a new plan

It’s official: Networks dead, regional support to return, sups to exert more control at struggling schools

Updated — Networks are dead and regional support centers are back, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Thursday, in her biggest reversal of Bloomberg-era education policy yet.

The new structure eliminates the 55 networks that have provided operations and academic support to schools. In their place will be seven Borough Field Support Centers, which will be tasked with helping schools with instruction, operations, counseling, and supporting students with special needs. They centers will open this summer and the system will launch next school year.

But the centerpiece of the new structure will be superintendents, who will have six staff members, including family engagement officers and a “principal‎ leadership facilitator,” according to the city. That represents a major power reversal, since superintendents have had only a handful of helpers in recent years and served mainly to evaluate principals.

The changes will clarify lines of authority for schools and parents alike by putting superintendents back in charge of supporting and evaluating schools, Fariña said at a forum hosted by the Association for a Better New York.

“The central element of our new approach is creating clear accountability,” she said, “and giving superintendents the authority and resources they need to improve what happens in our schools and in our classrooms.”

Fariña was careful to note that most principals will keep control of their hiring and budgets, and credited the Bloomberg administration for giving principals needed autonomy.

A white paper also released by the city on Thursday said the pre-Bloomberg Board of Education and community school boards “were rife with patronage, inefficiency and ineffective bureaucracy. That is why this administration believes so strongly in the reforms of the last administration that put the schools under the control of the Mayor and Chancellor, and ultimately gave more independence to principals.”

But that independence often left struggling schools without enough guidance, Fariña said, adding that the city’s lowest performing schools will not retain that full authority. Instead, they will receive “customized direction and support” and will also be expected to use consistent teaching methods.

Fariña said a few of the nonprofit groups and universities that run existing networks will be allowed to continue supporting their schools, but they will now fall under the oversight of superintendents. She named a few of those groups — New Visions for Public Schools, the Urban Assembly, and CUNY — but not others, suggesting that some could lose their role helping to manage city schools. City officials later said that they are still in discussion with all of the groups, known as Partnership Support Organizations, about what role they will play in the new system.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the organizations, renamed “affinity groups,” will be held accountable for, what type of superintendent they would report to, and whether all of the PSOs would be interested in such a role, which would limit their influence.

The new structure marks the end of the decentralized structure that emerged after years of reshuffling and experimentation under the Bloomberg administration. The networks spanned multiple boroughs and typically worked with principals at about 25 schools each, a structure that earned mixed reviews over the years. Many principals said the ability to choose their network and work closely with like-minded colleagues was important.

The network system’s harshest critics pointed out that it left low-performing schools with too little oversight and parents without local officials to turn to, two problems Fariña said would be improved under the new system.

Superintendents have been gaining clout for months under Fariña, herself a former superintendent. After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña gave them new responsibility to interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told them to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

Teachers, parents, principals, advocates: What do you think of the changes? Tell us in a one-minute survey.

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.