New York

Innovation program will let schools tinker with hiring, evaluations, grievances

Schools that participate in a new program run jointly by the education department and the city teachers union will be able to experiment with new ways of evaluating teachers, handling labor disputes, selecting principals, and using technology in classrooms or for teacher training, according to a letter with new details sent to schools on Friday.

In a sign that the city will be open to wide-ranging changes, the letter says that city and union officials would “consider seeking relief from the state” if schools’ plans run up against state laws, such as those dealing with student testing or teacher evaluations.

The letter from Chancellor Carmen Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew asks any schools that are interested in the program to submit forms by this Thursday. By then, the schools must be able to list which contract rules or department regulations they are looking to alter. The schools must also describe how their administrators and teachers have collaborated previously and how interested their staff members are in participating in the new program.

The quick turnaround time for schools looking to participate in the program, which was established in the teachers contract that was ratified just last week, is one of several tight deadlines that schools must meet as they start to carry out the contract’s new rules and try to take part in its new initiatives.

City and union officials have ballyhooed the program as a way for district schools to take advantage of the flexibility that charter schools enjoy in order to try out new ideas.

“Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities,” read Friday’s joint letter.

Officials have already begun reaching out to individual schools or groups of schools with similar approaches that they think would be a good fit for the program. The contract sets a goal of enrolling 200 schools in the program over the next five years, but the letter makes clear that the first batch of schools will be small, since they have had limited time to come up with ideas.

Schools that express interest in the program by this Thursday will be told by the following Monday if they should submit “brief” applications, according to a UFT timeline. Schools will be notified by June 20 whether a joint city-UFT committee has approved their proposals.

If a school’s plan is approved, the principal and at least 65 percent of the staff must vote to move forward with the plan.

Here is the full letter that the Department of Education posted on its internal website on Friday (the union sent a similar letter to its school chapter leaders):

Dear Colleagues,

We are pleased to invite you to apply to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program.

Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities. The opportunities for innovative practices PROSE will provide are based on our shared belief that the solutions for the challenges faced by our city’s schools can be found within our school communities themselves, rooted in the expertise of those who practice our profession every day.

The PROSE program may not be right for every school. Many of our schools are thriving just as they are. At some schools, however, staff, leadership, parents, and other stakeholders want to work together to create and expand innovative approaches for supporting student success. For those schools, PROSE offers the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which schools function, which are currently defined by the collective bargaining agreement and by Chancellor’s regulations – including but not limited to the ways teachers are selected, evaluated, and supported; programming for students and teachers; the handling of grievances at the school level; the selection of the principal and other administrators; and the use of technology to support teacher development and student learning. The UFT and DOE would also consider seeking relief from the state when worthy plans cannot be implemented under current statewide regulations.

Schools that are interested in implementing the PROSE program beginning in September 2014 must submit a letter of intent by June 12. We encourage groups of schools to apply together using one letter of intent; however, each school’s School Leadership Team, principal, and staff must vote to approve the model individually. While the PROSE program will eventually accommodate up to 200 schools, we expect that a smaller number will be approved in this initial round through an expedited application process.

The key for successful participation in the PROSE program will be the extent to which schools’ proposed initiatives are driven by teachers, school leaders, and other school community members, working collaboratively to focus on excellence for students. Proposals will be submitted to a central committee staffed equally by the UFT and DOE, and only the plans which come from school communities with a proven record of collaboration and a strong potential to impact student success will be accepted. Accepted proposals must then be approved by at least 65% of the UFT members who vote at the school, as well as by the school principal.

Whether you are interested in applying for this year, are hoping to use 2014-2015 as a planning year, or are just interested in more information, click here <> . During the 2014-15 school year, the DOE and UFT will offer a series of planning meetings and workshops which will offer information about the program.

We are encouraged by the enthusiastic responses we have already received from many schools about PROSE, and are looking forward to working with our city’s educators and school communities to launch this exciting new program.


Carmen Fariña

Michael Mulgrew
President, United Federation of Teachers

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.