push back

At schools’ anti-Cuomo protests, thousands sing and shout

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Sarah Quinter, an artist and educator who graduated from City-As-School in 2004, speaks to demonstrators gathered at Washington Square Park to protest Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education policy changes.

Updated, 7 p.m. – Dozens of protests small and large broke out at schools across the city Thursday as teachers and parents pushed back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education policy changes.

Chalkbeat spent time at three of Thursday’s rallies, where educators railed against the idea of 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. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook were buzzing throughout the day with photographs of students, parents and educators holding signs and locking hands throughout the city. (A spokeswoman for the city teachers union said they received photos from 300 schools.)

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, the protest was marked by big names and some musical flair.

P.S. 10 Principal Laura Scott leads students and parents in song to protest Cuomo's policies.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
P.S. 10 Principal Laura Scott leads students and parents in song to protest Cuomo’s policies.

By 8 a.m., the block in front of the school was packed with parents, students, and teachers, many of whom had brought homemade signs. (One included Gov. Cuomo in a “Where’s Waldo” hat.) As parents gathered, Principal Laura Scott led a schoolwide singalong of “We Are the World” with new, anti-testing lyrics.

“We have kids to teach, stop emphasizing tests,” they sang. “It’s time we all unite and put children first.”

[Watch a video of the musical number]

They paused to listen to city teachers union President Michael Mulgrew and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who noted that she had lived in the neighborhood for almost 25 years.

Students and parents rally outside of District 15's P.S. 10 in Brooklyn.
Students and parents rally outside of District 15’s P.S. 10 in Brooklyn.

“This is what public education is,” Weingarten yelled into the crowd, as passing cars honked in support. “This is a school Cuomo should learn from, and be at.”

P.S. 10’s principal Scott and the school’s teachers have been critical of the outsized emphasis placed on state tests. At least one speaker noted that the school had such high parent turnout because most were not working multiple jobs and many had flexible schedules. They were there to speak for others, she said.

The rally at P.S. 2 in Chinatown against Gov. Cuomo’s education proposals began this frigid morning as Rachel Torres’ four children nibbled on donuts.

While they waited outside the entrance of the Henry Street school for more parents and teachers to arrive, Torres explained that the governor’s plan to weigh test scores more heavily in teacher evaluations would put even greater pressure on teachers to limit their lessons to tested material.

“I don’t think teaching to the test is right,” she said, a Dunkin’ Donuts box in one hand and a stroller handle in the other. “They should be teaching real-life things that mean something.”

P.S. 2 parents and students lined up along the metal fence outside the school Thursday morning.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 2 parents and students lined up along the metal fence outside the school Thursday morning.

Just then, as if some secret tardy bell had sounded, parents and children appeared and lined up along the metal fence outside the school. Teachers trickled out of the building and handed out signs scrawled in English and Chinese characters. Before long, the line stretched the length of the building.

Catherine Holleran, the school librarian, noted that the state still owes the city billions of dollars from the settlement of a landmark school-funding lawsuit. At P.S. 2, the shortfall means that she had to raise $6,000 from private donors to update the library’s book collection, she said.

“This is what teachers have to do,” she added. “Cuomo is sitting on the money, and he won’t give it to us.”

Students, parents and educators formed a giant ring around the lot in the schoolyard at P.S. 2.
Students, parents and educators formed a giant ring around the lot in the schoolyard at P.S. 2.

Then the group — children toting bright backpacks, parents and teachers gripping coffee cups — marched down the block and around to the vast schoolyard behind the building. There they formed a giant ring of perhaps 200 bundled-up students and adults.

Parent Dorris Moreira-Douek said she joined the rally to push the state for more funding, since the school needs updated textbooks, computers, and Internet service — “the staples to run a classroom,” she said. But she also wanted to show her fourth-grade daughter that there is “politics in the day to day,” and that she must get involved.

“If you don’t ask for it,” she said, “you’re not going to get it.”

Just as suddenly as the rally started, it came to an end. Students rushed to class and parents headed to work — except for a few who lingered outside, peering into classroom windows to watch their children start the school day.

Alexandra Alves, a first-grade teacher whose students are all still learning English, said after the rally that it was a pivotal event for the school community.

After the rally, students rushed back into class and parents headed off to work.
After the rally, students rushed back into class and parents headed off to work.

Many P.S. 2 parents are Chinese immigrants unfamiliar with public protests and citizen activism, she said. At a recent parent meeting, teachers not only explained the debate over state education policy and funding, but also the whole idea of debating such things, she added.

“We talked about how in America we have freedom of speech,” Alves said, “and these are some of the things that citizens do to empower their communities and make positive changes.”

The teachers’ words seemed to sink in. Thursday’s rally was filled with parents who had rarely if ever participated in public protests, Alves said, but they had come to P.S. 2 to take that leap.

“It was a really big moment for the school,” she said.

After school let out Thursday afternoon, about 100 City-As-School students and educators marched from their Manhattan high school to Washington Square Park chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Cuomo’s plan has got to go,” and “stakes are high, test scores lie.”

Vincent Davi, the UFT representative for City-As-School, speaks outside of the Manhattan high school.
Vincent Davi, the UFT representative for City-As-School, speaks outside of the Manhattan high school.

Demonstrators from City-As-School – one of more than two-dozen city high schools with state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio instead of Regents-exam scores – garnered attention from passersby as they marched through the West Village carrying banners and signs. Being escorted by close to 10 New York Police Department motorcycle officers and a handful of officers on foot, the group attracted even more listeners when it landed at Washington Square Park.

“We want to send a message to the governor that teachers are not the reason why education is not working,” said Vincent Davi, the school’s teachers union representative. “It is not the worker that should be blamed. We need support from Albany.”

City-As-School students and educators marched to Washington Square Park Thursday.
City-As-School students and educators marched to Washington Square Park Thursday.

City-As-School teacher Marcus McArthur said there would be negative repercussions from further tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Students at the school, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, still must pass the English language Regents exam to graduate.

“Tying their evaluations to the test scores, it’s going to destroy our relationship with our students,” McArthur said. “That has nothing to do with the work that we do and it’s going to lead to people not focusing on the students that really need help.”

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.