open house

District leaders look under the hood of a Success Academy

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
School leaders from charter and district schools visited Success Academy Harlem 5 on Thursday.

At Success Academy Harlem 5, students were under a microscope on Thursday — though that wasn’t out of the ordinary for its elementary schoolers.

In most of the school’s classrooms, clipboard-toting assistants make sure students stay on task. Standing off to the side as students work, they praise and critique at a near-constant clip.

“Put the text flat on your lap,” one assistant told a student in a reading class on Thursday, taking notes. “That’s a check.”

The practice, known as “narrating,” is one of the many ways that the Success Academy school works to keep students focused during the school day. The meticulous attention paid to the details of student and teachers’ behavior — alternately credited with the network’s high test scores and derided as too regimented — was on display for 20 principals and administrators who attended a tour and training session hosted by Success, the city’s largest charter school network.

Some were from district schools, and the public invitation was seen as a gesture toward greater collaboration from Success and also as a chance to score some political points. Success schools have a history of clashing with district schools with which they share city-owned buildings, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies have criticized charter schools for not serving their fair share of high-need students. City officials have repeatedly said that charter schools need to open their doors and do more to share best practices.

“Keeping in mind that charter schools’ original purpose was to share innovative practices, we also need them to come to the table and tell us what they’re doing,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week.

But most of the morning in Harlem felt comfortably distant from the political maelstrom that can seem permanently attached to Success Academy and its founder Eva Moskowitz, who has waged a public battle with de Blasio over his ambivalence over charter schools.

School leaders from 41 charter schools and 22 district schools signed up to visit one of two Success schools that were part of the tours, a spokesperson said. They came from the city’s other large charter networks, like Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First, and from as far away as Albany. The group even included the principal of a district school that shares space with a Success Academy in the Bronx.

“We get along,” said the principal, who despite her friendly relationship with Success asked that her name not be used. “But it’s good to come and see if somebody is doing [something] different.”

Michaela Daniel, a top education policy adviser to Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and who formerly served as director of operations of an Uncommon charter school, also attended.

The visitors probed all aspects of the growing elementary school,where 97 percent of 165 third- and fourth- graders earned a proficient score in on the state math exams and 68 percent earned a proficient English score last year, when city averages were 34 percent in math and 29 percent in English. Of last year’s test-takers, 92 students were third-graders and 73 were in fourth grade.

Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he's observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he’s observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.

In focus was Success’ feedback-obsessed culture, in which someone was frequently assisting the assistants. On Thursday morning, assistant principal Lavinia Mackall stepped in to tell the rookie teacher taking notes in the reading class that he was narrating a bit too loudly.

“I noticed that he was speaking in a tone that was almost as loud as the instruction that was going on,” Mackall recalled after.

During a guided reading portion of another English class, Principal Khari Shabazz interrupted and asked a teacher to repeat her instructions to make her directive more “kid-centered” before the class turned to work.

She had initially begun by saying, “‘When I am reading, I am going to be thinking about,’” Shabazz said. “So I told her just to rephrase and make sure that they are part of that conversation.”

What made that kind of interaction possible without disrupting the lesson, Shabazz and teachers said, was the school’s rigid structure. Classes are meticulously planned, and teachers huddle beforehand to consider how students might get stuck.

The real-time feedback caught the visitors’ attention.

“I usually sit back  and let the teacher go through the lesson and then we conversate after,” said Lynn Staton, who has served as the principal of P.S. 36 in southeastern Queens for nine years. “But I do see the value of standing next to the teacher and moving along with them.”

Also on display was the school’s approach to discipline, something for which Success schools have been criticized. If a student tallies up enough checks on the assistant teacher’s clipboard, he or she must spend time away from the class. One student, who a teacher said had refused to complete a worksheet, was told to remain seated at his desk in the back of the classroom as his peers moved to a work on a rug at the front of the room.

Discipline on display: A student in a Success Academy Harlem 5 classroom was told to stay seated while the rest of the class worked out a math problem on the rug.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Discipline on display: A student was told to stay seated while the rest of his classmates moved to the rug to work on a math problem on the rug.

Most of the school leaders said they were impressed with the back and forth between Shabazz, Mackall, and their teachers, though others questioned whether the students they saw were overly restrained. Several requested access to the school’s schedule and curriculum in order to apply some parts of the Success model to their own schools.

Shabazz ended the morning session with a statement that underscored what stokes the interest in, and controversy around, Success Academy’s schools. Asked about his school’s test scores, Shabazz quickly pointed out that his students outperformed their peers down the hall.

“No disrespect,” Shabazz said, “but just to give you a sense of the school that I share space with, I don’t think more than 3 percent of those kids passed.”

In fact, 4 percent of P.S. 123’s students earned proficient scores in math, and 8 percent earned proficient English scores last year. But to Shabazz, the details were less important than the gap between the two schools’ performance.

“I think it’s important to think about when you talk about what is really possible,” he said.

Success Academy Principal Khari Shabazz’s coaches teachers in real time from Chalkbeat New York on Vimeo.

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.