “So which one do we stand by? I don’t know.”

Hulse said parents she worked with had encountered a similar problem. Many Spanish-speaking families preferred bilingual programs. P.S./M.S. 194, which received an A from the city, could have been a good match for their children, but it is on the state’s “Focus” list. (It is also operating well over capacity already.)

“If the list was expanded to include other schools offering bilingual options in the Bronx, like P.S./M.S. 194, we could have given these parents better choices,” Hulse said.

The state used data from the 2010-2011 school year to create its Priority and Focus school lists, State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said. But the most up-to-date NYC progress reports available are based on last year’s data, so schools that have shown improvement aren’t on the transfer list. Tompkins also said the state and city evaluate schools slightly differently.

But he said any disconnect between the city and state accountability lists would not affect many students.

“Even were it permissible to meet federal and state requirements regarding public school choice through offering students the choice to transfer to a Focus or Priority School that had a high NYC Progress Report grade, the effect on the number of transfers would likely be extremely modest,” Tompkins said.

GothamSchools found 24 Priority or Focus schools in the Bronx and 20 in Brooklyn that received at least a B progress report grade and at least a “proficient” quality review rating from the city. Those schools do not appear as possible transfer destinations on the lists families have received, even though some schools on the list got lower grades from the city.

But even if families can find a high-quality school with open seats, getting in and getting there remain challenges.

The department publishes transfer packets in nine languages. But Hulse said many Spanish-speaking parents came to New Settlement needing help with applications because they received information only in English.

“It’s terrible because it’s something so important and I can’t fill it out on my own,” said Ana Montero, whose child attends P.S. 64. “I have to find someone else to help me.”

Also, many parents depend on school buses to get their children to school. But the city won’t provide busing for students who attend school outside of their home borough, a problem for elementary school families looking to secure a transfer. High costs forced the city to eliminate inter-borough busing in 2011 for No Child Left Behind transfers, according to Robert Carney with the Office of Pupil Transportation.

Magatte Ndiaye’s daughter is in the third grade at P.S. 64. Since she has to be at work at 7 a.m., she can’t take her daughter to school in Manhattan, and she doesn’t think there are many good school options in the Bronx.

“If they send her to Brooklyn or Manhattan … and she can’t have buses, she’ll have to stay at P.S. 64. And I don’t like that because it’s a failing school,” she said. “And she has two more years … even if she passes here and goes to middle school, she may be lower than the other people.”

Edna Wilson, the grandmother of another third-grader at P.S. 64, shares Ndiaye’s concerns. She found a number of good schools on the transfer list for her granddaughter — but they were all in Manhattan, too far for her to travel.

“It seems like they give you one thing and then take something else away,” Wilson 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.