Roll call!

Why it’s hard to get students to come to class — and what one Memphis school is doing about it

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Eighth-grader LaTonja Boyce now gets driven by a family member to Riverview School, a K-8 school in south Memphis, but that's not always been the case.

LaTonja Boyce knows the challenges of getting to school when the odds are stacked against you. An eighth-grader at Riverview School in Memphis, she’s moved a lot — from home to home and family member to family member — without the structure, resources and guidance needed to get to school every day and on time.

“Going to school isn’t always like the cool thing to do or what you see other kids on your street doing,” says LaTonja, 13, who now lives with a grandmother while her siblings are in foster care. “But I’ve had teachers make me want to come. I know they will check on me if I’m not there … and they explain why (education) is important for your future.”

LaTonja’s story isn’t unique. High rates of mobility and poverty are among hurdles that stand in the way of getting to school in Memphis, where chronic absenteeism is a major challenge.

Last school year, 29,000 students in Shelby County Schools missed 18 or more school days. And it’s worse for Tennessee students living in poor neighborhoods. Those considered economically disadvantaged are three times more likely to be chronically absent, according to a state report released this year.

For students who defy the odds, encouragement from a teacher or mentor is a common theme.

Sixth-grader Miranda Moore began attending Riverview when her school, Lincoln Elementary, was closed by the district in 2015. It was hard coming to class when she felt behind the other students, but encouragement and attention from teachers made a huge difference.

“Whenever I feel like I’m not getting something, I like it when teachers break us up into groups and have us help each other put what the teacher is saying into our own words,” Miranda says. “When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying.”

This month, to highlight the importance of school attendance, Shelby County Schools launched an attendance campaign in partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team to incentivize students to show up. The focus is on 10 schools that had 10 percent of last year’s most-absent students.

Riverview wasn’t among schools targeted by this year’s campaign, partly because the K-8 school in south Memphis has made strides in recent years to curb attendance woes. Principal Latasha Harris credits a revamped school culture and increased communication with parents, many of whom live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Last year, before the first school bell even sounded, Riverview employees called parents’ phones and knocked on relatives’ doors to make sure students started the school year strong. It worked, with most students registered by the first day of school.

Riverview educators made a similar push this year, and took it a step further by throwing a “block party” in early August to get families on the school campus and get students registered.

Despite making strides with middle schoolers, Riverview has struggled with elementary attendance, prompting Harris to enlist the help of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit partner in a national dropout prevention program.

“We have a site director (from Communities in Schools) here every day, and one of her sole priorities is attendance,” Harris said. “Having someone to meet with parents and understand why they might be struggling to get their kids to school, that’s huge. It’s been extremely helpful.”

In meetings with parents, Riverview leaders learned about the need for a uniform closet, which the school established at the front office so students can access clothing if they don’t have a clean uniform.

"When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying."Miranda Moore, student

“We found that students were missing school because they didn’t have the right thing to wear, or their uniform was dirty, and they were getting called out on it in class,” Harris said. “So now we have this closet with everything you can think of — from shirts to underwear.”

Relationships go a long way in connecting students to school life, so Harris coaches her teachers to nurture a caring environment.

Jerreca Saulsberry, a third-grade math and science teacher, agrees. She says the No. 1 reason that students struggle to come to school consistently is an unstable home environment.

“I grew up in this area and had a similar childhood to many of the kids in my classroom,” Saulsberry said. “For me, teachers in school were always my safe haven. That made me want to show up. I wanted to come back to teach to create same environment.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”