under pressure

For some schools, a spot on Cuomo’s ‘failing’ list but not in city’s Renewal program

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Among the dozens of struggling city schools facing the threat of takeover by outside groups are about 20 troubled schools that are not part of the city’s new turnaround program, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of “failing” schools identified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

More than 70 city schools fall on the governor’s list of schools that could be put under the control of outside “receivers” if they fail to make major improvements in two years or less, under the state budget passed this month. Most of the schools will get extra help through the city’s new “Renewal” initiative, but 19 schools at risk of takeover are not part of that support program, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The governor’s list is based on criteria similar to what is in the law. However, state education department officials cautioned that the law gives the agency’s commissioner some leeway when writing the regulations that will identify takeover schools. Because the agency is still developing those regulations based on the new law, it does not have a final list of those schools, the officials said.

Still, Cuomo’s preliminary list of potential takeover schools puts the city in an uncomfortable position. Mayor Bill de Blasio had argued that Cuomo’s plan was unnecessary because the city has its own aggressive turnaround program, but now it is clear that a number of the troubled schools on Cuomo’s list are not in that program.

A city education department spokeswoman said that every school — whether or not they are in the Renewal program — will get help from the newly empowered superintendents and the coming school-support centers, which are set to open this summer. Schools will get guidance around special-needs students, curriculum, teacher training, and more, said spokeswoman Devora Kaye.

The superintendents and support-center teams will work together, Kaye said, “to recognize a school’s strengths and diagnose a school’s weakness more expeditiously and set a better course of action to drive student achievement.”

The law divides the state’s lowest-performing schools into “failing” schools that have been bottom-ranked for three years, and “persistently failing” schools that have floundered for at least a decade. The “failing” schools have two years to make gains and the “persistently failing” schools have just one year before they could be put under the control of a receiver — a nonprofit, school district, or individual selected by the city schools chief.

The city has eight of those long-struggling schools, and 65 of the more recently troubled schools (excluding schools that are in the process of closing), according to the governor’s list. All of the eight schools are in the city’s Renewal program, but 19 of the remaining schools are not, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The city used the state’s accountability measures to identify low-performing schools for its turnaround program, but also added other criteria, which is why some schools that are not in the Renewal program could still face receivership.

One of those schools is Community Health Academy of the Heights, a combined middle and high school in Washington Heights.

The school, which is on the state’s “failing” list, has a smaller share of students who passed annual exams or graduated in four years than the city average. At the same time, it significantly boosted the share of students who passed last year’s exams and its six-year graduation rate exceeds the city average — perhaps reasons why the school is not in the city’s Renewal program.

“On some things, we need to do a lot of work. On some things, we’re doing really well,” said Principal Mark House, noting that the school has also made strides in non-academic areas, such as parent-survey results and student participation in after-school programs. “It really depends on who’s doing the measurement.”

Potential takeover schools must enact improvement plans that include measures of progress such as test scores and attendance, suspension, and graduation rates, according to the law. If the schools do not make “demonstrable improvement” on those metrics, then the city must appoint receivers to take over.

The receivers have broad authority: they can modify a school’s budget or curriculum, increase salaries, or turn district schools into charters, and they must bring in more social and health services, the law says. They can also fire principals and force teachers to reapply for their jobs. However, if they want to change parts of the school covered by the teachers contract — such as the length of the day or year, or class size — they must negotiate with the teachers union.

City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, like other district chiefs, will have the same powers over those schools as a receiver during the one-to-two years she has to revamp them. The budget law also includes $75 million for the “persistently failing” schools, or about $2.8 million per school.

Principals union President Ernest Logan said he was confident the city will keep the schools from reaching the point of receivership. Still, he said just the threat of takeover may make it hard for the schools to keep or attract skilled teachers and principals.

“You have to have a second thought about, ‘Should I go in and take over this school if I only have two years to turn this around?’” he said. “There’s no incentive to go there.”

The following chart lists low-performing schools identified by the governor’s office, and notes which are part of the city’s Renewal program and which are being phased out:

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.