Turnaround Tactics

At Boys and Girls HS, struggling students urged to transfer, sources say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Calvin Brown, Jr., 17, was the junior class president and debate team captain at Boys and Girls HS. But after a new principal arrived, he said he was pressured to transfer out.

Calvin Brown, Jr. enrolled at Boys and Girls High School midway through his sophomore year after falling behind at a nearby charter school. Though the Bedford-Stuyvesant high school is considered one of the city’s worst, Brown thrived there.

He became the junior class president last year and the captain of the debate team, which is set to travel to South Africa next month for a competition. He had entered the school with just seven credits, but as he started his senior year this September he had three times that amount — still half as many as he needs to graduate, but he was catching up.

Then, after the school’s outspoken principal resigned last month, the city installed a new leader to turn around the troubled school. Under new principal Michael Wiltshire, students who are missing many credits or otherwise unlikely to graduate this year have been encouraged to transfer out, according to Brown and staffers at the school. Brown was one of the students urged to leave.

“They made me transfer,” said Brown, 17. “They don’t want me on the Boys and Girls roster.”

Leaders ordered to overhaul struggling high schools like Boys and Girls have limited options. They may try to retrain teachers or add tutoring time, but city regulations and the teachers union contract can stop them from taking more drastic steps. But one significant change they can make is to quietly adjust the school’s student population by advising underachieving students to transfer out.

Principals who have done that argue it is in the students’ best interest, since the alternative high schools where they land are designed to help students who are chronically absent and missing credits to graduate. But struggling high schools under intense pressure to improve also benefit by nudging out those students, since the schools are judged partly by their graduation rates.

Whether principals should treat student transfers as a turnaround strategy may come up for debate as the leaders of more than 90 low-performing schools try to make improvements under a new city program launched this week. The program gives schools extra support, but does not allow for immediate staffing changes or restructuring.

People at Boys and Girls High School say that about 30 students have transferred out since Wiltshire took over three weeks ago. Many of the students moved to Research and Service High School, an alternative school in the same building, according to an employee there.

“Since the administration change took place,” the employee said, “it seems like there’s some sort of mass exodus going on.”

Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources say.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources said.

One of Wiltshire’s first moves was to summon to the auditorium all the older students who were behind academically and let them know their odds of graduating could improve if they switched schools, according to Brown and other sources at Boys and Girls. He also said that students would now be expected to earn diplomas in four years, otherwise the school would help them find new placements, Brown said. (Last year, just 44 percent of Boys and Girls students hit the four-year graduation target.)

After the talk, a guidance counselor asked to meet with Brown and his father last week. In the past, Brown and the counselor had discussed ways he could make up his missing credits and still graduate from Boys and Girls, Brown said. But at this meeting, the counselor said Brown had too few credits and should transfer to an alternative school, Brown said. Convinced that he had to leave, Brown and his father reluctantly agreed to the move.

“Why don’t you take the kids who have problems and deal with them instead of pushing them out?” said Mary Saxon, Brown’s grandmother, who also spoke with the counselor. She said she told the counselor that her grandson wanted to remain at Boys and Girls, but the counselor said, “He has to go.”

A staffer said the school had occasionally advised off-track students to switch schools in the past, but never this “aggressively.” Because of Boys and Girls’ chronic low performance, the state has designated it as “out of time” and ordered it to show signs of improvement this year. Removing students who are far behind in school appears to be part of Wiltshire’s plan to produce a higher graduation rate, according to the staffer and Caster Hall, the school’s parent association president.

“The new principal is trying to kick out all the students who don’t have enough credits to get his graduation rate up,” said Hall, who is the brother of the principal who resigned. “It’s all about the numbers.”

Wiltshire did not respond to emails or phone messages, and school guidance counselors referred questions to the education department.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye would not comment on the situation at Boys and Girls. But she said that students should be in schools that best meet their needs, which can include transfer schools, the small alternative high schools designed for dropouts and students struggling to graduate.

“The DOE would never tolerate a student being forced out of any school,” she added.

The matter is especially delicate at Boys and Girls, which was the subject of a class action lawsuit a decade ago alleging that the school warehoused troublesome students in the auditorium as a way to push them out.

Brown’s claim — that he was pressured to transfer to another school— differs from the 2005 lawsuit, which alleged that the school’s actions drove students to drop out of school completely, said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that helped file the lawsuit. (As part of a 2008 settlement, the city agreed to put Boys and Girls under the oversight of a monitor for several years and make sure the school got approval before transferring students.)

Still, Brown’s situation highlights a common problem, Shore said. Students have the right to remain in school until the end of the year they turn 21, and administrators must follow strict protocols to make students switch schools against their will. But administrators sometimes work around those rules by convincing students that they will not graduate from their current school, and so should transfer to an alternative school, Shore said.

“It comes off in theory as the student wanting this and consenting,” she said. “But really, it’s more of the school pushing the student out.”

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.

If Wiltshire’s plan to improve Boys and Girls involves convincing some challenging students to transfer out, he would not be the first turnaround principal to try that approach.

Evan Schwartz was sent to Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx two years ago with orders from the city to make drastic changes. One of his first actions was to encourage older students who regularly skipped class and were far behind in credits to switch schools.

“I moved 100 kids in my first four months,” he said.

Schwartz notes that the city created alternative schools to serve so-called overage, under-credited students like the ones who left his school. Transfer schools, for example, tend to have smaller classes, extra social workers, and accelerated programs that let such students earn credits quickly in order to graduate. Other programs offer evening classes and paid internships.

Schwartz emphasized that he never forced lagging students to leave. Rather, he explained to the students that other schools were designed to help them catch up but, if they decided to stay at Smith, they could no longer cut class and ignore the rules.

Still, Schwartz said that it was crucial to get those students into a different school if he was going to improve Smith. Many of them were 19 years old, far behind academically, and only interested in wandering the halls and lunchroom, he said.

“You don’t want kids like that in the school,” Schwartz said. “It makes it hard to change the culture.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.