consolidated ed

Why city’s unions aren’t fighting Fariña’s school-merger plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with Monique Campbell, the principal of The School of Integrated Learning, one of the city schools that will begin absorbing a struggling middle school next year.

Peace Academy M.S. 596 has struggled for years. Led by a rotating cast of principals and facing dwindling enrollment, the Clinton Hill middle school was nearly closed by the Bloomberg administration in 2012.

This year, despite a name change and yet another new principals, it’s in even worse shape, enrolling just 12 sixth graders and prompting new questions about whether the school should continue in its current form.

“It would have been a miracle to save that school,” said David Goldsmith, president of the parent council that represents the District 13 school.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who oppose school closures except as a last resort — may be close to doing what their predecessors would not. Peace Academy could be folded into another school, Goldsmith said, part of a new consolidation strategy that would merge some struggling schools with another school nearby that is helmed by a top-notch principal.

Fariña’s broader plan, presented in two interviews last week, would share characteristics of the school closures that elicited outrage during the Bloomberg years: A struggling school would eventually lose its name, its principal, and cease to exist. But the teachers and principals unions, strong allies of de Blasio that sued to stop Bloomberg’s attempts to close schools, say they aren’t distressed by the possibility of mergers, in part because relatively few school staff members would be affected.

“There are going to be some cases where this absolutely makes sense,” Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president for the union that represents principals and assistant principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Some schools are just too small to sustain themselves.”

The Bloomberg administration closed large schools, causing many teachers to lose their positions. Under a merger, teachers from both schools would be expected to remain at the consolidated school, city officials said, and they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Those provisions could make the plans palatable for the United Federation of Teachers.

“We are discussing the issues with DOE,” teachers-union spokesman Dick Riley said.

Teachers whose positions are cut will be assigned to different subjects or grades than they’ve previously taught, city officials said. If the combined school ends up with duplicated positions, the least experienced teachers from either school will lose their positions, in accordance with union rules, Riley said.

School leaders stand to be the most affected by the mergers, because consolidating administrations means there will be two principals for one spot and an excess of assistant principals. But Cannizzaro said he wasn’t concerned because Fariña’s plans were on a “very small scale right now.”

“I don’t think, at this point, that we’re anywhere close to discussing [mergers for] all under-enrolled schools,” Cannizzaro said.

Differences between the Bloomberg administration’s approach and what appears to be Fariña’s are calming other groups that opposed closures.

For one, the small schools that appear to be at risk lack the large alumni associations that sprung to the aid of some schools threatened by the Bloomberg administration. (An exception might be Boys and Girls High School, but it’s unclear whether that proposal — developed by the principal — is part of Fariña’s overarching plans.)

Tensions could still emerge once the city releases the name of the schools that could be consolidated, or when the appear before the Panel for Educational Policy. No schools will be fully consolidated until the start of the 2016-17 school year, although some changes could begin next year.

And while the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of phasing out closing schools one grade at a time was designed to minimize disruption, in reality, staff members often fled and students were encouraged to transfer out, leaving a hollowed-out school. The new plan would offer fewer incentives for staff and students to leave, potentially minimizing disruption for students and parents.

If the two schools are already sharing a building, the city would be able to promise parents that their children would stay with their classmates and maintain relationships with many of the adults at the school.

“The pluses for our people, students with disabilities, are that they’re allowing the schools to stay in the same building,” said Lori Podvesker, a special education advocate and member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The city’s move to draw attention to the consolidation plan also provides political benefits. De Blasio’s plan to improve 94 Renewal Schools got off to a slow start this year, and his approach has drawn criticism from those who favored Bloomberg’s more aggressive approach.

“This is a struggling school intervention strategy,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in an email, noting that some schools that aren’t struggling will be merged, too.

That framing gives de Blasio another talking point as he tries to make his case to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature that they should renew mayoral control of the city school system and stay out of the city’s education policy affairs, though the plan has attracted attention from familiar critics.

“Masking the depth of failure by combining good schools with bad ones and diluting statistics is a move designed to shirk accountability and keep special interests satisfied,” Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.

The mergers would also help solve a logistical problem that has emerged years after the city created hundreds of small schools that compete for student enrollment. Dozens of schools citywide, and nine Renewal Schools, enroll fewer than 150 students this year — eating up administrative resources in a system serving more than 1 million students.

Kaye said that merger plans are in the works for as many as a dozen schools, but the city has stayed mum on which schools will be involved. So far, the city has only confirmed that a merger is happening at two schools: M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, co-located middle schools in Crown Heights.

Goldsmith said that district officials are having “serious conversations” about a consolidation at Peace Academy, which like Boys and Girls and M.S. 334 are part of the de Blasio administration’s School Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools.

But school and District 13 officials are not eager to discuss those talks. Several options are still on the table for the tiny school, Kaye said, like changing its curriculum, revamping teacher training, or replacing the principal.

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Principal Amy Rodriguez declined to comment — although her denial came through another principal.

“We are running our schools,” said James O’Brien, principal of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, which shares a building with Peace Academy.

Stay up to date with what’s happening in New York City schools and education policy with our daily and weekly newsletters. Sign up here.

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.