special law

City endorses legislative push to diversify elite high schools

PHOTO: Stuyvesant High School

The de Blasio administration is endorsing a renewed push to change how the city’s most elite public schools accept students.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña backed a bill on Monday that would require the city’s specialized high schools to use more than a single test score as their student admissions criteria, an effort grounded in the administration’s desire to increase diversity within the eight schools and reduce the emphasis on testing.

“As the Chancellor has said before, a student is more than the result of one exam,” Devora Kaye said in a statement.

The endorsement comes just hours after state lawmakers unveiled a bill at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters that would allow the Specialized High School Admissions Test to count alongside attendance, class grades, and state exam scores in admissions decisions. It was also the first clear signal of how the city will move forward with de Blasio’s campaign promise to change the admissions standards, since de Blasio and Fariña have offered few details about preferred alternatives in their first months in office.

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said in April.

With just days left in the state legislative sessions, the efforts are mostly symbolic. Even the bill’s sponsor, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education subcommittee, acknowledged that passage might have a better chance next year.

Critics of the single-test standard have long protested that smart students who don’t have access to high-quality elementary or middle schools, or who can’t afford pricey test-preparation programs, are at a disadvantage. And many of the specialized schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Staten Island Technical High School, are among the high schools that perennially serve the lowest number of black and Hispanic students in the city.

The specialized high schools enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, a racial gap that has widened at some of the schools in recent years. This year, 11 percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school student population. At Stuyvesant High School, for instance, just 3 percent of seats were offered to black and Hispanic students.

But the schools have many defenders who say the system is a bastion of egalitarianism.

“The advantage of using the test is that it eliminates favoritism and offers every child, in a simple way, to get in,” said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which opposes the legislation.

A single-test admission system for the city’s specialized high schools has been used, and criticized, for decades. The admissions process for the city’s top two high schools was enshrined in state law in 1971, and lawmakers eventually added one more school, Brooklyn Technical.

The city controls the admissions requirements at five of the city’s eight specialized high schools, but officials have said they are waiting for the state to change the law to move forward with their own policy changes. Fariña has said she has already been meeting with principals from the specialized high schools, an area of admissions policies that the administration most wants to change.

The proposed legislation would require all eight schools to use a multiple-measure approach. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, but never won support from the Bloomberg administration.

Union officials also called on the city to pour money into a summer program to better prepare disadvantaged students who traditionally struggle on the exam.

On Monday, UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted that the change would shift the admissions systems similar to those at top high schools nationwide.

“If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale, it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” Mulgrew said. “The idea that we are the anomaly in this country, where we use one single exam as the only criteria for … whether they get into these schools or not, is wrong.”

A backlash against testing has spurred some of the most recent criticism. Adriano Espaillat, a state senator running for Congress, said he sponsored the bill because the SHSAT was part of a “high-stakes testing model” that caused too much stress for families and children.

The proposed legislation was met with skepticism from many students, teachers, and alumni from specialized high schools. Supporters of the single-test approach say it is the fairest way to assess whether a student can handle the rigor of going to the city’s most demanding high schools, where high expectations and a culture of competition are pervasive.

Cary said that Brooklyn Tech’s alumni are open to reviewing new admissions criteria for the schools, including whether the admissions tests give students who prepare for the test a leg up. But he said nothing should be done until proposed changes are discussed publicly.

Tesa Wilson, whose daughter is a sophomore at Stuyvesant, noted that changes to the admissions system don’t address the educational inequities that emerge earlier in a student’s life.

“If you’re looking to do advanced work in high school, that’s a trajectory you need to be on starting in sixth grade,” said Wilson, who is also the president of District 14’s Community Education Council. “Most parents, they’re not even thinking about high school placement until eighth grade and by then it is too late. You’ve already missed the bus.”

At Stuyvesant on Monday, students were split on the admissions issue.

“I think it would have a positive effect for people who can’t afford tutoring,” said Elias Saric, a sophomore. “Lots of people just get in because they have money for tutoring. But if you can perform well in school and be involved in the community, that doesn’t involve money, but it shows your positive qualities.”

Others said Stuyvesant was more diverse than it appears, and its student body had a high proportion of first-generation immigrants from Asian countries.

Joanna Pan, a sophomore, said she personally liked an admissions policy that would add more diversity,

“Personally, I think that it’s better, but honestly, for Stuy you should get a higher test score to get in here because the workload is way too much. Even if they can help the community, it doesn’t mean that they’re able to pass all of the grades,” she said.

There was also fear that changing the admissions standards would affect the school’s overall quality and negatively affect other student minority groups. “Asian immigrants—who make up the majority of the school’s population—would be indirectly discriminated against,” said Jack Cahn, a senior.

Assembly Member Karim Camara, one of the bill’s sponsors, said those fears were misguided.

This is not about watering down the standards, it’s not about making it subjective, so teachers or principals pick their favorite students,” said Camara. “This is not about ensuring a certain percentage of students of any ethnic group. This is about identifying students or merit, and again multiple measures is really the only way to activate that.”

Sources said that they did not expect the bill to pass during the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, and the bill was intended to apply pressure to New York City lawmakers whose constituents might push back against efforts to eliminate the current admissions system.

“We will discuss it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

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.