Building Better Schools

D.C. Public Schools officials tour Memphis iZone

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone superintendent Sharon Griffin is flanked by Jason Kamras and Gene Pickard, leaders with the District of Columbia Public Schools, during a Wednesday tour of Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis.

The mounting success of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone is attracting national attention from other school districts exploring initiatives that could improve their own low-performing schools. 

Administrators with the school turnaround program on Wednesday hosted representatives of District of Columbia Public Schools, one of the nation’s most troubled school systems which, like Memphis, serves a large population of students from low-income families.

The D.C. officials were the fifth contingent of educators to tour the iZone, where most schools saw gains in math and science on the state’s TCAP exam last year. 

Other visitors have included school leaders from Detroit, Knoxville and Oakland, Ca., as well as the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based educational and policy studies organization.

“People are wanting to look at our strategies in action,” said Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent. “All of our success on paper is one thing, but when you actually come in, you can talk to teachers and a central office-level staff (person) about not only our successes, but our challenges as well.”

The iZone’s work was highlighted in a December report by Vanderbilt University tracking school improvement efforts in Memphis. The researchers said iZone schools are having “positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.”

Griffin welcomes attention from other school districts facing similar challenges. “It’s a great way for us to bounce ideas off one another,” she said.

Created in 2010, the iZone gives administrators of low-performing schools the autonomy to institute intensive turnaround efforts such as hiring and firing staff, overhauling curriculums, awarding bonuses to teachers, and adding time to the school day.

Eighteen Memphis schools have been absorbed into Shelby County Schools’ iZone, 17 of which have seen positive gains, including seven schools that are no longer on the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools. Three more Memphis schools are scheduled to join the iZone next school year.

Griffin attributes much of the iZone’s success to having the autonomy to handpick staff and alter strategies without waiting for data to tell them what they already know — that something isn’t working.

Sarah Lee, a D.C. district official on Wednesday’s tour, said information gathered from Memphis’ iZone will help school leaders determine next steps in the nation’s capital, where struggling schools have had stagnant or incremental academic growth.

Public school officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone's top-performing schools.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone’s top-performing schools.

“We’re designing our turnaround work right now, so everything is open to discussion,” she said. “It could be that we implement some of the best practices, or it could be that we follow the structuring of schools similar to the iZone clusters.”

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has sought the authority to use charter schools as a school turnaround mechanism and to have flexibilities to extend the school day and initiate other significant interventions. The iZone model does not include charter networks but does provide more autonomy for school leaders. In Memphis, the iZone has been a less confrontational turnaround approach than charter schools, which have been the primary intervention vehicle of the other major turnaround program in Memphis, Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The iZone also has the benefit of not ceding enrollment and funding to charters, which make up a growing share of D.C. schools

Lee said her team has searched the nation for best school improvement practices and was led to Memphis by the Vanderbilt study, as well as similar challenges faced by both Shelby County Schools and D.C. Public Schools.

“I think we have similar student demographics,” Lee said.  “A lot of the challenges that Dr. Griffin talked about are not surprising to us; its a familiar story for us.”

crime and punishment

New York City plans to expand programs to keep students away from the criminal justice system

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy.

Two programs meant to limit student involvement with the criminal justice system will be expanded, city officials announced Monday.

This spring, 71 total schools will be allowed to issue warning cards instead of a criminal summons to students 16 and older for disorderly conduct or possessing small amounts of marijuana — expanding on a 37-school pilot program in the Bronx that currently operates under that policy.

Officials are also expanding the School Justice Project, a program that offers free legal help for students who have become tangled in the criminal justice system, along with “know your rights” trainings. Eleven total school campuses will join that program, up from just one, according to the city.

The programs are in keeping with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for less punitive approaches to school discipline, including “restorative” justice, and a plan to significantly reduce suspensions for the city’s youngest students.

But some advocates said the new measures are too incremental and unlikely to make a significant dent in the number of students — disproportionately black or Hispanic — who are slapped with criminal offenses at school.

“What the city is proposing to do is really minimal,” said Dawn Yuster, a student justice expert at Advocates for Children. She pointed out that school safety agents — who are posted in schools but employed by the NYPD — still have discretion to issue criminal summonses for what amount to schoolyard fights or minor drug violations, even in schools with the warning card program.

Even doubling the number of schools covered by the policy would only cover a fraction of the city’s high school students, Yuster added. “If they wanted to make a big change, there’s no reason why they couldn’t expand the program to all schools.”

But Dana Kaplan, executive director of youth and strategic initiatives for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, defended the city’s approach.

She said expanding the warning card and School Justice Project programs is part of the city’s effort at “improving school climate while reducing unnecessary exclusionary measures.”

The warning card approach has had an effect: In the program’s first year, there was a 14 percent decline in summonses for small marijuana possession and disorderly conduct in the pilot schools, Kaplan said.

The city is implementing the program in schools that issue a larger share of summonses, she added, and expanding the program requires training school safety agents and other staff in the building. “We’ll be evaluating the warning card program and looking to how we can continue to increase its impact and scale.”

Other advocates cheered the expansion of those programs. “We are really happy with anything that reduces criminal court contacts for minor misbehavior,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Though “we would like to see the city dispense with using summonses in schools altogether.”

Also on Monday, the NYPD released new quarterly school safety data for the end of 2016 that show school-based arrests and summonses generally decreased last year. The City Council did not start requiring the NYPD to release these statistics before last year, making historical comparisons difficult. (Quarter three shows large declines because it covers much of the summer break.)

Still, the first six months of data collected last year show 91 percent of school-based arrests, and nearly 93 percent of summonses, were issued to black or Hispanic students (a population that represents nearly 70 percent of the school population). Black and Hispanic students are also much more likely to be handcuffed.

“The decrease in arrests and summonses is an indication the administration is trying to go in the right direction,” wrote Kesi Foster, a coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative, an organization that promotes student voices in conversations about school discipline. But, he said, the numbers show hundreds of students each quarter are still coming into contact with the criminal justice system for minor violations.

“City Hall can and must do more to keep young people in the classrooms and out of courtrooms.”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.