Network Outage

To some principals, rise of superintendents signals decline of networks

Officially, principals are still awaiting word from the city about the future of “networks,” the Bloomberg-era support teams designed to help principals do everything from train teachers to manage budgets.

But to many, the writing is on the wall: Networks as they know them are finished.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this, according to several principals and network officials, is the resurgence of superintendents, the education department field commanders who were sidelined by the previous administration in an attempt to give principals greater autonomy. Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the superintendents have been rehired and retrained, and are now meeting individually with principals, weighing in on instructional matters, and hosting training sessions — activities that until now had been under the purview of networks.

Meanwhile, some school and network leaders say they have heard that networks could soon lose their role assisting schools with budget and operational issues, leaving them as little more than coaches, or “professional developers,” in school parlance. While Fariña is not slated to announce her new system for supporting schools until next month, she appeared to confirm some of the speculation about the networks’ diminishing authority in an interview Monday.

“I think the people in networks who are professional developers will be professional developers. We’re never going to lose that,” she told Chalkbeat. But she added that superintendents, whose main reason for visiting schools in recent years has been to rate principals, will now play a much greater part in guiding them.

“I think having the person who evaluates you be the person who supports you is very important, and that’s really what the superintendents will be doing,” she said.

The network system’s many critics, including some principals who find them ineffective, welcome the changes. But some who cherish their self-selected networks, which offer assistance to principals but can’t command or sanction them, dread the return to a superintendent-led system.

“A lot of us are nervous,” said one principal, who like other school and network leaders would only speak anonymously about possible policy changes. “The signs point to networks may no longer exist — certainly not in this form.”

After several reorganizations, the Bloomberg administration eventually settled on a system of nearly 60 support networks, which principals could choose from and that took over many of the duties once overseen by superintendents. The superintendents technically remained principals’ bosses, but their role was reduced mainly to conducting formal evaluations and their staffs shrank from dozens to a handful.

Under Fariña, herself a former superintendent, that position is regaining its clout.

After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña began to hold hour-long, one-on-one meetings with each of the more than 40 superintendents to explain their revamped roles. They were given new responsibilities — interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

“To me, the superintendents are huge,” Fariña said Monday. “Having people in the field that I can trust, that have my same belief system, that are going to be in schools all the time, is important.”

A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.

The superintendents have started to hire new staffers, including instructional experts to help evaluate the 60 or so schools that some superintendents oversee. They have also started to host district-wide meetings, which all but disappeared under the network system. While the meetings vary by superintendent, some principals have complained about ones held during the school day, where some say they have sat through talks by curriculum vendors and, in one case, Miss New York.

“I can’t speak enough to the lack of quality or purpose” at those meetings, one principal said.

Principals who value their networks worry that the rise of superintendents may signal the decline of networks.

To those principals, the network system empowered them to choose the type of support they wanted from experts who, unlike superintendents, would not also evaluate them. They also enabled school leaders in the same network to interact with like-minded colleagues outside their geographic districts. One principal in a high-needs Brooklyn district said she not only gets advice from her counterparts who lead successful schools in better-off districts, but also receives donated books and furniture from them.

“I’ve gotten an immense amount of support from other principals in my network,” the school leader said.

Predictably, some network officials are upset by the changes.

Some say that principals are now receiving dueling messages from networks and superintendents about how to run their schools, but that the school leaders feel compelled to defer to the will of their bosses, the superintendents. They also say that network staffers are starting to consider new jobs.

“There are a number of people on network teams who are being recruited to central jobs,” one network leader said, referring to positions within the city education department. “There are other people who are actively looking.”

Of course, the network system’s many critics — including some state officials and union leaders — have called for an overhaul since before Fariña was appointed.

They argue that some networks are spread too thin trying to assist schools in multiple boroughs, while others let struggling schools limp along without extra help. Others say the system leaves principals without clear supervisors and parents without officials they can appeal to.

Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School in the Upper East Side, said the network system is “too scattered,” adding it can keep principals in the same neighborhood who are in different networks from collaborating. During her 34 years working in the school system, the most help she ever received was from her one-time superintendent, she said.

“He knew every one of his 41 schools, and his deputy visited even more often,” she said. “They were always there to support you and assist you.”

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.