the end

Stressful admissions process ends with sigh of relief for some students

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.

Leaving the citywide high school fair in September, Tiffany Mejia, an eighth grader in the Bronx, had her heart set on Food and Finance High School in Manhattan.

By December, when she had to submit a list of up to 12 high school choices to her guidance counselor, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools.

And by Tuesday, when her school gave students the high school admissions letters the city had released the day before, Mejia said she just wanted the waiting to end. She was one of several students Chalkbeat met during the process and followed up with this week.

“I was scared, I was excited, I was nervous, I was just crazy,” Mejia said.

Mejia got her third choice, Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts in Harlem — a small school that has repeatedly landed on the city’s list of lowest-performing schools in recent years. She said she was happy because she had heard good things about the school and because a close friend who also had her sights set on Food and Finance back in September was also matched with Wadleigh.

“That was one of the most exciting things about it, because I wanted to go to the same high school as at least one of my friends,” Mejia said. She said she didn’t have much sympathy for friends who weren’t matched with their top choices, because other students didn’t get matched at all.

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Ten percent of students citywide weren’t matched with schools during the first round and will have to reapply for unfilled seats and seats in new schools during a second round this month.

Jose Vilson, who teaches math at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights, said the number of students at his school who weren’t matched with any high school had declined from last year. But he said other students were just unhappy with their matches and might decide to appeal and try their luck in the second round.

Vilson said he and his colleagues knew from experience that it would be hard to get students’ attention after releasing the letters. So they gathered the eighth graders in the auditorium during the last period of the day on Tuesday.

 “There’s either a ton of excitement or a lot of sadness going on,” he said. “There’s very little in between.”

Divine Jones, an eighth grader who got her first choice, said she and her classmates felt the high stakes of the admissions process even though they could opt to attend their charter network’s high school.

“If we don’t get our top choice we don’t feel smart even though we are,” said Jones, who attends Bedford Stuyvesant Collegiate Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network. “One of my classmates didn’t get any of her choices. I felt bad because I know how smart she is but the high schools didn’t get to see that.”

Jones decided to apply to a district high school rather than staying at Uncommon for high school. She got into her first choice, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, a selective school of about 1,200 students.

“It feels awesome,” she said. “I”m going to be in a new environment with different people who are like me and ready to learn. I don’t have to hide my nerdiness and stuff.” Jones said she had hoped to get into a specialized high school but now felt that Medgar Evers would be “a little more me-ish.”

Jones said she wasn’t the only one at her school to look beyond Uncommon’s high school, which combines students from several middle schools run by the network.

“We go to a charter school [and] we have to stay in our seats,” she said. But when high school acceptance letters were distributed, “people were literally jumping out of their seats they were so nervous and excited.”

Her mother, Danimaris Fonseca, said she visited Medgar Evers during the application process with her daughter, and found that the environment there reminded her of the Brooklyn school she attended as a child, the Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented.

“One of my main things was like a nurturing family-like community environment. Because I know high school can be very intimidating, and I didn’t want her to come from a charter school which is really small and go to a huge high school where she felt intimidated by kids and teachers,” Fonseca said.

Another Brooklyn charter school, Explore, reported that nearly half of the 54 eighth graders were accepted to selective high schools, and one was among the seven black students accepted to the ultra-elite Stuyvesant High School. Just one student who had aimed for a public high school had not been matched, according to a spokeswoman for the network.

Some students, including Anthony Ureña, still haven’t received their letters.

As of Tuesday evening, Ureña, who attends eighth grade at I.S. 215 in the Bronx, still hadn’t heard where he would attend high school. His first choice is the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. He said teachers told him he’d find out on Friday, and that he and his friends don’t mind the wait.

“You know, you’ve got to wait for a long time to see if you got accepted or not,” he said. “So we mostly stopped talking about it.”

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.