"kind of like a rebirth"

New energy felt at school where cheating principal was removed

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Lights dimmed on stage in the auditorium at the Theatre Arts Production Company School and a cocktail waitress in a short dress and high heels walked out. Behind her, flappers and American expatriates bickered and drank wine in a Paris jazz club while waiting for her to sing.

The scene that students acted out on Wednesday was from an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a novel that the students read earlier in the year. Directing the students from the front row was theater teacher Bud Thorpe, who cued music and lights through hushed orders into a headpiece.

“This is kind of like a rebirth,” Thorpe said backstage after the performance as he considered the school’s — and his own — recent fortunes.

It has been just over a year since the Bronx secondary school closed a dark chapter. Last March, officials removed TAPCO’s founding principal after finding that for several years she fudged student transcripts, inflated test scores, and misused school funds. Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Lynn Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Under Passarella, the school glimmered with accolades, including the top score on the city’s progress report, but suffered internally through teacher turnover while students received an incomplete education. After her removal, some test scores plummeted, a sign that some of school’s lofty accomplishments were perhaps too good to be true.

Those scars are still fresh. But the school is seeking to reinvent itself by doubling down on the programs for which the performing arts school was named. The Hemingway production, Thorpe said, which included nearly 50 students, was a sign of the progress made in just one year.

The school is also rallying around its new leader, a former fireman and blues singer from Ohio who moved to New York City in 2005 to teach.

“After the disaster, as we called it, the school’s reputation was tarnished,” Thorpe said. “It was Ron who polished it.”

Ron Link had not been a principal before getting picked to oversee TAPCO’s turnaround, a job he began the day after Passarella was yanked from the school. (The city moved to fire Passarella, and she is currently suspended without pay while she appeals the decision.)

“I sensed it was a wounded community,” said Link, who said he spent the rest of the 2012 school year listening to teachers and learning about their skills. What he found, he said, was that many of them had extensive arts backgrounds but were not teaching arts classes.IMAG0166edit

“The arts were alive here,” said Link, who said he was drawn to the school because of his own background as an actor and musician in Cleveland. He likes to tell visitors about his band, which opened for many famous acts, including Run-D.M.C. in 1983.

One of the teachers whose background was being squandered was Thorpe, who often clashed with Passarella during her tenure. Link said he had been “stuck in a classroom,” away from the stage where he previously taught theater, as a result.

“There was an immediate bond and it was really over the summer, after he came in and had time to listen and to communicate,” said Thorpe. One of the ideas they had was to commit to putting on a theater production on a large scale, which would engage more students in the school’s mission. “When we started talking, he said, ‘You can do this.’”

Link started the year by moving much of the arts instruction in house,  improving morale and bolstering the school’s budget at the same time.

“All of the arts were farmed out, like $4,500 to $6,000 per month, to outside consultants,” Link said. “I spent less than that for the entire year and I have affiliations and partnerships with 12 [or] 13 programs within New York City that cost next to nothing.”

The school was also significantly underequipped to serve the 20 percent special education population. Link hired six special education teachers with dual arts certifications, who have spent the year working with students with disabilities and running their own dance and acting clubs.

Raising student achievement remains a challenge. After years of inflated scores, proficiency on eighth grade English and math tests fell last year, the first without Passarella, by 21 and 22 points, respectively. And not a single student passed the Algebra II Regents exam, just two years after nearly 90 percent of students did.

Several students who took the exam in earlier years alleged that their teacher had given them the answers to test questions. The teacher, Anastasiya Kornyeyeva, is under a new investigation with the city, Department of Education officials said. A former teacher at the school said the investigation is tied to cheating.

Link would not comment on the case, but he said he has been diligent about making sure that no part of the old culture continued.

“Anything that I encountered that was contrary to Department of Education policy, I submitted it to [the Office of Special Investigations] for review and possible investigation,” Link said.

Link said he hired someone just to comb through student transcripts to figure out which ones were improperly credited, and “we whittled it down to what’s real and what’s not.” Link said they found “a handful” of students whose were at risk of not graduating.

Teachers say Link has brought a sense of order to the school day and cohesion to their instructional practice. He has planned curriculum maps for each subject that get revised regularly through team meetings, collaboration that teachers said happened rarely in previous years.

Link said he believes the school is now on the right path, and its website boldly makes that claim.

“The Clouds are Clearing!” reads TAPCO’s homepage, which touts a strong school quality review from the city and a B on last year’s progress report, with “more authentic achievement” to follow in the future.

Next, Link plans to toughen the school’s admissions process by requiring students to demonstrate their commitment to and skills in the arts, which he said the old administration did not do.

“People are going to have to come ready with a monologue, a piece to dance,” Link said. “They’re going to have to want to be here.”

Link received an endorsement of his own recently, too. The newly formed student council, one of more than 20 clubs and programs at the schools, asked him to meet them in the auditorium to review plans for end-of-year events. When he got there, they surprised him with a tribute to his first year on the job. A video they dedicated to him featured students who often thought back to what it was like in previous years. Some said they “weren’t really learning” and, now, were happy to be “actually doing our work.”

“The school probably would have closed down,” a student said.

Thank You, Mr. Link from TAPCO Video Productions on Vimeo.

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.