war of attrition

IBO admits charter school special ed attrition numbers missed the full picture

A widely publicized statistic showing that charter schools do a poor job of retaining their special education students was based on flawed data, the city’s Independent Budget Office has admitted.

The agency reported in January that 80 percent of special education students identified at the start of kindergarten in 2008 left their charter school within three years. But the real figure is likely different, since the IBO only accounted for students receiving full-time special education services—omitting students with less-severe needs.

“If we made a mistake, it was the following: we should have named our finding full-time special education students,” said Raymond Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research.

It’s not clear how much the error affected the results, given that relatively few students are already identified as having special needs at the very start of kindergarten.

Still, it complicates long-simmering debates about how well charter schools serve special education students in which the 80 percent figure had already become a flashpoint. That number was emphasized repeatedly in the IBO report, and prompted a number of headlines (and Chalkbeat coverage).

It also raises questions about how committed the agency is to accuracy, given its role as a nonpartisan education data watchdog. The state legislature specifically charged the IBO with sifting through Department of Education data when it voted to renew mayoral control of the city’s schools in 2009.

The IBO’s numbers leave out a large chunk of students who fall under the city’s special education umbrella, including students who get pulled out of general education classes for some period of the day and students who receive services like speech and occupational therapy. State data shows that 31 percent of the city’s special education students in 2008-9 received services for less than 40 percent of the school day.

Domanico blamed the error on confusing data the agency received from the Department of Education, since students labeled “special education” did not include all students receiving special education services.

And though he acknowledged that the report wasn’t as specific as it could be, Domanico insisted that a correction was not warranted because that finding still reflects special education students, it was one part of a report much larger in scope, and because the city’s data has been inconsistent in the past.

“There was nothing that’s incorrect,” he said. “Our findings still hold; it’s a matter of specifying who we’re talking about.”

Special education advocates see it differently. Ellen McHugh, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said the IBO’s conflation was “misleading,” since many special education students don’t receive services full-time.

In a highly polarized environment, the agency’s independent status also gives its findings additional credibility, McHugh said.

“It’s disappointing for advocates who thought they had this as examples of discrimination [by charter schools]. It’s also reinforcement for charter school advocates who say everyone lies about charter schools,” she said.

The error was first brought to the IBO’s attention by researcher Marcus Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute and had conducted a study using data on the same cohort of students, who were in kindergarten and at a charter school in the 2008-9 school year. (That study found that special education students left district schools and charter schools at about the same rate.)

Winters and the IBO used student data from different points in the school year, making direct comparisons between the two reports difficult. Still, Winters was struck by just how far apart their numbers of special education students were.

Returning to his data, Winters says he accounted for 198 such students in spring 2009; the IBO had counted just 25 that fall.

“Whatever it is, that number they’re using is way too small,” Winters said.

Winters asked the Department of Education to explain the discrepancies. The response from the department was that, in the confusing labyrinth of the city’s data sets, the total number of special education students is not captured by only those students labeled “special education,” but instead by the labels of “IEP” and “disability.”

Winters passed that along to the IBO, and the New York City Charter School Center noted his explanation last month. The IBO now says he’s right, but only acknowledged that publicly after inquiries from a reporter.

“It rang true to us when we heard it,” Domanico said about Winters’ information. “The data that we’re reporting is accurate, but perhaps it could have used the [‘full-time’] qualifier.”

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.