last-ditch efforts

Fahari Academy parents look to de Blasio to keep doors open

Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.
Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.

Gail Cudjoe had heard about Fahari Academy’s struggles. But when her son won a seat in the school’s fifth grade lottery, she pulled him from their zoned elementary school to start at the grade 5-8 charter school, believing it would be something better.

Four months into the school year, she’s pleased with how her son is doing at the school. But the city isn’t: In November, officials announced Fahari would be the only school it moved to close this year, despite an awkwardly-timed mayoral transition.

For Cudjoe’s son and dozens of other fifth graders, the school’s closure would mean attending their third school in just over a year. So parents and board members are now trying enlist local elected officials to help change Department of Education officials’ minds.

“Where are you going to move them to?” Cudjoe asked, standing outside the school’s auditorium after a meeting this Saturday with city officials there to answer precisely that question.

Fahari’s charter expired on Dec. 15, but received a six-month renewal this week in order to stay open through the end of the school year. But the DOE, the school’s legal authorizer, has no plans to keep it open, citing a litany of academic and stability issues that have dogged the school since its opening in 2009.

The campaign for local political support has worked, to an extent: City Council member Eugene Mathieu has pledged his support, it came too late on Saturday, arriving 30 minutes after officials with the Department of Education left. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote a letter in support for the school, whose teachers are represented by the teachers union, to Brooklyn Regent Lester Young. But Young stayed mum at this week’s Board of Regent meeting when Fahari’s six-month renewal came up for approval.

Supporters say the most important elected official in Fahari’s fight still hasn’t started his job. They hope that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who campaigned against closing low-performing schools, would reverse the city’s decision — though he’s also expressed doubt about helping charter schools.

“We understand that a new mayor and a new chancellor are coming in January 1,” said Fahari’s board chair Jason Starr. “Perhaps with different priorities and values we can have a different outcome.”

De Blasio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For now, parents who want the school to stay open are balancing advocacy with an understanding of the reality of the situation. The city has sent parents a list of nearby charter schools to apply to, and several said that they’ve already added their name to waiting lists.

The uncertainty has already compelled some to leave. In the month since the school learned its charter would not be renewed, 11 students have moved to a different school, although school officials said not all of them were related to the non-renewal.

Starr criticized the city’s handling of the authorization process for their charter this fall. An initial renewal agreement that Starr received just hours after they learned Fahari was being closed included the names of board members from a different charter school that faced closure several years ago, Ross Global Academy.

“I wasn’t altogether surprised at that basic mistake,” Starr said referring to renewal letter, “because that’s what this process has been like this entire time.”

At the meeting, Sonia Park, executive director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, declined to comment. Her staff referred questions to the department’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the authorization process, the city has said the school’s academic outlook is bleak. Fahari has never received higher than a C on its progress report, and earned an F this year. On last year’s state tests, Fahari’s scores were 10 percentage points below the Crown Heights an Fl district average in English and four points below in math.

Officials at the school acknowledge the ongoing academic challenges, but points to improvement in areas that the city first flagged more than a year ago. Teacher and student retention are way up and suspension rates are among of the city’s lowest. They also highlight a 30 percent special education enrollment rate as evidence of its commitment to retaining high-needs students.

Radha Radkar, a former Fahari teacher sees things differently. She was an early supporter of the school’s turnaround efforts, but left in June because she said she lost confidence in the school’s direction.

“In my time there, when the school would receive constructive feedback from the DOE on how to improve things, I didn’t feel like there would be an honest effort to really reexamine how to turn the school around,” said Radkar, who is now teaching in higher education.

Parents and school officials said Fahari’s new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, hired in June, is the perfect person to address the school’s challenges. Under Clagnaz, the school scrapped the school’s reading curriculum because it wasn’t aligned to new learning standards and began using lesson modules posted to the state education department’s curriculum website,

Parents said that Clagnaz has created a sense of community at the school, which includes giving out teachers’ cell phone numbers so they can call about homework. Many said they appreciated her presence in the hallways at the start of each day, where she greets students as they come in.

Clagnaz has held several jobs in recent years, the most recent of which was a nine-month stint in Long Island as a curriculum official, according to her LinkedIn page. She also founded and ran Empower Charter School in Crown Heights from 2008 to 2010.

She was also one of five principals who worked at Ross Global before it closed.

“I look at this as a challenge,” Clagnaz said after Saturday’s meeting. Having been at two low-performing charter schools, she said that Ross and Fahari were “worlds different.”

“The board here is 100 percent supportive of the administration and teachers,” she 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.