the road to city hall

At parent forum, mayoral hopefuls vow to stop grading schools

Four of the city’s mayoral candidates appeared Thursday evening at a parent-focused forum at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn, which was moderated by Diane Ravitch, a critic of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies.

City schools’ annual letter grades would become a thing of the past if any of the mayoral candidates who attended a parent-oriented forum in Brooklyn Thursday evening takes over City Hall next year.

Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Bill Thompson each vowed to stop issuing the grades, which the Bloomberg administration has issued since 2007. The city has used the grades — which are almost entirely based on student test scores for elementary and middle schools — to pick which schools to close and which principals to reward.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and all of the non-Democratic candidates in the race skipped the forum, which was organized by a parent group that formed to oppose high-stakes testing and co-sponsored by the teachers union-aligned Alliance for Quality Education.

The school grading issue was one on which the candidates had not clearly staked out positions before moderator — and outspoken critic of the Bloomberg administration — Diane Ravitch asked them about it. But their unanimity reflected the tenor of the evening, in which the four men clamored to demonstrate their alignment with the parents who organized the event and against Mayor Bloomberg’s school policies.

“Diane Ravitch is one of my heroes,” Albanese, a former teacher, said in his opening statement. Moments later, de Blasio, currently the public advocate, started out by saying, “I love P.S. 29,” the school that hosted the event.

Liu, the city’s comptroller, topped Albanese by saying about Ravitch, “I’m very thankful she’s not running for mayor. Otherwise we could all go home happy.” And Thompson, who burnished his education credentials on the Board of Education before the Bloomberg era, praised Ravitch’s habit of eliciting fierce criticism. “You know you’re doing something right if so many people attack you,” he said.

Ravitch made clear where she stood on each issue as she asked about it, and audience members frequently signaled their concurrence with cheers and boos. Before she asked the candidates whether they would continue to let charter schools use Department of Education space for free, for example, Ravitch said the privately managed schools “cause overcrowding and competition for facilities and resources” and are “now moving into neighborhoods like Cobble Hill even though there’s no demand for them.”

The candidates did not all give specific answers to the question, but they all criticized the charter sector. And they all vowed to reduce class sizes; boost arts in schools; withhold city students’ data from a controversial warehouse maintained by the nonprofit inBloom; and diminish what they agreed was an excessive emphasis on standardized tests.

The candidates’ unanimity meant that the event “functioned almost more as an accountability session” than a forum for debate, said City Councilman Brad Lander. He said parents needed a space to let candidates know what was important to them.

Some of the parents who packed P.S. 29’s auditorium said they were relieved to hear that there are mayoral candidates who share their concerns.

“I think there were good comments about putting a halt to the testing mania,” said Jamie Mirabella, a P.S. 29 mother whose third-grader “opted out” of last month’s state tests. “It’s an expanding issue that needs to be solved for everything else that needs to happen to happen.”

But others said they had felt alienated by the way the event was structured. “The forum was a pep rally for those who share the same point of view,” Douglas Hanau, also P.S. 29 parent, wrote in a comment on GothamSchools in which he characterized his view as “more nuanced [and] less dogmatic than Ravitch’s. “I was very disappointed.”

The event was not the last time that parents will put policy questions directly to those who are seeking to be the city’s next mayor. The Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Committee, a legally mandated elected parent council, is sponsoring a candidate forum in June.

And candidates could go a lot further toward explaining what they would do as mayor, instead of just saying what they would not do, Lander said. The logical question after hearing the candidates say they would do away with the city’s school grading system, he said, is,”What kind of accountability system would you put into place to evaluate, support, nurture the well rounded schools?”

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.