naomi smith

As the city pushes collaboration, demo schools fine-tune their tips

Christina Cordell, a director for the Showcase Schools program, works with Central Park East II Principal Naomi Smith, right, at conference on Tuesday.

Naomi Smith and her team at Central Park East II knew that their early-education methods worked. To demonstrate, they opened their doors to visitors from other schools last year, pointing out how time spent playing with blocks and Play-Doh helped the school’s youngest students learn and develop.

But there was one problem: Outsiders weren’t convinced.

“When people first came in, they were like, this is what your kids do all day?” said Smith, the school principal. “What is this?”

How to react to, and move past, that kind of disconnect was among the topics raised during a brainstorming session this week for New York City’s “Showcase Schools,” an initiative that debuted last October and required schools to offer tours to educators from other schools. City officials will announce Wednesday that the program is expanding to 27 schools, up from 20 — one of a number of growing collaboration programs that have become emblematic of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s vision for improving the city school system.

Next year, about 220 schools will belong to one of four programs operated by the department’s Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning, representing roughly 14 percent of the school system. And workshops like the one held this week indicate that city officials are paying increasing attention to ensuring that the collaboration efforts are productive, as a few of those programs enter their second or third rounds this fall.

Disseminating good ideas through school visits is the central premise of three of the four programs. Schools in the Showcase program can draw visitors from any school who are interested in a specific concept the city has flagged as the school’s strength (Central Park East II’s is early education). In two versions of the city’s “Learning Partners” program, between three and eight schools form groups that visit each other’s schools.

The office is “growing in its reach because it speaks to the chancellor’s philosophy,” said Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, “which is rather than compete, we collaborate.”

The fourth program, the Middle School Quality Initiative, is one that Fariña inherited from the Bloomberg administration and is focused on helping schools improve literacy for middle-school students. That initiative, primarily designed for schools with large percentages of black and Hispanic students who qualify for lunch subsidies, is also set to expand from 87 to 108 schools, officials said.

While the middle school initiative is well-established, the Showcase schools, which began with 17 schools in October, belong to a program that is still developing, a process on display Tuesday. At dozens of small tables, discussions ebbed and flowed as principals and teachers imagined what visitors would want to get from tours at their schools.

“What will make visitors leave excited but not overwhelmed?” Milo Novelo, the department’s senior director Showcase Schools, asked the audience.

The schools were chosen for a wide range of strengths. P.S. 69 Vincent Grippo’s tours will focus on its arts curriculum, while Lower Manhattan Community Middle School was flagged for the way its teachers visit one another’s classrooms.

Three chronically struggling schools in the city’s school-turnaround program are also participating: P.S. 154 Jonathan D. Hyatt, J.H.S. 22 Jordan L. Mott, and P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz. Officials said they would be tasked with explaining their efforts to work with their local communities and how they have created a “sense of urgency” around improvement to other struggling schools.

At Central Park East II’s table, Smith and a colleague huddled with six others. The school was picked to showcase its “work time” period for pre-kindergarten through second grade, during which students work in different areas of a classroom that prompt students to paint, learn about class pets, or play with blocks, among other activities. The idea is to keep the activities unstructured and allow children to choose what they want to do, which Smith said leads to interactions students need as they acquire language.

“How would people know how to get that started?” asked Ellis Scope, an instructor at the Bank Street College of Education.

“I think showing that this can apply to all types of students, all different levels — which I know it does — I think that might be important,” said Patty Williams, a staff member in the office overseeing superintendents. “Because a visitor might say, well, this won’t fit the demographic of my school, this would never work at my school.”

As the meeting wrapped up, the educators returned to how they could avoid the confusion of Central Park East II’s first visits. Some suggested recording video of students talking about what they do during “work time” or providing case studies that illustrate how the format has worked for students with different learning needs.

Smith noted that the last tour she hosted was the best one. By then, she had started priming visitors by emailing them information about the model before the visit, then handing out a fact sheet when they arrived.

“By the last visit, we were like, this is so easy,” Smith said.

This article has been updated to include Milo Novelo’s title and the full name of the office that operates the Showcase Schools program.

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.