Turnaround Tactics

At Boys and Girls HS, struggling students urged to transfer, sources say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Calvin Brown, Jr., 17, was the junior class president and debate team captain at Boys and Girls HS. But after a new principal arrived, he said he was pressured to transfer out.

Calvin Brown, Jr. enrolled at Boys and Girls High School midway through his sophomore year after falling behind at a nearby charter school. Though the Bedford-Stuyvesant high school is considered one of the city’s worst, Brown thrived there.

He became the junior class president last year and the captain of the debate team, which is set to travel to South Africa next month for a competition. He had entered the school with just seven credits, but as he started his senior year this September he had three times that amount — still half as many as he needs to graduate, but he was catching up.

Then, after the school’s outspoken principal resigned last month, the city installed a new leader to turn around the troubled school. Under new principal Michael Wiltshire, students who are missing many credits or otherwise unlikely to graduate this year have been encouraged to transfer out, according to Brown and staffers at the school. Brown was one of the students urged to leave.

“They made me transfer,” said Brown, 17. “They don’t want me on the Boys and Girls roster.”

Leaders ordered to overhaul struggling high schools like Boys and Girls have limited options. They may try to retrain teachers or add tutoring time, but city regulations and the teachers union contract can stop them from taking more drastic steps. But one significant change they can make is to quietly adjust the school’s student population by advising underachieving students to transfer out.

Principals who have done that argue it is in the students’ best interest, since the alternative high schools where they land are designed to help students who are chronically absent and missing credits to graduate. But struggling high schools under intense pressure to improve also benefit by nudging out those students, since the schools are judged partly by their graduation rates.

Whether principals should treat student transfers as a turnaround strategy may come up for debate as the leaders of more than 90 low-performing schools try to make improvements under a new city program launched this week. The program gives schools extra support, but does not allow for immediate staffing changes or restructuring.

People at Boys and Girls High School say that about 30 students have transferred out since Wiltshire took over three weeks ago. Many of the students moved to Research and Service High School, an alternative school in the same building, according to an employee there.

“Since the administration change took place,” the employee said, “it seems like there’s some sort of mass exodus going on.”

Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources say.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Roughly 30 students have transferred out of Boys and Girls High School since Michael Wiltshire became principal three weeks ago, sources said.

One of Wiltshire’s first moves was to summon to the auditorium all the older students who were behind academically and let them know their odds of graduating could improve if they switched schools, according to Brown and other sources at Boys and Girls. He also said that students would now be expected to earn diplomas in four years, otherwise the school would help them find new placements, Brown said. (Last year, just 44 percent of Boys and Girls students hit the four-year graduation target.)

After the talk, a guidance counselor asked to meet with Brown and his father last week. In the past, Brown and the counselor had discussed ways he could make up his missing credits and still graduate from Boys and Girls, Brown said. But at this meeting, the counselor said Brown had too few credits and should transfer to an alternative school, Brown said. Convinced that he had to leave, Brown and his father reluctantly agreed to the move.

“Why don’t you take the kids who have problems and deal with them instead of pushing them out?” said Mary Saxon, Brown’s grandmother, who also spoke with the counselor. She said she told the counselor that her grandson wanted to remain at Boys and Girls, but the counselor said, “He has to go.”

A staffer said the school had occasionally advised off-track students to switch schools in the past, but never this “aggressively.” Because of Boys and Girls’ chronic low performance, the state has designated it as “out of time” and ordered it to show signs of improvement this year. Removing students who are far behind in school appears to be part of Wiltshire’s plan to produce a higher graduation rate, according to the staffer and Caster Hall, the school’s parent association president.

“The new principal is trying to kick out all the students who don’t have enough credits to get his graduation rate up,” said Hall, who is the brother of the principal who resigned. “It’s all about the numbers.”

Wiltshire did not respond to emails or phone messages, and school guidance counselors referred questions to the education department.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye would not comment on the situation at Boys and Girls. But she said that students should be in schools that best meet their needs, which can include transfer schools, the small alternative high schools designed for dropouts and students struggling to graduate.

“The DOE would never tolerate a student being forced out of any school,” she added.

The matter is especially delicate at Boys and Girls, which was the subject of a class action lawsuit a decade ago alleging that the school warehoused troublesome students in the auditorium as a way to push them out.

Brown’s claim — that he was pressured to transfer to another school— differs from the 2005 lawsuit, which alleged that the school’s actions drove students to drop out of school completely, said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation at Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that helped file the lawsuit. (As part of a 2008 settlement, the city agreed to put Boys and Girls under the oversight of a monitor for several years and make sure the school got approval before transferring students.)

Still, Brown’s situation highlights a common problem, Shore said. Students have the right to remain in school until the end of the year they turn 21, and administrators must follow strict protocols to make students switch schools against their will. But administrators sometimes work around those rules by convincing students that they will not graduate from their current school, and so should transfer to an alternative school, Shore said.

“It comes off in theory as the student wanting this and consenting,” she said. “But really, it’s more of the school pushing the student out.”

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, where the principal advised many students who were far behind to consider transferring to a special program.

If Wiltshire’s plan to improve Boys and Girls involves convincing some challenging students to transfer out, he would not be the first turnaround principal to try that approach.

Evan Schwartz was sent to Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx two years ago with orders from the city to make drastic changes. One of his first actions was to encourage older students who regularly skipped class and were far behind in credits to switch schools.

“I moved 100 kids in my first four months,” he said.

Schwartz notes that the city created alternative schools to serve so-called overage, under-credited students like the ones who left his school. Transfer schools, for example, tend to have smaller classes, extra social workers, and accelerated programs that let such students earn credits quickly in order to graduate. Other programs offer evening classes and paid internships.

Schwartz emphasized that he never forced lagging students to leave. Rather, he explained to the students that other schools were designed to help them catch up but, if they decided to stay at Smith, they could no longer cut class and ignore the rules.

Still, Schwartz said that it was crucial to get those students into a different school if he was going to improve Smith. Many of them were 19 years old, far behind academically, and only interested in wandering the halls and lunchroom, he said.

“You don’t want kids like that in the school,” Schwartz said. “It makes it hard to change the culture.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede