through the cracks

Students are being zoned for P.S. 64, a school the city is closing

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
P.S. 64 families protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing in February. (Photo: Luke Hammill)

A quirk in the city’s complicated school system means that some families are being told that their children must attend a school that the city deemed so low-performing that it should not be allowed to enroll any new students.

In the South Bronx, the Department of Education this year decided to close P.S. 64, a long-struggling elementary school — with some parents’ support. In September, the youngest children at P.S. 64 will begin attending two new schools that are opening in the building, in keeping with the city’s preferred model for phasing out low-performing schools, while older students will stay on until the last ones move on to middle school.

But even though no new kindergarteners will enroll at P.S. 64, some students have been zoned for the school. About two dozen families at P.S. 170, a nearby school that serves children in kindergarten through second grade, have been told that their children are zoned for third grade at P.S. 64.

Unlike P.S. 64, which has received D’s on its two most recent city progress reports, including an F for student performance, P.S. 170 received a B on its most recent progress report.

Parents at P.S. 64 are so concerned about the fact that the school will still serving students until 2016 that they are rallying at the Department of Education’s headquarters today to ask for improvements. According to Emma Hulse, an organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which has worked with P.S. 64 parents for years, P.S. 170 families that are zoned for P.S. 64 will also attend the rally, which is aimed at drawing attention to the larger issue of how the next mayor will improve struggling schools.

P.S. 170’s parent coordinator, Maritza Zapata, said the school recently held a meeting for families of the 24 second-graders, out of 88 total, who are zoned for P.S. 64. To avoid the low-performing school, families must petition the city for a different assignment using a “Placement Exemption Request.”

Department officials said they had previously discussed the fact that P.S. 64 is taking in new third-graders with community members. But Marilyn Espada, president of the District 9 Community Education Council, said she had not been informed about the zoning.

“It’s not a good idea because those kids are doing good where they’re at now,” she said. “Why bring them to a school that’s being phased out?”

That’s the same question that many P.S. 170 parents are asking as well.

Cristina Contreras, whose son attends P.S. 170, graduated from P.S. 64’s sixth grade years ago. She said she is under the impression that the school is completely different now, with lots of fighting and little homework or student learning.

“I’ve heard of kids who were A students at P.S. 170 and they’re failing at that school once they get there. … I wouldn’t want any kid to have to end up in a school where it’s already known they’re going to fail,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling that children are being zoned to that school.”

Like any families that don’t like their zoned school, parents of P.S. 170 students who are zoned for P.S. 64 can apply for permission to go elsewhere. But the department is under no obligation to fulfill their requests, which must be filed by July 19 at the borough enrollment office.

And even if they do receive another choice, busing isn’t available for children who attend schools other than the ones they are zoned for — an issue that has prevented other families from taking advantage of the option to leave low-performing schools for stronger ones.

“Over the last 10 years have worked to fix a broken system that forces children into failing schools,” said a department spokesman, Devon Puglia. “We do everything we can to ensure students have access to high-performing schools throughout their neighborhood.”

Kisory Valdez applied for a transfer for her son, who attends P.S. 170 and is zoned for P.S. 64 next fall. She went to the borough enrollment office and asked if her son could attend P.S. 204, a successful school that other students at P.S. 170 are zoned for. The office told her that her son couldn’t go there, but he could transfer to P.S. 70, which Valdez said is equally as bad as P.S. 64. The school also posts very low test scores and does not move students forward quickly, according to city and state data.

As Valdez explained what she’s heard from P.S. 170’s principal, other parents, the city, and New Settlement, it’s clear how confusing the process has been for her.

“I’m totally exasperated,” she said. “I feel very hopeless and frustrated.”

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.