rhetoric and realism

Renewal schools get three years to meet one-year goals, clashing with mayor’s rhetoric

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new education initiatives for New York City schools at Bronx Latin earlier this year.

The city has given the 94 troubled schools in its expensive new improvement program a special pass: They have three years to hit academic targets that other schools must meet in one year.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, every school in the city is assigned annual goals that take into account how needy its students are. But unlike other schools, the 94 struggling schools in the “Renewal” program won’t get new, harder goals every year.

Instead, they have until 2017 to achieve goals they received in 2014. In the interim, they must reach benchmarks that are a fraction of the size of a typical school’s.

The city has previously refused to release lists of the goals it gave Renewal schools, and education department officials have not publicly discussed how they were created. In response to questions from Chalkbeat on Wednesday, they acknowledged that the Renewal goals were one-year targets spread out over three years.

The officials insisted that the Renewal schools, which serve a disproportionate share of needy students and have struggled for many years, require the extra time to reach their final targets. Several people who work in the schools — which could face closure or other consequences if they fail to achieve the goals — said they agreed, calling the targets “reasonable” and “reachable.”

“I don’t know where those numbers came from,” said an administrator at one school, “but we were pleased that they were as low as they were.”

The goals raise questions about the extent and pace of change that education officials expect to result from the nearly $400 million turnaround program, which de Blasio promised would spur “fast and intense improvement” at these bottom-ranked schools. Despite an infusion of support services for students and training for teachers, the improvements may be more modest and slower to materialize than the mayor’s rhetoric would imply.

The special accommodations also suggest that the city’s annual goal-setting formula could not account for the grim condition of the Renewal schools, or that officials adjusted the targets to help ensure that these much-scrutinized schools would hit them.

“Either their current goals are unrealistic,” said Kim Nauer, education project director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, or officials are “hedging their bets for a press release two years out.”

The customized annual goals the city has given schools since 2014 center on attendance, state test scores, graduation rates, and class credits. They are based on the past performance of schools that serve students of similar demographics and skill levels.

The education department used that same formula to calculate goals for the Renewal schools, which enroll a higher-than-average share of students who are still learning English, live in temporary housing, or have disabilities. But officials decided that even though the formula factored in the schools’ high-needs students, the resulting goals still had to be stretched out over three years to be attainable.

“Whatever system they used to project targets for each school,” explained a person who works with Renewal schools, they “basically said for a Renewal school you get three years to meet that same target.”

For Renewal schools that are performing far worse than schools that serve comparable students, the goals may still be quite challenging to meet. For higher-performing schools, the targets require minimal growth.

For example, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx must raise its four-year graduation rate from 41 percent this year to 57 percent by June 2017.

But M.S. 53 in Queens only needs to boost its students’ average score on the state reading exams one-hundredth of a level by 2017: from 2.14 to 2.15. It must increase their average math score from 2.03 to 2.12. (Students must score at least a level 3 out of 4 to be considered proficient.)

Other schools started this school year having already hit their 2017 targets.

For instance, Brooklyn Generation School’s final four-year graduation target is 67 percent, yet it posted a 68 percent graduation rate this June. And the middle-school students at the Bronx School of Young Leaders earned an average English score of 2.2 this spring, even as the school’s 2017 goal is a 2.19 average.

Even Banana Kelly, which is still far from meeting its graduation goal, already surpassed one of its 2017 targets this year: 16.5 percent of student met a certain “college readiness” measure, when the school’s final goal is just 6.8 percent.

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance, said in an interview that the agency is still deciding what to do about schools that met their goals early. Officials don’t want to discourage progress by issuing successful schools new, higher targets.

However, he said the “vast majority” of Renewal schools will need to make significant gains to meet their goals. Considering how needy many of their students are, and how long most of the schools have floundered, it is only fair to give them extra time to reach their targets.

“Most Renewal schools have been struggling for many years,” he said in a statement. “We cannot expect them to turn around overnight.”

Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, said many past studies have shown that interventions at struggling schools take several years to bear fruit — and even then, they often produce disappointing results.

Setting modest improvement targets for troubled schools can prevent hard-working staffers from becoming demoralized, he said. It also can serve a political purpose, since the mayor’s critics will be sure to pounce if many Renewal schools miss their targets despite the costly intervention.

“Low-balling the goals,” Pallas said, “is a slightly defensive strategy to fight against that possibility.”

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.