great expectations

Co-location backlash turns de Blasio allies quickly into critics

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The president of a community education council in Brooklyn holds a sign opposing new co-locations at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in October 2013.

Hundreds of people crowded into Brooklyn’s I.S. 281 last October for a public hearing on a plan to install a new charter school in the building. More than 50 people spoke that night, and all but a handful said they opposed the space-sharing proposal.

Later that month, as a school policy board appeared set to vote in favor of the plan, an I.S. 281 teacher said she was hitching her wagon to the mayoral frontrunner, Bill de Blasio, who had promised to review each approved co-location.

“Hopefully,” the teacher said, “de Blasio does what he says he’s going to do.”

But after de Blasio, now mayor, announced last week that almost all Bloomberg-era co-location plans would go forward, people at I.S. 281 and across the city who had pinned their hopes on him said they were disappointed. Parents and politicians alike said de Blasio was already breaking a promise to consider public input when making school decisions.

“We expected to see change,” said Laurie Windsor, president of the elected parent council that oversees I.S. 281’s district. “That’s what they kept saying, and we really, fully trusted them. Now the trust is gone.”

On Thursday, de Blasio and his schools chief announced that they had reviewed 45 co-locations approved in the final weeks of the Bloomberg administration and decided to cancel nine, including three that involved charter schools. The three dozen other co-locations, including the one at I.S. 281, will proceed as planned.

“We did a thorough analysis as quickly as we could in the first weeks of being here,” the mayor said at a press conference Thursday. “We decided that some of these were not fair, did not make sense, and we took action.” (Education department officials also noted that overturning many of the proposals would hurt students who had applied to attend the new schools.)

De Blasio’s announcement outraged supporters of the three Success Academy charter schools that lost space they had been promised. But it also inflamed many parents, educators, and elected officials who had counted on the new mayor to reverse more co-locations, and who saw in his decision a lack of consistency and transparency. The backlash revealed how quickly the administration’s supporters might morph into critics if their hopes for specific causes are dashed.

Vincent Gentile, a south Brooklyn City Council member who supported de Blasio’s mayoral bid and lobbied against the I.S. 281 co-location last fall, said the city had not contacted him or others invested in the school during the review process.

“To my knowledge, none of that input was sought,” he said, adding that he learned of the decision only when it was announced publicly. “Part of the disappointment was the lack of a heads up.”

Gentile and two other Democratic City Council members released a statement Thursday saying they were “furious” with the decision and intend to fight it “tooth and nail.” Separately, the parent groups behind a lawsuit meant to stop more the co-locations said they would continue with their legal challenge.

The principal of a school that will share space with a new charter school next fall said he emailed a deputy chancellor during the review period to raise his concerns about the co-location, but did not get a reply.

“I didn’t find the review to be a transparent process,” said the principal, who asked for anonymity because a superintendent instructed him not to discuss the decision publicly. “There wasn’t a way for principals to make their case.”

Last week, the education department announced that it would more actively involve the public in future co-location decisions through extra meetings and the formation of a working group. But the effort was seen by some as a half-measure, since the new engagement policies did not apply to the pending co-locations.

“It was like, ‘We’re going to listen to you in the future, but this is what we’re doing now,’” said Larry Acosta, who directs an adult education center based inside I.S. 171, a middle school in East New York that will have a new middle school open in its building this fall.

At least one group endorsed the city’s co-location decisions: a coalition of charter schools seeking the city’s support and whose leaders were invited to meet with top city officials shortly before Thursday’s announcement. They released a statement the next day calling the city’s decision-making process “thorough” and “principled.”

But such support was drowned out by criticism from people who felt betrayed by de Blasio, who during the mayoral campaign had pledged to “rescind those [co-location] proposals that have clear negative impacts,” while allowing the rest to remain. Many people appeared to have disregarded the second half of de Blasio’s promise.

“He’s a scam,” said Josephine Shayef, whose son is a seventh-grade student at I.S. 281. “He told us when he was elected, everything would be reversed. Why did he lie?”

For Mona Davids, the head of the New York City Parents Union, the administration’s decision felt like a personal betrayal. Her organization is a part of a lawsuit alleging the Bloomberg administration acted unlawfully in approving dozens of co-locations last October, and Davids was expecting big change from de Blasio.

Instead, the limited scope of the changes left her “hugely disappointed and surprised.”

“As much as de Blasio says he’s about a new day, he’s not engaging parents,” Davids said. “At this point, de Blasio continues to renege on all campaign promises.”

Windsor, the CEC president, said parents and community members will now regard the administration’s school policies with more skepticism.

“Now you have to take it with a huge grain of salt,” she said.

But Dionne Grayman, the co-founder of NYCpublic.org, an organizing tool for public school parents, defended the city’s decisions, saying it would have been infeasible to undo all the planned co-locations. She added that it will take time for the city to better include parents in its decision-making, but even then parents will not always be satisfied with the city’s choices.

“As optimistic as I am, I think we have to be realistic,” she said.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

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.