mass appeal

Sea of parents and advocates take to streets for charter schools

IMG_5679A political rally turned out thousands of parents, students, and staff from the city’s most prominent charter schools for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and a plea for support from whoever next occupies City Hall.

Dressed in neon yellow shirts and carrying signs to summarize their demands, crowds began assembling in Cadman Plaza around 7:30 a.m and swelled as one chartered bus after another dropped off a new group from a different corner from the city. A stage on the west end of the park blasted music and personal testimonies from teachers, parents, and school leaders invited to speak.

Dozens of schools from at least 11 charter networks were represented at the rally, according to organizers. They estimated that 17,500 people attended.

As the crowd waited to funnel onto the bridge’s walkway — a process that lasted more than two hours because of the mass of participants — parents were unified when asked why they attended.

“We love the school and we just want to make sure the next mayor gets the message,” said Aaron Lieberman, who has two children who attend Harlem Success Academy.

Organizers sought to hammer home a broader message about the role of charter schools in New York City’s school system, which is that parents should be able to choose where to send their child to school.

“It’s only politicians who care about charters or districts,” said Eva Moskowitz, founder of the 20-school Success Academy charter network, which appeared to make up a majority of parents in the crowd. “It really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is a school of excellent quality.”

There was nary a reference to the names of candidates vying for City Hall, though Republican Joe Lhota greeted families at City Hall and made clear his support for their schools. But the pleas appeared to fall on deaf ears of Lhota’s opponent, Democrat and frontrunner Bill de Blasio, whose campaign pledges have stirred fear among supporters of charter schools in New York City, which have thrived under Mayor Bloomberg.

De Blasio doubled down on those pledges on Tuesday, saying through a spokesman that “believes that well-resourced charter networks should pay for the use of school space, as charter schools do across the country.” He’d also stop co-locations, an arrangement that has afforded schools free space inside city-owned school buildings, “until we can better assess their impact.”

Both changes would affect a majority of the city’s charter school sector. Over 60 percent of the city’s 183 charter schools are housed in city-owned buildings, and more than half of the city’s 50 proposals for new schools and co-locations involve charter schools.

Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, a national charter school network with several schools in the city, said he hoped the rally would show how much support there is for charter schools’ continued growth.

“The reason we have 70,000 kids in charters today in New York City, the reason we have 50,000 kids on wait lists, is because we’ve had access, as public schools serving public school families, to the public facilities,” Levin said, referring to free rent afforded to charter schools in city-owned buildings. “Changing that access would significantly reduce the growth in the number of seats available in New York.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed and the vast majority do not employ unionized teachers, one reason they are so divisive. Most have longer school days and year and they typically out-perform their district school counterparts on state tests. On last year’s state tests, Success Academy’s proficiency rates — 82 percent in math and 58 percent in English — was significantly higher than city rates, which were under 30 percent in both subjects.

But charter schools serve fewer high need students than the average charter school, and critics accuse the schools of having policies that dissuade low-performing students from staying enrolled.

They also say one reason that charters have been able to thrive is because of private support from wealthy backers on their school boards, one reason de Blasio has pledged to charge those schools rent.

In response, Moskowitz asked if the policy would be applied for district schools with well-heeled parent groups and foundations that raise money.

“To suggest that because charter schools get some amount of philanthropy to support public education that they pay rent is ridiculous,” she said. “There are district schools in the city of New York whose PTAs raise considerable sums. Are the politicians going to call on them to pay rent?”

Success parents and students, whose participation was urged by Moskowitz and enabled in part because she closed down her schools for the duration of the rally, dominated the rally. Some parents indicated that Moskowitz’s doomsday predictions about the possible fate of charter schools under a new mayor had gotten through.

“I want them to keep the schools open,” said Charlene Porterfield, a Harlem Success Academy 3 parent. “I’m not sure who’s trying to close the schools, but I’m willing to fight.”

De Blasio, who criticized organizers of the rally for using inaccurate scare tactics, has not said he’d close any charter schools. But his plan to put a moratorium on future school proposals could affect Success’ plans to expand its schools into the middle and high school grades.

That would be a shame, Success Academy parents said. Angel Cornejo said she had a “bad experience” in a district school when her son entered kindergarten. She enrolled her son in Bronx Success Academy 3 this year and said she’s seen a big difference.

“He learned more in one week than an entire year at his old school,” Cornejo said.

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.