election 2013

Schools play starring role as primary election day finally arrives

triptychMonths of mayoral candidates’ promises and pavement-pounding culminate today, when New Yorkers head to the polls to pick their favorite candidate from each political party.

City schools will play a starring role in the election. About 650 of the city’s school buildings are being used as polling stations today, meaning that unfamiliar adults will be filing in and out all day, especially at drop-off time this morning, to wrangle with old-style voting machines. For some of them, Election Day is the only time they will ever step inside a public school.

(Voting today? Take our voters guides to the Democratic and Republican primaries with you, and don’t forget our tracker of all candidates’ education positionsNY1, the New York Times, City Limits, the Center for Arts Education, among others, all produced resources for education voters, too.)

For the most part, schools will be trying to maintain the routines that they established on Monday, the first day of the school year. But that could be difficult as candidates bring their coteries of supporters and reporters with them to vote.

And at least one network of schools is turning election day into a learning experience. The Democracy Prep Public Schools charter network is sending students from its eight schools onto the streets of Harlem to get out the vote as part of its “I Can’t Vote But You Can” campaign. The network is focused on civic participation and wants to see the primary turnout lifted far above the 11 percent rate from 2009, the lowest in the city’s history.

It’s the second year of the campaign. Last year, Democracy Prep students spent Election Day in November getting out the vote for the presidential contest, when it was difficult for some of them to contain their enthusiasm for Barack Obama.

Most last-minute activities today will be far more partisan. The UFT will be pulling out all the stops for the candidate it endorsed, Bill Thompson. Union members will campaign with Thompson in Harlem this morning and will hand out campaign literature and man phone banks in multiple locations all afternoon.

Union president Michael Mulgrew, who campaigned with Thompson on Monday, will be at Thompson’s campaign headquarters tonight, hoping for the good news that frontrunner Bill de Blasio did not clear the 40 percent threshold that would eliminate the need for a runoff election. The most recent poll about the election, released by Quinnipiac Polling Institute on Monday, suggested that de Blasio could jump that hurdle — or that the Democratic primary would turn into a “Battle of the Bills.”

On Monday, Thompson started the last 24 hours of his campaign greeting parents outside his mother’s old school, P.S. 262 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where she taught for 26 years. Thompson was in full campaign mode, taking some time to attack de Blasio, who has surged in popularity in recent weeks in polls.

Referring to de Blasio’s goal of taxing high-earning New Yorkers to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, which has come under scrutiny because it faces steep political obstacles, Thompson said this election “is not about making things up. It’s not about fantasy programs.”

Halfway across the borough, de Blasio defended himself during a bustling campaign stop at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens.

Monday’s polls showed that nearly a fifth of likely voters said they still felt open to switching their votes. But parents in central Brooklyn dropping of their children at school on the first day had mostly made up their mind.

Doranda Taitt, whose two children attend two of the new charter schools in the area — La Cima and Bed-Stuy Collegiate — said Thompson had her vote. “I’ve heard good things about him,” she said.

Thompson was even flanked by officials who send their children to charter schools. Robert Cornegy, Jr., a candidate for City Council, appeared with Thompson and Mulgrew, whose union endorsed Cornegy’s opponent.

Two women said they liked Comptroller John Liu, who has trailed in the polls amid scandal surrounding his campaign. One was Iva Webster, who was bringing her great-granddaughter to P.S. 262 for the first day of first grade. The other was Monet Johnson, who was sending her daughter to her first day of full day pre-K at the school.

“I’m a city worker and he’s the only one who’s said he’d give us raises,” Johnson said.

But outside a school where City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was campaigning on the Upper West Side, several people on Monday said they still had not made up their minds between de Blasio and Quinn, who lately has been polling third.

Jane Escolastico’s daughter Julia is starting first grade and son Jeremy is starting fifth grade. She said she’s voting for Quinn not because of anything she heard today but because she remembers Quinn helping advocate for a gym and an elevator where her oldest son went to high school, the NYC iSchool in Tribeca. “I’ve seen her in action working hand in hand with schools,” Escolastico said.

Another mother, Jenny Falcon, said she hadn’t made up her mind. She pressed Quinn about her support for charter schools, saying, “You need to make new public schools, not just new charter schools.” When Quinn continued her pitch, emphasizing her plan to add schools citywide, Falcon pressed on. “Not just charter schools,” she said. “If you’re mayor, please, really!”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting

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.