protest prep

‘I can be a part of this change’: New York City students prepare to join nationwide gun violence protests

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
New York City students walk out of class and march to Trump Tower to protest the results of the presidential election.

In the Bronx, students will march to call for more guidance counselors in schools — not cops. In Manhattan, they will rally at a U.S. senator’s office and demand stricter gun laws. And in Brooklyn, teens will demonstrate at Borough Hall, even if it means risking discipline once they return to school.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of students from across New York City are expected to flood the streets as part of a nationwide school walkout in response to last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Their reasons for taking to the streets are diverse. In a state that already has strict gun laws, some want to push for national change. Others say they’re frustrated with the solutions that adults have offered, such as arming teachers or relying more heavily on metal detectors.

What unites them is a desire to honor the 14 teenagers and three teachers who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago.

“I think it’s important to remember the people who died in the Florida shooting,” said Andrea Colon, a senior who is organizing a walkout at Rockaway Park High School in Queens. “But I think it’s also important that the nation’s reaction isn’t to put more police in or more metal detectors in.”

At some schools, the protests will last only 17 minutes — to honor each of the Parkland victims — but others will stretch on through the afternoon. At Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most prestigious high schools, students plan to join peers from other schools in a march to Borough Hall. In the Bronx, students from multiple campuses will converge at local Department of Education offices to call for more “restorative” discipline approaches such as mediation, rather than suspensions.  

“This is the first time a protest is so relevant to me and people my age,” said Amira Shimin, a freshman who helped organize the Brooklyn Tech walkout. “I want gun control because I don’t want to go to school and be afraid.”

Here is what students say is motivating them, and the changes they want to see.

“I felt like police officers aren’t there to be your friends or your counselors.”

Sagar Sharma, the student body president at John Bowne High School in Queens, said he is walking out in part to protest the use of metal detectors at his school — and call attention to the different ways schools across the city are policed.

Metal detectors became a permanent fixture at John Bowne after two high-profile incidents last year. In April, a 16-year-old was stabbed at the school. In November, two students were found with guns.

After the stabbing, police officials were brought into the school and antagonized students, Sharma said, calling students “John Bowne stabbers” as they walked in. (Mayor Bill de Blasio called the behavior “unacceptable” when students told him about it during a town hall meeting on school safety last week.)

“That’s when I felt like police officers aren’t there to be your friends or your counselors,” Sharma said. “I just think it’s unfair for students to go through this every day — it creates a stigma at the school.”

“I have a little brother, and I don’t want to think about that happening to him.”

At the Academy of American Studies in Queens, the student council is helping to organize an event in the school’s courtyard, said Nuzhat Wahid, one of the student organizers of the event. Students at the school researched the 17 victims in the Parkland shooting and will hang short biographies of each student and teacher on the fence outside of the school. Then, they plan to release 17 orange balloons to commemorate the victims.

The event is likely to be particularly poignant for one student at the school, Wahid said, who knew two of the victims in the Parkland shooting. For Wahid, a high school senior, the event is a chance to stand against the possibility of something similar happening to her loved ones.

‘I’m going to graduate high school and I won’t have to think about an individual coming into my school and hurting others,” she said. “But I have a little brother, and I don’t want to think about that happening to him.”

“I thought, ‘I can be a part of this change.’”

Shimin was in fourth grade when a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing 26 students and teachers.

“From that point on, lockdown drills were this very serious thing,” Shimin said. “I had this idea that anyone could come in and shoot.”

Now Shimin is a freshman at Brooklyn Tech, where she has helped organize her classmates for the walkout. Brooklyn Tech is the largest city high school at nearly 6,000 students, and students plan to line the block around their school, holding posters and chanting. Some will return to class, but Shimin and others plan to head to Borough Hall for speeches and more demonstrations.

She admits some of her classmates didn’t feel like they needed to join the debate since New York already has strict gun laws. But she felt compelled to support the Parkland students in their call for national action.

“They were saying this is never going to happen again and that inspired me,” Shimin said. “I thought, ‘I can be a part of this change.’”

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.