breaking bread

Charter group gets a seat at the de Blasio table, then backs him up

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Salim Virji

A charter group angling for the city’s support finally got a meeting at City Hall. Not long after, it’s become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staunch ally on some politically-sensitive education issues.

First, it publicly distanced itself from a high-profile charter school rally being organized by de Blasio’s opponents. Then on Friday, it emerged as perhaps the only supporters of the city’s controversial decision around dozens of charter school co-location plans.

The loosely-connected group still doesn’t have a name and its founding members are hesitant to label themselves. “I’m not even sure it is a group yet!” Harlem RBI Executive Director Rich Berlin said in an email recently. 

Recently, it goes by “community-based public charter schools”. Its membership is a moving target, with schools signed onto some statements but missing from others. But its core leadership has stayed the same, consisting of, among others, Berlin, New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes, Renaissance Charter School founder Stacey Gauthier, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr, and Jonathan Gyurko, an education consultant and former city education official.

Despite their uncertain status, they’ve made quick inroads since forming just a month ago. They were called to a meeting with Blasio’s top aides on Thursday morning, just hours before the city announced it was rolling back three Success Academy charter school co-location plans. A pressing item on the agenda was to offer a sneak peak at the reasoning behind the city’s decision and, possibly, get some political cover for what the city knew would be seen as a controversial move.

A day later, the group came through for de Blasio. In a lengthy statement, they said they “came away with the impression that the city’s process was thorough and decisions principled.”

“I think it’s always disappointing because people want space and need space,” Gauthier said of the decision in an interview on Friday. “But I think they went through a fair process. It’s still disappointing, most especially for Success that has kids who are still moving to another grade.”

It was rare public approval for the decision, which has so far been roundly criticized by most sides involved. City Council members and the schools they represent where many of the plans will continue said de Blasio didn’t go far enough. On the other side, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and her allies pledged to aggressively fight the decision, possibly with legal action.

(The city said it canceled one of the Success plans, which evicted currents students from a building for next year, because it would have resulted in the reduction of a program for students with disabilities.) 

It’s the second time that de Blasio has been backed by the group of charters while the mayor has been vulnerable. Yesterday, they said they were ditching a rally in Albany that was organized Moskowitz and other charter schol advocates because it was on the same day as a big prekindergarten lobbying effort planned by de Blasio’s team.

“The message you’re sending is that you just want a war,” Barr said, referring to the charter school rally. “I love political strength and organizing, but tactically to lead with that, it sounds more personal to some folks.”

The new support has been eagerly embraced by de Blasio’s team. A City Hall spokesman was the first to share both statements with Chalkbeat and a consultant from the public relations firm handling press for de Blasio’s pre-K campaign, BerlinRosen, blasted out a copy of the group’s anti-rally statement this morning.

The City Hall meeting included Intergovernmental Affairs Director Emma Wolfe, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, Jr., and the chiefs of staff for both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Charter leaders who attended the meeting said they didn’t get anything in return for offering their support for de Blasio on these sensitive issues. They said they were just happy to have a seat at the table.

“When we first actually got together, our goal was just to have a dialogue,” said Gauthier. “Getting a meeting with senior officials is not necessarily easy.”

Gauthier and other attendees said that they also discussed, in broad terms, ways that the city could leverage its authority as school building landlords that house charter schools. One idea was to require schools to fill empty seats vacated by students who leave the school, a practice known as backfilling. Many of the highest-performing charter schools don’t backfill beyond early grades, which some believe can keep test scores high.

Another idea discussed was that, instead of paying rent, charter schools could pay for programs that could be shared by all co-located schools in a building, such as renovation costs, enrichment events and professional development sessions.

“We all left feeling very positive about this meeting, that the administration was really sincere in its efforts to work with us,” Gauthier said.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the impact of the Success Academy expansion)

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.