debating admissions

Parents at a selective middle school fear an influx of ‘unscreened’ students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul discusses a proposal to close the middle school at P.S. 165 at a public meeting on Nov. 8.

On a block wedged between Harlem and the Upper West Side, two middle schools share a regal building. The similarities largely end there.

Mott Hall II is “screened” — meaning students are picked based on their previous academic performance. Students outpace the district average on state tests, and the school receives seven applications for every available seat.

Mostly separated on a different floor, the middle school at P.S. 165 accepts students from the zoned elementary school. Only 8 percent of middle school students passed state math tests last year, and enrollment in the upper grades is shrinking.

The education department is proposing to close the middle school at P.S. 165, which could give popular Mott Hall II room to grow. But P.S. 165 students would be entitled to opt into Mott Hall II without meeting its academic criteria, which has Mott Hall II parents worried that the performance of their school could erode if it is flooded with students who struggle academically.

“Shouldn’t they earn it? My daughter earned her right into Mott Hall,” said Sophia Fofana, whose daughter attends the school, at a public meeting held Wednesday to discuss the possible changes. “Mott Hall II is a rigorous school and, no disrespect to the teachers at [P.S. 165], but obviously they’re not the same and these kids are going to have a hard time.”

The controversy is similar to many that have erupted over the years among parents who want to protect their selective schools from changes that they fear could make them less exclusive. The debates also raise the larger question of whether some public schools should be permitted to choose their students — as a quarter of New York City middle schools now do — while others must enroll anyone who applies.

Both the proposal to shutter P.S. 165 and subsequently expand Mott Hall II are in the early stages. Neither has been formally proposed, let alone approved.

If the middle school is closed, about 100 current students there are entitled to enroll in a higher-performing alternative. Those students would not have to go through the normal screening process, which allows schools to sort through applicants based on their grades, test scores, interviews and other criteria.

A shift in the student body could also have unintended consequences when it comes to diversity. Enrollment at Mott Hall II largely mirrors the demographics of District 3, where it sits — a rarity in New York City, which has among the most segregated school systems in the country. P.S. 165, meanwhile, enrolls more black and Hispanic students.

“It works because there is a balance. And that’s what we signed up for,” said Shanti Menon, whose daughter is in seventh grade at the school.

Advocates for integration have argued that allowing schools to select students based on factors such as their academic performance or attendance records exacerbates segregation. But Mott Hall II is a unique case in that the school has been able to enroll a mixed student body. An influx of students from P.S. 165 could throw that off.

Parents describe Mott Hall II as the most diverse middle school in District 3, and most reflective of its demographic and economic averages. About 37 percent of students are Hispanic, 26 percent are black, 23 percent are white and 6 percent are Asian. The poverty rate is about 47 percent.

At P.S. 165, meanwhile, 81 percent of middle school students are black or Hispanic. With a poverty rate of 74 percent, the school serves considerably more poor students than the district average of about 48 percent.

Raven Snook, whose daughter attends Mott Hall II, said she picked the school precisely because of its diversity. While Snook is white, her husband is Puerto Rican.

“It will radically change the diversity levels, at least temporarily,” she said.

If the closure is approved, education department officials say it’s not a given that P.S. 165 students would enroll next door. Superintendent Ilene Altschul pointed out that P.S. 165 has a dual language program, and families may want to enroll in another similar school. Department officials added that many students come from another school district entirely, so they may look for options closer to home.

Altschul said the education department would work with each family to find the best fit for their child.

“Not every child will go to Mott Hall II,”  she said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are not taking the sixth and seventh grade and moving them to Mott Hall II.”

By December, officials expect to present a formal plan that would close the middle school at P.S. 165. The Panel for Education Policy, a citywide body, would vote on it in January. Any impacts on Mott Hall II should become clearer once that proposal is presented.

Still, the District 3 Community Education Council, which is made up of parent volunteers, has pressed the education department to start working with families who could be affected. Middle school applications are due Dec. 1, but the plans may not be finalized until well after families have made their decisions.

“They deserve to have an accurate picture of what the schools will look like,” said Kristen Berger, an education council member.

Education council members and parents have been frustrated with how quickly the changes could be approved, saying families in the Harlem area of District 3 have gotten short-shrift compared with their wealthier neighbors to the south. When the education department proposed to change the attendance zone at several elementary schools in the Upper West Side, parents dragged the debate on for more than a year.

“People in Harlem keep being told they’re not high enough of a priority to be afforded the depth of conversation that is afforded to white parents in District 3,” said Kim Watkins, the education council president. “It’s really disrespectful.”

student discipline

Looking for the ‘why’ behind student suspensions, Memphis schools turn to behavior specialists — again

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialists Clarence Shaw and Inger Spikner speak with a student at Kirby High School in Memphis.

On paper, one student’s suspension from Kirby High School was routine. She had told her teacher to “shut up!” after the teacher made multiple attempts to stop her from talking during the day’s lesson. There had to be a consequence.

But in a meeting later, behavior specialist Clarence Shaw sought to understand the “why” behind the student’s misbehavior.

“What was going on right before you told him to shut up?” he asked the student.

“He’s got a short temper, just like I do,” she answered. “And I started saying one thing and he started getting loud. And I told him to shut up and he put me out of his class.”

The teen continued: “He wasn’t telling anyone else to be quiet. He kept calling my name out.”

That’s when Inger Spikner, another behavior specialist for the 900-student Memphis school, chimed in — and then helped to reframe the incident.

“You feel like you’re being singled out,” said Spikner, a former teacher. “When in actuality, you are because as a teacher I’ve identified you as a leader and I know if I can get you to be quiet, then everybody else will follow suit. So when a teacher singles you out going forward, I need you to know that there’s this kind of, like, an unwritten or unspoken code. You’re a leader and you don’t even realize your status.”

By the end of the 10-minute conversation, Spikner and Shaw had identified what triggered the student’s behavior, helped her think through the consequences of her words, and planned to follow up with the teacher to make sure a suspension was truly the last resort.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools hired 19 behavior specialists for the 2017-18 school year.

Shaw and Spikner are among 19 behavior specialists hired this year by Shelby County Schools to serve nearly all of its 145 schools. By giving students individual attention, they seek to pinpoint the root cause of misbehavior and then work with those students to make better choices. The goal is to help avoid school suspensions, as well as to acclimate suspended students back to school.

And it’s working. Two years ago at Kirby, the administration suspended students 333 times in the first 80 days of school. This school year, the number of suspensions during the same time period was cut in half. And the number of in-school suspensions has gone from 346 to just 47 this year.

That’s especially important because the Memphis district has the highest rate of suspensions in Tennessee, significantly contributing to racial disparity when it comes to how students are disciplined across the state. Statewide data from 2014-15 shows that Tennessee students were more likely to be suspended if they were black boys or live in Memphis. And if students aren’t in school, they’re more likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and get frustrated, creating more behavior problems.

Steevon Hunter, Kirby’s first-year principal, said behavior specialists are a welcome new resource at his school.

“When I get together with my administration team each week, one of things on our agenda is our frequent flyers … particularly with behavior. And we’ve seen those frequent flyers decrease (with the help of behavior specialists),” said Hunter.

“It’s one thing to suspend a kid,” he noted, “but it’s another to get to the ‘why.’”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Michael Spearman and Ron Davis lead Shelby County Schools’ behavior specialist team.

Behavior specialists are not new to Memphis schools. Memphis City Schools had them, but the department was cut when city and county schools merged in 2013. Then last year, the consolidated Shelby County Schools hired Michael Spearman, who is also a longtime detective for the Memphis Police Department, and Ron Davis, a former behavior specialist under Memphis City Schools, to go into 30 schools as a pilot program. They reduced suspensions by 5 percent, convincing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to invest $1.5 million to hire more behavioral specialists to serve the entire district.

Next year, the plan is to add even more.

Behavior specialists are different from counselors because they don’t have power to recommend or impose punishment. They visit weekly with students and also meet with teachers and principals to develop behavioral improvement strategies.

“You can have an impact on kids one-on-one,” Spikner said.

“We’re not so punitive,” adds Shaw. “We create that safe space. Once they open up, then we can focus on changing their behavior.”

Memphis schools haven’t used corporal punishment for more than a decade, but have been slow to provide alternative disciplinary measures. Meanwhile, there’s increasing recognition of the need to help students who are dealing with personal trauma, which sometimes can lead to behavioral problems. Behavior specialists are helping to bridge the gap, according to Roderick Richmond, who oversees the district’s student support services.

“I think that everyone throughout the community is realizing the importance of being able to provide social and emotional support for students,” he said. “We’re seeing some of the trauma that our students are experiencing — both students and parents — and when they’re experiencing some of that trauma, how we address that in the school buildings is very, very important.”

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
This “progressive discipline” chart is being implemented in schools with the help of behavior specialists.

Some actions still must result in automatic expulsion — for instance, seriously injuring a school employee, possessing or selling drugs, and having a gun at school. And the policy for automatic suspensions is also unchanged for fights, assaulting a school employee, or maliciously damaging school property.

In other cases, the goal is to “suspend appropriately” — and not to overlook harmful or disrespectful behavior to make their numbers look better, said JB Blocker, an attendance and discipline hearing official for the district.

“Everything should not result in suspension. And there are a plethora of things to happen before you suspend,” said Blocker. “But I don’t want to go to a school where teachers can get hit in the jaw or stabbed and there are no appropriate, serious consequences. So, we have to find a balance of what that looks like.”

For students suspended for more than five days, state policy requires school leaders to create a behavior plan outlining what is and is not acceptable, strategies, and potential consequences. That practice wasn’t consistent across the district, Spearman said, so behavior specialists have taken that job on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialist Kimberly Long congratulates a student at Gardenview Elementary for making progress on his behavior goals.

At Gardenview Elementary School, behavior specialist Kimberly Long carries a half-dozen binders in a small roller suitcase, including one with copies of “contracts” students have created to identify ways to improve their behavior — as well as the rewards they’ll receive for meeting their goals.

One Gardenview student wants to erase the teacher’s dry erase board as his reward when he’s done a good job of listening in class and respecting his peers. If he doesn’t, he wrote, his mother should get a phone call from the teacher.

Another student has a sketchbook to draw in when he gets upset. His teacher knows that drawing helps when he needs to calm down.

Weekly check-ins with Long reinforce the behavior lessons that teachers don’t have time to go over individually. She finds that elementary-age students crave attention, and her job is to help them channel that desire appropriately.

“They come here at school and expect that’s what they have to do: act out in order to get the attention,” she said. “They just have to be taught there are other ways.”

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.