ASD

ASD leader’s comments bring attention to relationship between charters and school segregation

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students settle in to lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary School, a charter school operated in Memphis through the state's Achievement School District. A bill in the Tennessee legislature would allow schools such as Aspire to enroll students from outside of their residential zones.

After Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, was criticized for commenting earlier this week that charter schools are not solely responsible for racial segregation in public schools, ASD officials said that the lack of diversity within its own charter schools is due to historic housing and school zoning trends and the unique restrictions placed on the ASD in state law.

“The schools we’re inheriting that have been in these systems for a long time – they’re already racially segregated schools. They’re schools where one in 10 kids reads on grade level,” Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD, which is tasked with improving the state’s worst schools, said on Friday.

“We absolutely believe segregation is an issue…but it’s unfair to suggest that it’s all on charter schools. It’s on communities, it’s on schools, it’s on everyone,” he said.

The state-run district is required by the First to the Top law to serve only students who are zoned to schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. “It’s clear what our charge is – it’s to serve the kids who are zoned to our schools, to serve our neighborhoods,” Smalley said. Charter school advocates in Tennessee are petitioning for students who are not zoned to priority schools to also be able to attend ASD schools.

Acceptable separation?

Barbic landed in hot water earlier this week after an event at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, highlighting disputes in Tennessee and nationwide about which students charter schools should serve. News outlets reported that the state official had said that some level of segregation in charter schools was “acceptable.”

House Democrats denounced Barbic’s comments: “Only one day after the nation paused to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is disturbing to hear the head of our Achievement School District downplay the role of diversity in a well-rounded education,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh in a press release. “Too many people have fought too hard to bring about an integrated, well balanced school system for comments like this to move us towards resegregation.”

Nashville Public Radio later clarified that Barbic himself had not said that segregation in the schools is acceptable, but the comments are still causing ripples: Representatives from the state’s Black Caucus said the comments were troublesome on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for state representative Larry Miller, a Democrat from Memphis and a member of the black caucus, said that representatives are planning to arrange a meeting with Barbic and would not issue an official statement on the comments until after that meeting.

Smalley said that while Barbic was open to discussing the issue further, no meetings had been arranged.

Barbic’s remarks, as reported by Nashville Public Radio, follow:

“I mean, absolutely diversity is important. But the fact is schools reflect the neighborhood. Nashville is not a diverse city. This idea of living in these mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods across the city is a great goal. It’s not reality. To talk about charters as segregating the population, like Art (Fuller, head of Knowledge Academy in the old Hickory Hollow mall) said, charters are representations of the community.

“So I think you’ve got to be about quality. Yes we want diversity but I just think we got to be honest about the situation and speak honestly about race and class, which goes way beyond the power of a school and not start to throw charters into a place where really they’re not responsible for the neighborhood demographic patterns of Nashville over the last 100 years.”

Who should charter schools serve?

The state-run district oversees a number of charter schools, which take over priority schools and are charged with dramatically improving their performance. Unlike other charter schools, which can run lotteries or take application, ASD schools are required to enroll only students who are zoned to priority schools, including any student who was zoned to the school before it was taken over over.

Those students are overwhelmingly African-American and poor: Some 96 percent of the state-run district’s 2,000 students were African-American in the 2012-13 school year year, according to the state’s report card. That same year, Memphis City Schools’ student population was about 81 percent African-American, and Davidson County Schools, which includes Nashville, was about 45 percent African-American.

Smalley said that while approximately 24 percent of students in the state of Tennessee are African-American, 92 percent of students in priority schools eligible for the ASD are African-American.

Outside the ASD, in Tennessee, charter schools were limited to serving at-risk students until 2011. That restriction has since been lifted, but most charter schools in the state still aim to serve that group. A charter school aimed at middle class students in Nashville drew fire last year for targeting middle-class students, prompting conversations about diversity in that city’s schools.

When asked if he thought there was a benefit to having schools that serve entirely high-needs populations, Smalley said, “there is benefit in clarity around mission. I think there’s benefit in a belief in high expectations for all kids, regardless of race or background.”

“The thing we can 100 percent control right now, and the most urgent need, is the quality of education we are providing,” Smalley said.

In 2010, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles released a report called “Choice Without Equity” that showed that charter schools are often more segregated by race than regular public schools. Many charter schools specifically target students from failing schools, who are often minorities and often from low-income families.

But a 2012 report from the same group indicates that segregation in regular public schools has also been increasing, especially in the south.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, has studied charter school diversity and is publishing an upcoming book with coauthor Halley Potter on the topic. He told Education Week in 2012 that “the charter school community is recognizing that to the extent that it’s seen as segregated, that’s a negative thing.”

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.