rookie of the year

First-year principal wins $25,000 to scale up collaborative teaching

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
James Madison High School Principal Jodie Cohen wins the 2014 Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn prize.

It didn’t take long for Jodie Cohen to distinguish herself when she became principal of James Madison High School last year.

After just one year in charge, Cohen bested over 150 principals to win the 2014 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, an award that recognizes school leaders who jump-start successful initiatives at their schools. The prize includes a $25,000 check, sponsored by education nonprofit Teaching Matters, to be used to continue and expand their initiative.

Despite her rookie status, Cohen already knew the 3,100-student school well. She graduated from the Marine Park high school in 1989 and spent 21 years working there as a teacher and assistant principal.

But that in some ways made the job more intimidating, Cohen said on Thursday at an award ceremony with other finalists and their staffs. As the school’s new boss, she had to observe and evaluate one senior teacher who had taught her when she was a student.

“Here I am, grading them on 22 components,” said Cohen, referring to the skills that principals had to rate teachers on this year. “So, it was interesting.”

But extra classroom visits, required by the new evaluation system, is actually what helped Cohen identify the best instructional practices, she said. She used those teachers to create “model classrooms” and began urging others to visit.

“It’s not that the other teachers aren’t succeeding, but more often than not, you don’t know what’s going on in the room next door to you,” Cohen said.

Madison High School’s collaborative model fits what the Department of Education is trying to do with 72 schools through its Learning Partners Program, which encourages schools to visit one another to learn what’s working elsewhere. Cohen said she planned to apply, but didn’t think she was ready this year.

“That was a lot of commitment on our part,” she said. “We would have to allow people to visit. We do want to do that next year, but we really just wanted to ease in a little bit more.”

At Madison, one example was special education teacher Connie Hickey, who saw problems with how students with disabilities were being served in general education classrooms. Special education teachers shared the class with subject-area teachers, but the co-teaching model was disjointed and their work was isolating. 

“It tended to be, well, I’ll teach one day, you teach the next,” Hickey said. “It wasn’t working.”

Hickey and a social studies teacher worked well together at integrating special education students into their classroom. So Cohen made their classroom into a model for others to visit.

Still, it was up to Cohen to actually get teachers to visit, and she quickly realized her advocacy alone wasn’t going to work in a building with 130 teachers. To build excitement around the practice, she promoted the visits in a weekly newsletter and created a calendar to schedule visiting times.

Cohen said she plans to spend some of the $25,000 prize money to pay staff who have to put in extra hours as part of the program. Larry Melamed, an English teacher, public relations pro and grant writer for the school, is going to manage next year’s schedule for the entire school.

Cohen hired Melamed for another reason this year: to improve what Cohen referred to as the school’s “weird reputation,” caused by a small number of teachers whose scandalous behavior was gleefully chronicled by the city’s tabloids.

“That’s not what Madison High School’s all about,” she said.

Cohen’s transition was probably a lot smoother than it is for many first-year principals. She was popular among teachers as an assistant principal, so they welcomed her promotion. Also, the majority of students come from surrounding neighborhoods and few come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. And most of the staff are seasoned educators who stay at Madison for much of their careers, so the staff had most of the ingredients needed to quickly adopt Cohen’s vision.

“All the teachers want to learn, want to do better at what they do and all they needed was a principal who fosters that learning,” said Hickey.

The Rohatyn prize is in its fourth year and named after the founder of Teaching Matters. Past winners include Salvador Fernandez, of I.S. 52 in Inwood, Rose Kerr, of Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, and Jeanne Rotunda, of West Side Collaborative.

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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.