data preview

Researcher says city's charter schools aren't pushing students out, though other cities' are

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Richard Kahlenberg discusses charter schools at the Hunter College's Roosevelt House in Manhattan on Tuesday.

A charter school researcher says an upcoming study will clear New York City charter schools from criticism that they systematically “push out” high-needs students.

“I can say there is definitive evidence of some cities in the U.S. of ‘pushout’ and that New York City is not one of them,” said Macke Raymond, director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

That takeaway was offered by Raymond on Tuesday night as she spoke about a CREDO study that she is overseeing. Raymond said the research, comparing the performance of charter schools in 45 cities, would likely be released in October. (Raymond also warned the audience that she hadn’t verified all of the data with the New York State Education Department.)

Raymond, speaking at a panel discussion about charter schools hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, didn’t offer other details about the study or mention the cities where charter schools were found to be the worst offenders. But the finding could become another significant data point in an ongoing debate about charter schools, which have long faced criticism for serving lower percentages of students with special needs.

As director of CREDO, Raymond has been researching charter school results for more than five years. Her work includes an influential 2009 study that found a majority of charter school students in 15 states and Washington, D.C. performed as well as or worse than their peers in traditional schools.

That study also found that New York City charter schools were an exception to that trend. An update to that study, in 2013, upheld that finding and found charter schools had surpassed traditional public schools in reading gains and pulled even in math, progress that Raymond attributed in part to charter management organizations.

Raymond let the detail about her latest comparisons slip toward the end of the 90-minute discussion on Tuesday night, which included Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Hunter College Professor Joseph Viteritti, the state’s former charter school chief Sally Bachofer, and John Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More broadly, panelists agreed that the city’s charter sector would continue to grow in the short term. A new state law virtually ensures that the sector will continue to add schools without past restraints around funding for space, and dozens of new schools are in the pipeline to open in the next several years.

Where there was less certainty was how Mayor Bill de Blasio will confront that growth. Viteritti said that however de Blasio has felt about charter schools in the past, he won’t be able to ignore the specifics for much longer.

In particular, Viteritti said, de Blasio needs to offer a clear plan for tackling controversial issues like how charter schools share space with traditional schools. The department has announced small changes to the way the school building space is allotted, but city officials have promised more sweeping changes to the way decisions are made about dramatic school-space changes.

“If Bill de Blasio has a better policy on co-location, which he seems to have, he needs to say what it is,” Viteritti said.

The panelists agreed that charter schools had come up short in acting as laboratories for new ideas that could be spread to other schools, as former union chief Albert Shanker first imagined charter schools. (De Blasio has spoken frequently of that vision for charter schools, too.)

But they disagreed on whether that was a bad thing. Bachofer, who reviewed hundreds of charter applications as head of the State Education Department’s charter schools office, said she was never impressed when school leaders said they prioritized intraschool partnership.

“I’d rather have a great school than a school that collaborates” but whose students aren’t being well-served, Bachofer said.

Viteritti said public schools haven’t proven to be much better at learning from one another, but he hoped that de Blasio could change that. Kahlenberg said one way they could work together is to do a better job of diversifying the city’s charter school student population, which is mostly made up of low-income black and Hispanic students. The ability to set aside seats for certain student populations in admissions lotteries, Kahlenberg said, offers “great opportunity.”

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.