calling out

Chancellor Fariña implies some charter schools boosting scores by pushing out students

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Chancellor Carmen Fariña implied Thursday that some city charter schools prop up their state test scores by encouraging students to enroll elsewhere late in the school year.

“There shouldn’t be a whole movement out of charters the month before the test,” Fariña told reporters on Thursday morning. The well-timed attrition is not happening at all schools, she said, adding, “It happens in some places.”

Though she has expressed concerns about charter schools in the past, Fariña’s comments were perhaps the most provocative she has lobbed at the charter sector since taking over the school system. Her comments echo longstanding critiques of charter schools — which serve a smaller percentage of students with disabilities and English language learners than district schools do, and aren’t required to take new students mid-year — though higher-than-average student attrition from charter schools hasn’t been borne out by recent research.

[Update: Charter Center CEO says Fariña has ‘obligation’ to release enrollment data after push-out claims]

Fariña made the comments after speaking to Partnership for New York City President and CEO Kathryn Wylde at a conference on Thursday. In her conversation with Wylde, Fariña ticked off ways she supports charter schools, including school visits, inviting them into her Learning Partners Program, and inviting them to the city’s professional development sessions.

“Where we need to do more work is better transparency,” Fariña said.

Asked to elaborate after the talk, she said she was concerned that charter schools look to replace students who leave with only students with top test scores.

She said she wants “to ensure that, as there are openings in upper grades, that the kids that are accepted in are not just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

Fariña doesn’t oversee most of the city’s charter schools, which are independent from the Department of Education and enroll students through lotteries. But she serves on the board of the New York City Charter School Center and, as the city’s top education official, her public statements on the issue are closely monitored.

Fariña isn’t the only high-ranking education leader to say that more attention should be paid to charter schools’ enrollment practices. Last year, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch urged state education officials to create a “stability index” that would flag suspicious trends like high student discharge rates right before state testing. (A spokesman for the State Education Department could not immediately say whether that metric had been developed.) Earlier this month, Tisch agreed with Fariña’s calls for more transparency on a panel with State Education Commissioner John King.

When students leave charter schools in the middle of the year, many end up in district schools, which can put a new burden on the school charged with getting the student adjusted. Whether charter schools lose students at a higher rate than district schools has been the subject of a number of recent analyses.

A 2012 SchoolBook analysis looked at three years’ worth of student discharge data and found that average student mobility rates were lower for charter schools than they were for traditional public schools, though turnover was higher in some charter-heavy districts. Last year, the Independent Budget Office looked at attrition in lower grades for all city schools and released similar findings.

Another study, released in 2013 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, looked at 25 charter elementary schools and concluded that the special-ed gap was caused by parents’ enrollment choices, not students being pushed out.

None of those studies looked at when during the year students exited a school.

If Fariña is serious about probing charter schools’ enrollment data more deeply, she could make it happen as the city schools chancellor, said Ray Domanico, the director of education research at the IBO. The department tracks student discharges from district and charter schools by date, he said.

The debate over charter schools will be amplified in the coming months with the state legislature expected to consider lifting a cap on the number of schools allowed to open in the city. As in 2010, when the cap was last lifted, the conversation is likely to include calls for schools to enroll more high-needs students.

On Thursday, Fariña said she wants to see more attention on those issues.

“We need to make sure that, when you say that these are the kids that are enrolled through the lottery,” Fariña said, “that these are the kids you graduate.”

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.