push back

At widespread anti-Cuomo protests, parents and teachers to join hands

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

The seeds for the more than 80 protests that will break out at schools across the city Thursday were planted in January.

That’s when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would link a potential boost in state education funding to a series of controversial policy changes, including tying teacher evaluations more closely to student test results, raising the charter-school cap, and placing consistently low-performing schools in the hands of outside groups. Before and after school Thursday, a number of advocacy groups — led largely by anti-testing advocates and later joined by the city teachers union — plan to join hands and form human chains around school buildings in what organizers say is a symbol of their displeasure with those ideas.

“That was the moment,” Danielle Boudet, an upstate education advocate and one of the organizers of the rallies, said of Cuomo’s announcement. “People were fighting from their own individual circles, but his agenda has galvanized all those groups.”

For the union, the rallies serves as another skirmish in the public-facing battle with Cuomo over evaluations, teacher tenure rules, and overall funding levels. City teachers union president Michael Mulgrew and his predecessor, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, will speak at the morning rally at Park Slope’s P.S. 10, which is known for its presence in the movement to opt out of state tests. The pair will also attend P.S. 200’s afternoon rally in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

While the nearly 100 participating schools are largely concentrated in Brooklyn’s District 15, rallies will also be held at schools across the rest of that borough, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, according to organizers.

Similar to recent forums focused on opting out of state testing, participating schools are concentrated in higher-performing districts, with some exceptions. More than half of the participating schools are in the city’s 10 highest performing districts on the state’s math or English exams.

Slightly less than one-third of the schools are either in the city’s lowest performing districts on state tests. Two of the participating schools are in the city’s Renewal program, and only one of the participating schools is in the Bronx.

The idea for the small, widespread protests featuring the camera-ready formations of parents and teachers “protecting” their schools started with smaller groups of parents.

Boudet serves on the steering committee of the New York State Allies for Public Education, a group whose members push back against the rising frequency of testing in schools. Shortly after Cuomo’s remarks in January, the group began to brainstorm ways to oppose the governor’s focus on standardized testing and pull in support from those concerned with other portions of his agenda. Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson, who serves on the Allies steering committee with Boudet, brought the idea of the human chains to the United Federation of Teachers at a planning meeting in February.

The rallies are being organized before and after school hours, in a knock to the charter school sector’s rally last week for which schools bused hundreds of students to Albany, Haimson said.

“We can’t ask public schools to close,” Haimson said. “I thought the idea of protecting our schools would be a very good contrast to the charter schools.”

Cuomo’s proposal to increase the influence of student test scores in teacher evaluations has also angered some of the same parents who rallied against testing last year. The governor’s plan will invariably lead to teaching to the test, they said.

“A year ago or so things looked like they were moving in the opposite direction on testing,” said Dan Janzen, PTA president at P.S. 295 in Brooklyn. “Suddenly the plan comes out and things look like they are getting worse and they are going to continue getting worse.”

But even teachers who are mostly able to avoid state tests are planning to participate in Thursday’s events.

Hundreds of educators, advocates, and students are expected to participate in a Manhattan rally organized by City-As-School, which is one of more than two dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio of work instead of Regents exam scores.

Principal Alan Cheng said the planned march to Washington Square Park Thursday afternoon was organized by the school’s teachers as they became more aware of Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education overhaul, especially the changes that would make it more difficult for teachers to earn tenure.

“Teachers should be able to demonstrate their growth over time,” he said.

The rally is also meant to highlight the school’s membership in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which allows students to complete in-depth projects to graduate instead of passing most of the required Regents exams.

“Our students, their experiences are truly shaped by being able to do that kind of work,” Cheng said. “But many students have not had the opportunity, and the state is making it even harder for other schools to consider these ideas.”

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.