matter of time

Success Academy's charter rally shutdown plan draws criticism

0925131725Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin is not happy that some charter school students are getting let out of class next month to attend a political rally, and he wants Chancellor Dennis Walcott to do something about it.

“This would never be allowed at a public school, and it has no place in charter schools either,” Levin said in a statement that his office emailed this morning. “I call on Chancellor Walcott to intervene so that Ms. Mosowitz’s [sic] political rallies are not being held at a time when students should be learning.”

Levin — who in June called for a ban on new charter schools — was referring to the Oct. 8 charter school rally that’s being organized in part by Success Academy Charter Schools founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz. Other charter schools are involved as well — organizers said they expect more than 15,000 people to participate — but Moskowitz alone is the only charter school operator shutting her entire network for the morning.

Moskowitz is closing her schools while the event takes place so that staff and students can attend. It’s not technically mandatory for parents to attend the event, but Moskowitz made it clear in an email last week that their attendance is important.

Organizers of the rally, caught off guard by the focus on Moskowitz’s role, have rushed to insist that the event will represent a much larger swath of the city’s 183-charter school sector than Success schools. Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, one of the groups organizing the event, said no parents or students would be required to go.

“Most schools are approaching this as a civic field lesson that students can opt into,” Kittredge said in a statement.

Moskowitz’s schools have been the target of criticism from Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio, who has said he would charge rent to charter schools that operate in city-owned buildings — calling out Success schools in particular.

“These issues are tremendously important,” Moskowitz told parents in a letter on Saturday that urged them to attend. “If we lose ground — literally, if we lose access to public space — we cannot fulfill our commitment to you and your scholar.”

Levin suggested that Success parents aren’t being given much of a choice over whether to attend.

“Forcing parents and children to march in a political rally is obscene and has no place in our schools,” Levin said in the statement. “It is insulting that someone who is supposed to be educating New York City’s children would choose to pull kids out of school in order to benefit her political agenda.”

“Families that are there are there by choice — it’s the key principle that undergirds everything we do,” Kittredge said in the statement.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps Walcott could take to actually put a stop to the rally even if he wanted to — which he likely does not, because the Bloomberg administration supported the expansion of the charter sector. Charter schools receive public funds but are privately managed, and the Department of Education has little control over how the schools structure their schedules.

Although Levin’s statement reflects concern about students losing out on valuable learning time, most charter schools have longer days and years than district schools. Moskowitz calculated that by eighth grade, Success students will have accrued an extra 2.7 years of class time over district school students.

“We treat ‘time’ as one of our most precious commodities and we don’t make decisions to engage in civic field trips lightly,” Moskowitz wrote in an email to principals in her network on Monday.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to take students out of school to advocate for civic issues that are aligned to education policy. Every year, the charter sector takes a group students to Albany to lobby lawmakers to be more supportive of charter schools. And classes are suspended in the Democracy Prep network on election days so students can help get out the vote.

Still, other school leaders who are planning to attend the event said today that they’re taking a less aggressive approach.

“For us it’s really focused on getting our families out,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, who runs a three-school charter network with about 1,100 students. Rowe said his schools would stay open and that only two classes of eighth graders would attend “to witness the action as an experiential field trip.”

Moskowitz appears to making her plea to parents in person as well. She is scheduled to visit Cobble Hill Success Academy to meet with parents Friday morning for an “important parent meeting,” according to a flier that is posted at the school.

Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Charter Schools, said he would be hosting a series of meetings with parents to urge them to attend. But he said his teachers and students would stay in school.

Ballen said the tougher decision for him was whether to attend at all. At last year’s rally, which left the city’s charter sector divided, Ballen decided not to join Moskowitz at City Hall.

But this year, with the mayoral election a potential turning point for the charter sector, Ballen said, he believed it is important to unite charter school parents in one place to be heard.

“I don’t think this is about Success,” Ballen said. “I think this is about a moment as a sector where we find out what it takes moving forward to operate successfully.”

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.