legacies

New school to honor Mandela already easing political tensions

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Just one day after Nelson Mandela died at his home in South Africa, city officials announced that a new high school will be named in his honor—and its creation appears to have won over some prominent critics of co-locating schools.

The new Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice will open inside of Boys and Girls High School, the Bedford-Stuyvesant school that Mandela visited in 1990 when he was celebrated by Mayor David Dinkins and the rest of New York City.

Walcott called the school “a perfect way to give testament to the man who is just admired by so many and transformed lives of so many people, and generations of people. And touched personally the people of Brooklyn as well as the people of New York City.”

The school’s social justice theme and connection to Mandela’s visit to the neighborhood have also smoothed tensions that have been simmering for years at Boys and Girls over the possibility of the city adding another school to the building, which already contains the small Research and Service High School.

In October, Boys and Girls’ principal Bernard Gassaway said publicly that he might resign if the city put another school into his building. Gassaway didn’t respond to requests for comment today, but Rev. Conrad Tillard, who serves on the school’s advisory council, said that Gassaway and the group had warmed to the idea.

“The legacy of Nelson Mandela transcends everything,” Tillard said, adding that Gassaway’s support had been a recent development. “Many people on the advisory committee had never supported co-location, but this was one people felt was worthy of the historical context of the school and could bring so much to the school.”

Boys and Girls has long served as a symbolic center of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the school has a powerful group of allied politicians and clergy. They have been widely credited with keeping the school open, despite low graduation rates and test scores that have earned Boys and Girls three Fs in a row on the city progress reports. The school now has fewer than 1,000 students, down from more than 4,000 in 2007.

Today’s announcement attached a name and a focus to a school that the city had already proposed, and will be voted on at the Dec. 11 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who also serves on the Boys and Girls advisory council, said that was a compromise forged from weeks of discussion about whether to attach Mandela’s name to a single school or to the entire building. Ultimately, she said Gassaway pushed to keep the Boys and Girls’ name. “He did not want to lose the Boys and Girls High—symbolically, the institution,” she said.

The city’s current plans are for Nelson Mandela High to open in September 2014, so the school will also need support from mayor-elect de Blasio’s administration. Despite de Blasio’s statements before and during the campaign that he wants to pause the city’s policy of co-locating schools, spokeswoman Lis Smith indicated some support for the plans on Friday.

“The idea of naming a school after Nelson Mandela is a very worthy one. We will confer with our new Chancellor on this matter when he or she is named,” she said.

The Nelson Mandela School follows the Bloomberg administration’s typical model for new schools—small and focused on a specific topic. Montgomery said discussions have focused around replicating the model of Bedford Academy, a small school also located in Bedford-Stuyvesant that has been celebrated for high test scores and its male and female empowerment classes.

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who was born in South Africa and whose father was forced to flee that country in the 1970s for his activism, said that he would look to involve himself in the process of developing the school’s curriculum in the new year once the school is approved.

“When I was a teacher, we spent time teaching this material and kids found it really fascinating, especially because of the role of young people in the resistance in South Africa,” he said. “There’s a lot of connections to be made, and I think that there aren’t many moments in history that intersect as powerfully with American history … South Africans were really inspired by Martin Luther King and the work of the civil rights movement here, and the anti-apartheid movement in turn inspired a movement here.”

Outside Boys and Girls High, a staff member shooing students away from reporters insisted that the new school would never open under a new mayor. But Walcott, who had been in discussions with some at Boys and Girls High during Mandela’s illness, made it clear that he expects that it will.

“The honoring of a man like Mr. Mandela is something that transcends elected politics, that transcends administrations,” he 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.