Regents Pass

Coalition wants the state to let more schools skip the Regents

A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition's past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.
A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition’s past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.

A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.

The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.

The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.

The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.

The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.

Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.

The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.

“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.

The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.

But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.

“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.'”

The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.

The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.

But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.

The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.

In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.

“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.

“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.

Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.

“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.

“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”

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.