summer reading

Hoping to reduce summer learning loss, city turns to iPads loaded with books

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Emolior Academy Principal Derick Spaulding during the kickoff of SummerSail in 2014.

Sarita Parrales didn’t read at all last summer. And when it came time to start seventh grade, she remembered having to scramble.

“I felt like I was behind the whole class,” said Parrales, who will enter eighth grade at Emolior Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, this fall. “Then around like December or November, I was starting to catch up.”

Parrales described the setback this week at a Union Square bookstore, where she declared that this summer had been different: she had read a book from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the childhood memoir of the writer Walter Dean Myers, and four others.

The difference this summer was a growing pilot program that sends New York City students home for the summer with iPads loaded with a digital library and software that tracks their reading. The program, now in its second year, is one of a number of ways the city is continuing to tackle a perennial problem: The fact that low-income students fall further behind than their peers from affluent families over summer break.

Nine weeks off from school are replaced with books from home or structured summer programs for some children, but for many others the break means going months without having anything to read — which can lead to a phenomenon known as “summer slide.”

“It’s very real,” said Sam Dorrance, a teacher at Emolior Academy. “And a lot of times, if they continue doing that year after year, reading doesn’t seem like something you get better at. It ends up appearing as though it’s just not something that’s for you.”

Emolior Academy was one of 18 schools and three community-based organizations that participated in the iPad-based program, called SummerSail, provided by the company LightSail. (CEO Gideon Stein is also on Chalkbeat’s board.) About 400 students received tablets loaded with novels, nonfiction books, poems, and articles tailored to their reading levels and were tasked with reading for four hours a week.

Students then met with teachers like Derrance every Monday for about four hours. He required them to write at least one “digital sticky note” about the book they were reading, asking a question or offering a summary or review.

It’s a structure that makes sure students have things to read that make sense to them, said Yolanda Rice, a reading coach at M.S. 385 in Brooklyn. Even for students who do have access to books at home, what’s available “might be too high or too low, or just the library that they have in their home is not diverse enough,” she said.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Learning Association, said programs like SummerSail and lower-tech book distributions can’t be expected to help students close big gaps in their reading skills. But they can maintain skills as students progress to the next grade level.

“The lowest-income students lose two to three months of their reading skills,” Pitcock said. “To have that evaporate over the course of the summer is huge.”

The pilot program has been available to schools in the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which aims to bring high-needs students up to grade level in reading and writing. Since 2012, initiative has provided schools with funds to lengthen the day, add tutors, train teachers, and buy books. (MSQI will grow to 108 schools, from 87, next year, the city announced Wednesday.)

Whether SummerSail specifically will help students hold onto those skills isn’t yet clear. The city has not completed an analysis of the program, and LightSail is working with Johns Hopkins University to conduct a study that will compare participants’ skills in June and September of this year to those of a control group of similar students.

Parrales, for one, said she still preferred reading “real” books. Her tablet required Internet access and did not have enough of a selection of anime, her favorite genre.

But she said she knew through experience that students who “don’t really read over the summer fall behind when they come back from school.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she said.

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.