leadership lessons

In the district with the most ‘Renewal’ schools, a leader sets out to fix them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario (center) with two of her former assistant principals who are now her deputies: Director of School Renewal Jasmin Varela (left) and Principal Leadership Facilitator Claudy Makelele.

One of New York City’s toughest jobs belongs to Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario.

As superintendent of District 9 in the southwest Bronx, she oversees an area with more students than the city of Buffalo, which sits within the country’s poorest congressional district.

A fifth of those students have disabilities, about a quarter are still learning English, and their state test scores rank among the city’s lowest. And when the education department rounded up 94 of the city’s most troubled schools last year to participate in a high-profile improvement program, eight fell within Rodriguez-Rosario’s purview — the most of any superintendent.

But rather than despair, the Bronx native and former District 9 principal says she celebrated the news. The new “Renewal” program meant extra resources and attention for those schools, while a recent school-system restructuring meant more authority for her as superintendent to set those schools on a different path.

“This was an opportunity,” said Rodriguez-Rosario, who is responsible for the district’s 51 elementary and middle schools, “an opening of doors for our work.”

The former principal of P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language school where classes are taught in both English and Spanish, Rodriguez-Rosario was one of several superintendents whom Chancellor Carmen Fariña installed last year in an effort to fill those positions with seasoned educators. Rodriguez-Rosario sustained her educator’s instincts in her new role: She moved the district office into an elementary school building, and hired two of her former assistant principals as deputies.

Fariña had instructed her district chiefs to form relationships with local parents and to earn their subordinates’ trust. Rodriguez-Rosario quickly set out to do both.

Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.

In her first week on the job, she met with members of a parent-advocacy group that has spent the past 20 years agitating for improvements to District 9’s schools through a series of rallies, public forums, and detailed reports. Later, she gathered together the district’s principals and urged them to participate in the parent group’s latest initiative, a program to train successful teachers how to mentor less-experienced colleagues. An organizer with the group, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, said the superintendent has been remarkably accessible, sometimes sending the organizer text messages late into the night.

That is a departure from some past superintendents who viewed the group more as an adversary than a partner, said group member Angel Martinez.

“I have to say, it’s a weird feeling: She is more at the table than I have ever seen from our district office before,” said Martinez, whose daughter attends the district’s P.S. 294. “We were always so used to having a fight instead of a conversation.”

Rodriguez-Rosario also began regularly visiting schools, meeting with everyone from principals and teachers to custodians and the staffers who handle parent concerns, she said. In those encounters, her style is more coach than commander. At one of the mentor-training sessions this spring, she led a huddle of teachers in a cheer: “Go District 9!”

“She’s really described us as a team,” said Principal Edgar Lin of the Renewal school J.H.S. 22, “with her being a part of that team, and we as a team winning or losing together.”

Another aim of hers and Fariña is to get educators to trade ideas and troubleshoot problems together.

She paired each principal with colleagues from two other schools and had them meet occasionally, in a scaled-down version of the chancellor’s signature Learning Partners program. During one session, she asked the trios to brainstorm ways to “brand” their schools by offering robust art or science programs or classes related to particular careers — one solution she sees to the challenge of retaining students in a low-performing district where an estimated 4,300 students applied for just over 800 charter school seats last year.

“That’s what charter schools go on: They have these themes and people buy into them,” Rodriguez-Rosario said. “So we’re learning, we’re getting smarter.”

A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario's office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario’s office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.

She also ordered the eight Renewal principals to gather twice a month to discuss common challenges and sent them to visit higher-performing schools in the district. When the schools had to craft state-mandated improvement plans this year, she hosted a joint planning session with teams from each school, her district staff, and city and state education officials — a far cry from the process at many schools, where principals write the bulk of those plans alone in their offices.

Now that each Renewal school has an improvement plan, Rodriguez-Rosario said the second year of the three-year program be focused on bringing them to life.

To make sure that happens, she has devised an intricate monitoring system. Her staff will periodically review each school’s plan with the principal, tour the school to see how it’s being enacted, then come up with a handful of recommendations. Four weeks later, the team will return to check whether the school acted on that feedback. If the school is falling short, Rodriguez-Rosario said the relationships she has developed with her principals will allow for frank conversations.

“I’m at the point now where I can say to a principal, ‘You’ve been saying that twice now, stop talking, and I want to see that,’” she said.

So far, she said the Renewal principals have met her expectations. But if they start to stumble, she said she will talk to them about whether they are up to grueling task of turning around a troubled school.

“They understand that there is an urgency, that this is non-negotiable.” she said. “And they understand that if they can’t cut the work, then that conversation will be had.”

Jasmin Varela, a former principal who began her leadership career as an assistant principal under Rodriguez-Rosario, now works for her former boss again as District 9’s Renewal school supervisor. (Because the district has so many of those schools, the city is bringing in another person next month to share her duties.) Varela said that if her team’s tactics can help rehabilitate those schools, then they could ripple out and spur similar changes in other schools.

“Then it spreads beyond Renewal,” she said. “It’s going to reform the entire district.”

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.