YOUNG ADVOCATES

New program aims to make advocates out of Memphis high schoolers

PHOTO: Campaign for School Equity
Students discuss advocacy topics during their session at Fairley High School, one of 10 schools in Shelby County participating in the program.

When it comes to conversations about education policy, students are often the least heard.

But amplifying young voices is the goal of a new program launched by two Memphis-based advocacy groups, Campaign for School Equity and Latino Memphis.

“I joined the group because of things that are going on around school, and I believe that we as leaders can change it,” said Angel Smith, 16, a senior at Hillcrest High School, one of 10 schools in the program. “I want to change how our school does discipline … and learn why some schools have more money than others.”

Many students feel powerless to improve conditions at their schools, said Katie Martin, who will oversee the program as advocacy manager for Campaign for School Equity. “It is so exciting to help them discover their own voices and realize that they can have a direct impact on the issues that matter to them,” she said.

About 100 high school students from Fairley, Martin Luther King Preparatory, Hillcrest, Trezevant and Southwest Early College High will take a monthly class on topics ranging from advocacy strategies to political campaign development.

Beginning in November, high-schoolers from Cordova, Wooddale, White Station, Kingsbury, and Southwind will also have classes at their schools.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, said students have already expressed interest in pushing for better school facilities and more discipline practices based on restorative justice.

The goal is for students to help shape Campaign for School Equity’s legislative platform and run their own school-based advocacy campaigns. In December, students will vote on priorities for the upcoming legislative season, Grinter said.

Students will take courses on research, writing opinion pieces, advocacy methods and campaign development. They also will meet with their local representatives, such as Memphis City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, who will speak with Hillcrest High students in late October.

Campaign for School Equity is funding the program, and students were selected based on their interest and school recommendations.

Grinter said the program marks a shift in his group’s priorities. Formerly known as the Tennessee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Campaign for School Equity has focused on promoting school choice for black families and engaging Memphis clergy around education.

“There are programs in Memphis to reach parents and community members and get them involved with advocacy, but not really students,” Grinter said. “We’re really going to double down on creating that space.”

Latino Memphis is an advocacy group for the city’s Hispanic and Latino communities and is working with Campaign for School Equity to include Latino students. 

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. A conference on Tuesday will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.