Green School

At a new school started by parents, uncertainty about how to include them

Jose Gonzalez didn’t know much about the New York City school system when he moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic in 2001. He raised his sons Alvaro and Allan in Highbridge, a tight-knit neighborhood on a hill overlooking Yankee Stadium.

Alvaro and Allan attended elementary school in Highbridge, and Gonzalez knew he wanted them to stay close to home for middle school. So he got involved with the United Parents of Highbridge, a group that was lobbying the city to create a middle school in a neighborhood that had not had one since the 1960s.

Over the course of nearly a decade, the parents recruited local clergy and elected officials to join a coalition, met with Department of Education officials, and found a space for the school. As the planning process moved into the construction stage, parents continued to advocate for their vision of the school, raising money to outfit the newly constructed building with a green roof where students can garden as part of their classes.

The Highbridge Green School opened in September with 142 sixth-graders, including Gonzalez’s younger son, Allan.

Now, midway through the school’s first year, parents and educators are grappling with what parent involvement will look like going forward. How much say should parents have in the school’s daily operations and long-term vision, now that teachers and administrators have been hired to run the show?

Deep commitment to parent engagement on the part of parents and Green School staff, combined with uncertainty about what form that involvement should take, has led to both tension and innovation.

Some particularly active parents, including Gonzalez, say they want more influence over the school’s direction. That desire, at times a source of friction between Gonzalez and the school’s leadership, has fueled a new, collaborative curriculum project — illustrating the possibilities and pitfalls of intensive parent involvement just as the Department of Education works to reshape its relationship with families.

For the most part, parents at the Green School say they are happy with how the school has engaged parents in its first year.

Lorenza de los Santos described the school as a “community baby” and said the administration has preserved that ethos by welcoming parents into the school, hosting events, and sending letters home.

“It was a problem just to get to talk to the principal” at her son’s elementary school, Migdalia Fernandez said in Spanish. At the Green School, Principal Kyle Brillante greets families out front each morning.

And when the city agreed to provide schools with extra funding to hold extended parent-teacher conferences for students who received lows scores on last year’s Common Core-aligned state exams, Green School staff decided to hold those extended conversations with all parents, regardless of their children’s scores.

Though it took some reminders, Brillante said, at least one parent turned out for each student’s conference.

“That’s one of the benefits of coming into an active community,” said Anna Waters, the school’s instructional coach. “People show up.”

But good communication represents just one form of parent engagement, and some parents say they want more.

Gonzalez, who is the Parent Association president, doesn’t think the school has taken advantage of parents’ unique knowledge as much as it could. He believes that parents should have input into the budget, curriculum, after-school offerings, uniform policy, and more because they have insight into students’ lives outside of school and what sorts of resources, academic and otherwise, they most need during the day.

Gonzalez said he wants to feel that “the school is really helping me, because they are listening … [and] they want me to be sitting at the table and having my voice out there.”

Highbridge is a largely immigrant community and one of the poorest in the Bronx. Parents look to the newly constructed Green School, with its shiny hallways and promised rooftop garden, to provide opportunities they can’t offer at home.

As a parent in a poor community, Gonzalez said, he asks himself, “With the lack of resources that I have out there, how can I really have a voice in my school?”

The Department of Education is also confronting the question of how to give parents a real voice in schools, as Chancellor Carmen Fariña works to strengthen the department’s relationships with parents after 12 years under the Bloomberg administration.

“With Bloomberg and the various chancellors he had, parents were really kind of an afterthought,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. He said the Bloomberg administration treated parents as “consumers” who deserved information but could leave a school if they didn’t like it, rather than as “partners” who were also invested in their school’s success.

“If you’re a partner there’s more engagement, compromise, and negotiation,” he said. “There’s an actual relationship.”

Fariña has frequently criticized the Bloomberg administration’s approach, and two weeks into her new job, she told a group of parents that she wants to be judged by how much she does to make sure that their voices are heard. But she has not yet spelled out what she expects that process to look like within schools.

Brillante said he’s particularly eager for practical models to try out at his school.

“We’d like more support from the department,” he said. “I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to learn from experienced principals and from the chancellor herself about how we can incorporate parents more and make their voices heard.”

For now, Brillante is doing what the city requires, which he doesn’t think is sufficient, and experimenting with doing more in ways that have been productive and messy.

The Green School isn’t yet big enough to get city funding for a parent coordinator, but it has a parent association and three parent representatives on its School Leadership Team, a governing body that also includes teachers, administrators, and others.

Those structures for parent involvement are useful, Brillante said, but don’t on their own ensure that the school is engaging parents in meaningful ways.

“Those are just superficial structures” at schools where parent involvement is less valued, he said. “We don’t want to just have an SLT meeting where we spend two hours talking about the Valentine’s dance we’re having Friday.”

Instead, Brillante said he wants parents to be involved in thinking and strategizing about what happens in classrooms, even if that means first teaching them about curriculum standards set by the city and state.

“We feel like the heart of engagement for parents and students is to meaningfully involve all of our stakeholders on instruction. That’s what’s going to push student achievement forward.”

Repeated and sometimes frustrating efforts to involve parents in instruction have produced a new initiative that Brillante and Gonzalez, who spent much of the fall in tension, both said has them hopeful about the future relationship between Highbridge Green and the parents who helped create the school.

A parent gives written feedback after a presentation on the school's grading system.
PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
A parent gives written feedback after a presentation on the school’s grading system.

The project started, Gonzalez said, when he and Anna Staab, an English and special education teacher, were paired up during a School Leadership Team meeting to brainstorm ways for teachers to get students more excited about what they’re learning.

Gonzalez listened to Staab present about the next unit in her class, in which students would read and write an essay about “Dragon Wings,” a book in which an eight-year-old immigrates to the United States from China.

Still frustrated that parents hadn’t been given more input into the curriculum, Gonzalez jumped in with an idea. Why not have students interview their parents, many of whom are also immigrants?

To his surprise, Staab and her colleagues in the English department took his suggestion a step farther, inviting him to come to their next planning meeting to help design the assignment. Since the meeting took place right after the Parent Association meeting, Gonzalez brought seven parents with him to help plan the project.

“The Parent Association was already in the building having a meeting, and the ELA team was in the building meeting,” Staab said. By bringing one into the other, she said, “we’re trying to take the structures we already had in place and run with them.”

Since then, students have interviewed parents and community members and written essays comparing the perspectives on immigration they found in “Dragon Wings” and in their live interviews. They’ve also worked with their parents to make posters about China or their interviewee’s own country of origin to present along with their interviews at a school fair on Thursday.

Gonzalez said that while there’s still room for improvement, the curriculum project is an example of what he’s looking for when he talks about parent input.

“The curriculum project, that’s an area where they’re making that happen,” he said. “Let’s see that overall in the school.”

James Comer, a professor of psychiatry and the founder of the Yale Child Study Center, cautioned that meaningful parent involvement takes structure and foresight.

Rather than just saying that parents’ voices should be heard, he said, school leaders need to ask themselves, “To what end, why? And what do they know that others don’t know?”

“There’s probably going to have to be a structure and an agreement about the kinds of things they work on, and the kinds of things that the teachers work on, and the kinds of things they can work on together and the ways they work together,” he said.

Particularly in schools that were created in part by parents, Comer said, it’s common for parents to feel a sense of ownership that can be challenging as well as helpful for school staff.

At the Green School, which wouldn’t exist without parents’ at-first-seemingly-unrealistic vision — and their willingness to fight for that vision — staff now have to contend with the fact that parents sometimes want progress faster than is realistic.

Building a school is “a step-by-step process that I think makes sense to a lot of educators but may not make sense initially to folks that are not in education,” Brillante said. “[Parents] have been working on this project for 10 years, some of them have pined for a middle school for 40 years. Now that it’s fully there it’s almost like all their desires and wishes are coming to a head and they want it to happen now.”

Sometimes, Brillante can easily act on parents’ suggestions. When de los Santos said she needed more clarity about the school’s uniform policy after her daughter was sent to the office for wearing the wrong shirt, Brillante sent a letter home with all students the next day.

But while Brillante said he shares parents’ vision of getting community members involved in using the green roof they raised money for, that can’t happen until the School Construction Authority finishes work on the roof. And when it comes to academics, parents have insights into their own children’s academic progress and needs but don’t have the training teachers do around how to help an entire class of children learn.

Involving parents means navigating the power imbalance between parents with deep local knowledge of their neighborhood and children and teachers with decision-making power and training in education.

“The stakes are so high with every decision that you make as a teacher and as a parent, because the stakes are your kids and the well-being of your kids,” said Staab, who said she has made involving parents a priority throughout her career. “It’s natural and to be expected that conflicts are going to happen even when everyone who’s at the table has the same intentions and same investment in the well-being of the kids.”

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.