firing back

Charter CEO: Fariña has 'obligation' to release data after push-out claims

Some charter school leaders are taking a quieter approach to lobbying the de Blasio administration. Here, posters from a charter schools rally in October.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman is challenging Chancellor Carmen Fariña to prove that some charter schools have illicit enrollment practices, after she claimed schools were bending the rules on Thursday.

After Fariña suggested that some charter schools were pushing kids out ahead of state tests and selectively recruiting high-performing students, Merriman fired back with a 400-word statement that called on the chancellor to use her authority to investigate her suspicions. Merriman said that the center had “no evidence” that charters counseled out students before testing.

“The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well,” he said. “I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.”

“To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city,” he said, adding that corrective action should be taken in schools where there is evidence of improper discharging of students.

The response was unusually forceful, given that Fariña has cultivated a cordial relationship with many charter schools even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has more frequently clashed with the charter sector.

A spokeswoman for Fariña emailed Thursday night to temper the chancellor’s remarks, which came during a brief talk with reporters.

“The Chancellor believes schools should share best practices, serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities—and together, we will move our City forward,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “As she stated in her remarks, Chancellor Fariña sits on the NYC Charter School Center Board and is committed to working closely with all stakeholders who are invested in improving student outcomes.”

Kaye did not say if Fariña would authorize the release of student discharge data that Merriman called for.

Fariña, a voting board member of Merriman’s organization, has visited many charter schools — focusing on those serving large shares of high-needs students — and brought a few into her signature initiative, the Learning Partners Program.

Merriman called her a “valued member of the board for whose services I and the other board members are very grateful.”

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible,” he added. “This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

In his response, Merriman also took issue with Fariña’s suggestion that some charter schools recruit students based on academic achievement, a practice that would be against state charter law. Fariña said charters should fill open seats with more than “just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

“If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken,” Merriman said.

Merriman acknowledged that charter schools should enroll more students with disabilities and English language learners, a disparity that Fariña also highlighted. But he said the chancellor should also call attention to “far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees,” referring to screened district schools that select students based on factors like test scores and attendance.

Merriman’s full statement is below:

“This morning, Chancellor Fariña made some very serious allegations about the charter school sector and  they require a detailed response.

“First, we have seen no evidence that charter schools are counseling children out prior to test time as she has suggested is a not uncommon practice. The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well. I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.  To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city.  Where the data shows such a pattern for any school, corrective action should be instituted immediately.

“Second, the Chancellor also seems to have alleged that at least some charter schools, all of which enroll their students via random lottery, are selecting students based on test scores. We have seen no evidence of this, either at the beginning of the year or anytime thereafter. While selecting students based on their academic achievement is a wide-spread practice throughout the district, charter schools cannot do so.  If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken.

“Third, Chancellor Fariña rightly called on charter schools to enroll more students receiving special education services and English Language Learners.  The NYC Charter School Center, together with many charter school leaders, has made access to charter schools for these children a priority; and there is more work for us to do.  However, in calling out charter schools, Chancellor Fariña inexplicably ignores far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees.  We and many others have documented the startling differences among district schools that are in close geographic proximity, not only in the numbers of students receiving special education services and who are English Language Learners, but also even more perniciously by race and class.

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible.  This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

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.