College Readiness

Report: Many NYC high schools don’t offer advanced math and science courses

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee students who met their reading goals got a unique reward.

You need chemistry to become a registered nurse or an emergency medical technician. You need physics to become an architect.

But those occupations could be closed off to students attending a large number of New York City high schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. The report found that nearly four in 10 city high schools do not offer algebra II and both physics and chemistry.

The numbers paint a grim picture of the instruction many students are receiving in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The numbers look especially bleak for black and Hispanic students, who are underrepresented at the schools where most advanced diplomas are earned.

New York state is in the process of adopting Common Core learning standards that focus on skills students need for college-level courses or to enter higher-paying professions after high school. But as students struggle to adjust to a new Common Core-aligned algebra course, the report highlights that advanced courses remain out of reach for many students.

The rapid proliferation of small high schools in the last decade, which often offer a more limited range of academic classes than larger schools with more scheduling flexibility, are one cause, according to Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools and one of the report’s authors. Another is that too many students arrive in high school ill-prepared to tackle those courses.

“Huge numbers of kids arrive in ninth grade not able to do fractions,” a skill students should begin learning in elementary school, Hemphill said. “So they just spend years and years and years getting caught up, and there’s just not enough kids who get that far.”

The city’s Department of Education is taking steps to improve its training and instruction in those subjects. In recent months, it has launched a free summer program to 1,200 students finishing second, seventh, and ninth grades focused on science, technology, engineering and math, provided more than 400 teachers with training in the STEM subjects, and released new science curriculum guidelines for elementary schools. In 2013, the city also announced an expansion of Advanced Placement courses in high-need schools.

“Our goal is to provide every New York City student with the math and science skills they need to succeed in college and meaningful careers, and we have taken concrete steps to improve offerings and raise achievement,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

But the report reflects a persistent contradiction: After a decade of aggressive changes to city schools, more students than ever are earning a high school diploma, and fewer than ever are dropping out. The needle has barely moved, though, based on one measure of students’ preparedness for college-level coursework — the proportion of students earning an advanced diploma. (To receive an advanced diploma, students must pass two additional math exams and one additional science exam, among other requirements.)

There are also disparities in access to high-level courses in high school. The city’s high school choice system means that a student’s future access to advanced course offerings in math and science is largely determined by seventh grade, since many high schools admit students based on their grades and state test scores from that year.

Nearly half of all students who received an advanced diploma attended just 25 of the city’s more than 600 high schools in 2013-14. At 100 other high schools, no students received an advanced Regents diploma, compared to 18 percent of students citywide.

White and Asian students, though they make up less than one quarter of the city’s high school student population, constitute 70 percent of students at high schools with that award the most advanced diplomas. Meanwhile, at 100 schools where none of those diplomas were awarded, 92 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The report offers some recommendations. High schools sharing space inside larger buildings should make greater effort to combine resources to offer advanced classes for top students. And recognizing that some students may never make it beyond introductory algebra, schools should offer “conceptual” courses in chemistry and physics. At Quest to Learn in Manhattan, a middle and high school, for example, teachers have developed a chemistry class for tenth graders that provides them with an introduction to the subject and, perhaps, a primer to take the Regents-level course in the following year.

A list of city high schools and their advanced math and science offerings in the 2013-14 school year can be found here.

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.