Health and Happiness

On community school tour, Fariña finds signs of success beyond test scores

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña roamed the halls of P.S. 5 in Inwood Thursday morning, marveling at the suite of academic and support services it provides students and their families, just one day after the city announced that dozens of other schools will begin to offer such services next year.

Fariña smiled at children in an early-learning program as they lifted a colored parachute, and inspected artwork that students and their families created together during evening workshops. She stopped by a medical clinic where children receive asthma medication and immunization shots, and she chatted about literacy with parents who were meeting in the school, which offers adult education courses.

By extending its reach beyond the classroom with the help of a nonprofit partner, the school has drawn in parents and fostered healthier, happier students who show up for class at high rates, Fariña said after her tour. The city is hoping for similar outcomes at 40 schools that officials announced Wednesday will split a four-year, $52 million state grant to bring a similar range of support services and learning programs to their campuses.

The city is aiming to boost student attendance and reduce the number of dropouts at the schools that will add the services. While those shifts could in turn bolster students’ classroom performance, officials are not promising immediate academic gains.

“Are you going to get a one-year growth in reading scores immediately?” Fariña said Thursday. “Not necessarily.”

As P.S. 5, for instance, which has offered robust medical and other services for two decades, students score well below the citywide averages on state exams, records show. But Fariña said such measures cannot be the only yardstick for the success of schools with robust services, which are known as community schools.

“That’s why we have to look at something beyond the test scores,” she said. “These kids are in a happy place, a healthy place.”

Schools that struggle with high rates of student absenteeism can apply to receive the grant money, which will pay for a full-time coordinator at each school to bring in outside groups to provide services. Those services can include college-preparation classes, arts programs, tutoring, and physical and mental health services for students, as well as classes and other programs for families.

The city and the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society jointly founded P.S. 5 in 1993 to act as a community school. The school offers preschool classes, after-school and summer programs, and English-language courses for parents. About 90 percent of students make use of the school’s built-in health clinic with its full-time nurse, visiting physician and dentist, and regular vision and mental health screenings.

Wanda Soto, the school’s principal for the past 15 years, said all the supports lead students to view the school as a “safe haven” whose classes they are eager to attend. The school’s average attendance rate this year is 93 percent.

The school’s programs “give children poise, structure, responsibility,” Soto said.

Despite signs of student and parent investment in the school, many students have not performed well on the state’s annual standardized tests.

Last year, less than 10 percent of students passed the state English exams, compared to 26 percent of students citywide. In math, 16.4 percent of P.S. 5 students passed, compared to 30 percent across the city. The school’s scores were also far below the city averages in 2012 and 2011.

Soto pointed out that nearly half of the school’s students are still learning English, while less than 15 percent all students in the city school system are English-language learners. She added that classroom assessments and student-work portfolios show that students are making academic progress.

While the city will not judge the success of the community schools program based solely on student test scores, officials are still hoping to see students perform better in school as their attendance rates improve and their physical and mental health needs are addressed.

The United Way of New York City, which will help the city manage the program, will track students’ academic performance at the participating schools in addition to their attendance rates, according to United Way CEO Sheena Wright.

“There is an absolute, direct correlation between improving attendance and academic success in school,” Wright said. Still, she acknowledged that the state grant funding the program is focused on student attendance and is not directly aimed at enhancing teaching and learning at the schools.

“If you have bad instruction” at a school, Wright said, “you’re not going to improve your academic performance.”

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.