a second look

For three co-located schools, Learning Partners pilot leads to plenty of suggestions

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The eight schools housed in the massive John F. Kennedy campus in the Bronx get along. Schools share floors of the building, administrators meet regularly, and teachers often stop to chat while passing in the hallways.

But when it comes to teachers knowing what goes on inside each other’s classrooms, the schools might as well be in different boroughs.

“I’ve been in this building for seven years and I’ve never been in this room,” said Wanda Dingman, an assistant principal at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, sitting inside a High School for Law and Finance classroom.

Dingman was finally in the room, which is outfitted with wooden benches for a criminal law class’ mock trials, through the city’s new Learning Partners program. The program is the extension of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s guiding theory that schools can improve by sharing their best ideas with others. And as the pilot program gets underway this spring, Chalkbeat tagged along for one of those idea-swapping visits to ask, how is it working?

The day-long meeting included staff members from Marble Hill, Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy—schools that have a lot in common and make up one of the pilot program’s seven “triads.” All three high schools are inside the JFK campus, so teachers are a just flight of stairs or a few doorways from some classroom visits. They also benefit from sharing a school support organization, New Visions for New Schools.

But Law and Finance is an open-enrollment school that serves a different student population than Marble Hill, which itself serves a high proportion of recent immigrants and English Language Learners. Law and Finance has more than twice as many students with special needs and a high percentage of overage students. The school’s attendance rate is 82 percent, about 10 points below the city average.

As the day began, staff members said that even small amounts of mutual feedback have already sparked change. After one visit to Marble Hill, BETA is redesigning its seven-week summer school program for incoming freshmen based on Marble Hill’s model. Principal Karalyne Sperling said that if it’s successful, she might incorporate it into a new career and technical program that she’s developing.

Those conversations continued as Law and Finance hosted staff members from both Marble Hill and BETA—when it was clear that the program is causing some anxieties as well.

The full-day visit started with a presentation from Law and Finance assistant principal Tyrone Iton, who said he wanted Marble Hill to help his school improve the “rigor” and consistency of its classes. Law and Finance’s challenges were occasionally on display during the classroom visits: In one economics class, where students were calculating what their yearly raises should be in order to keep up with inflation, visiting adults outnumbered the students.

But the teachers’ and administrators’ takeaways were varied, and ideas didn’t always flow from host school to partner school. Marble Hill’s Dingman said she had learned some things herself, pointing to the group’s visit to a 10th grade English classroom where students passed around a conch shell and debated the role that two Lord of the Flies characters played in the murder of Piggy.

“The teacher said almost nothing at all,” said Dingman, which she attributed to high student engagement with the Socratic-style seminar. “I’d like to see more of that in my school.”

Still, the partner schools said they were looking to Marble Hill’s example. One key to that school’s success in graduating their mostly high-need students at an 89 percent clip, and preparing a larger-than-average percentage of them for college, is its project-based curriculum, teachers said.

Teachers and principals agreed that the length and number of visits prescribed by the Learning Partners are likely to prompt concerns. BETA Principal Sperling said she had to issue reassurances to teachers wary of missing class as students were preparing to take end-of-year Regents exams.

“We’re a small school, so for five of us to be out, that’s a big deal,” said Jessica Goring, principal of Law and Finance. “But do we make it work? Absolutely, because we believe in it.”

Next year, the city plans to include 75 schools in the program. The city received 253 applications, including seven from charter schools, officials said.

As the program grows, principals at the JFK campus all said they hoped to remain together since the pilot program started so late into the school year. The city hasn’t guaranteed that yet.

Joseph Urrico, a social studies teacher in his fifth year at BETA, said that collaboration had never felt possible in the past. “We share floors,” he said, “but there’s so many things to do.”

Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote to the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy. The correct attribution is to Jessica Goring, principal at the High School for Law and Finance. 

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.