Hoping for Hubs

No action yet on de Blasio's community schools plan, but advocates stay hopeful

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to turn 100 schools into full-service community hubs is among his most ambitious education proposals, and a popular one among advocates and educators. But so far it has seen little action.

Advocates recently called on the city to spend $12.5 million next year to transform 25 schools into such hubs, which could offer medical and social services, art and fitness programs, tutoring and more to students and their families. Instead, the mayor’s $73.9 billion budget directs hundreds of millions dollars to pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, arts education and other school initiatives, but sets aside no funds for community schools.

But in a sign of the goodwill between the new mayor and community-based education groups, which clashed with the Bloomberg administration on most education issues, advocates have not picketed outside City Hall or lobbied lawmakers to resist the mayor’s budget plan. Instead, they are continuing to meet with city officials, drum up local support, and identify potential community schools, all out of faith that the new administration will live up to its word.

“We’re not at a point where we’re concerned,” said Natasha Capers, a parent member of the Coalition for Educational Justice, a consortium of advocacy groups that called for the community schools funding. “I fully feel like this is a priority for them.”

Community schools partner with nonprofits and city agencies to provide an array of services during the school day, in the evenings, and on weekends. Some offer homework help, sports leagues, dance classes, adult education, and free counseling, health, dental, and vision services. Roughly 100 city schools provide such services, coordinated by groups such as the Children’s Aid Society and the United Federation of Teachers.

When he was the city’s public advocate planning to run for mayor, de Blasio accepted the UFT’s invitation to visit a much-heralded community school in Cincinnati. As mayor, he has promised to double the number of community schools in the city by the end of his first term. He tasked Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who previously headed the Children’s Aid Society, with overseeing the plan.

Buery is also directing the city’s costly and complex expansion of pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, which have devoured much of the administration’s attention to date. But recently he has met with members of CEJ at City Hall to discuss the community school plan, and last week he and the Chancellor Carmen Fariña toured a community school in the Bronx and chatted with parents about the plan.

For their part, CEJ members held a series of outreach events last week in low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn where they asked parents and school leaders what services could benefit their schools and what local groups might provide them. Parents and students in the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, a CEJ member group in the Bronx, staged a rally to declare their support for community schools.

CEJ also released a report last week calling on the mayor to make good on his promise by rolling out the first batch of community schools this year and by providing $500,000 to each school. Group members said city officials have indicated that they are still in the planning stages and have not committed to a timeline or funding targets.

Marti Adams, a City Hall spokeswoman, said the mayor is committed to developing the schools by 2018 and that “initial conversations are currently underway.”

The city has not created its own community schools before, so the initiative may take more planning than the pre-K or after-school expansions, said Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools, which was created by the Children’s Aid Society. She added that city officials are currently engaged in “hardcore planning” around the initiative.

The Children’s Aid Society’s 16 community schools in New York have budgets of between $400,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the size of the school and the services they offer, Quinn said. About two-thirds of the money comes from city, state, and federal funding streams, such as Medicaid or after-school grants, and the rest is obtained from private sources, she said.

Quinn said it is unclear whether there are enough local service providers in the city’s high-needs neighborhoods to support 100 new community schools. But there is no question the city will have to need to devote resources to the plan to get it off the ground, she added.

“I think if the city really wants to adopt this as a preferred reform strategy—and I think they do—it’s definitely going to cost some money,” she said.

Angel Martinez, whose three children attend public schools in the Bronx, said schools desperately need more resources to address students’ many social and emotional needs. She said the previous administration’s strategy of creating new schools did not solve the underlying problem of unmet student needs. De Blasio’s community schools plan has the potential to change that, Martinez said—if he carries it out.

“He did promise 100 community schools,” said Martinez, who is a member of the Parent Action Committee, “and we are holding him accountable to that.”

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.