First Person

Looking Back On Student Journalism At Bronx Science

The student press, at least legally, is not a free press. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school newspapers are legally subject to administrative review. As many — including the comic book character Spiderman — have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and indeed, we usually count on the good faith of school administrators in these matters of content regulation.

At the Bronx High School of Science, however, whether administrators acted in good faith on these matters is not clear. Last year, I was one of two editors of the Editorial page on the school’s newspaper, the Science Survey. While disputes between teachers and administration have received a high profile in media coverage, here is a side of the story you probably have not heard before.

Trouble In The Math Department

At the end of April 2010, the union complaint the math teachers had earlier filed through the city union was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Principal Valerie Reidy’s side anyway and more or less ignored the arbitrator’s findings. (In December, an arbitrator ruled that Lamphere’s low rating should be discarded.)

At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and next year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in several city newspapers), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue.

Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously.

A pre-publication proof of the paper had to be sent to the principal and English department head about a week before publication. They would then take their time combing through our proof pages, ferreting out grammatical errors, but more importantly, criticism. Articles on rather banal school activities had sentences scrubbed because they could be interpreted as critical of the administration, or, heaven forbid, Department of Education policy.

So as we crafted the editorial, we decided right away to not even attempt to take a stand on the merits of the arbitration complaint — we knew that even a straight news article, let alone an opinion piece on the substance of the decision, would be instantly shot down. Instead, we went for a much softer message that school administrators should probably level with students in the event that a faculty dispute makes citywide news. We emailed the principal our intentions, and Seán and I had a cordial meeting in her office to get her side of the situation. I can say that she is more polite in person than press accounts have indicated. We even encouraged the principal to write her own response to our editorial, which we would run unedited, next to our already milquetoast piece.

A week of email correspondence ensued, when we tweaked and shifted the piece on advice of our faculty adviser, the outgoing editors, and rather terse responses from the principal. We were all pleasantly surprised and thought that we actually would be able to run the piece. By the end of the week, we were ready to publish and emailed her for approval. It was “not the editorial we discussed,” she replied.

And so our last issue of the year instead featured a short rant on chairs, the typical senior reflection, and a rather large picture of a folding chair on the opinion page.

More Troubles At The Survey

When the editing staff returned from summer to run the paper full time, we had come to accept the content restrictions and work around them. We became rather good at the practice of self-censorship, for example barely hinting at the teacher turmoil in a “the 2000s at Bronx Science” retrospective we had run the previous year. When the (actual) police were called to respond to an incident at the school during the traditional start-of-year senior event, we were not allowed to mention their calling in our story. We decided to preserve our credibility by not running a piece that omitted the one aspect of the incident most of the students remembered. Opinion pieces on “controversial” issues (the bulk of the disagreement came from the administration on these sorts of things) had to be run as “pro/con” pieces, with a student writing a piece parroting the administration’s position, to create the impression of disagreement among the student body. Examples of this at work include an opinion piece one of our staff did criticizing the increased use of an online grading system. It was widely disliked by students, but one wouldn’t get that impression from the equal billing we had to give both sides.

The biggest dispute over the paper, and the only one that became a big enough issue to leak out as a series of rumors to the rest of the student body, was the controversy last year over the annual April satire issue. In previous years, the administration had typically loosened the grip here, allowing us to run content that actually satirized the administration (one of my favorite covers from the year before I joined the paper stylized the school as a sort of Soviet totalitarian state) and toed the limit of propriety (the cover article on the joke issue our junior year was on a certain well endowed graduate coming to speak at our graduation).

When A Joke Is funny, And Then Isn’t

So no one batted an eye when some of the staff on the paper decided to run a mock “March Madness” bracket in the satire issue. The idea was that a bunch of teachers at the school were written as competing in a series of one-on-one basketball games. The piece seemed to have passed muster with the administrators, as we were allowed to publish.

Nay, how we were mistaken. In the piece, which took up the whole bottom fold of the back page, several portions raised complaint. A male teacher was referred to have lost a game against a female teacher because he was “too focused” on her “body movement.” Later in the piece, two female teachers were noted to have “showed their exquisite ball handling skills, while riding all the way to the final four.” Another male teacher was then noted to have won the tournament, however, by “finishing on top.”

Two of the teachers mentioned — one of them the “focused” male teacher — complained to the administration about the content of the issue, and suddenly, it seemed as if there was an oversight in the content editing process. On our end, of course. The assistant principal of the English department sat in on our traditional end-of-issue debrief, and our faculty adviser seemed to continually hint at what sort of process “improvements” we could make in her moderating of the conversation. The next day, Reidy herself made an appearance at the Survey room to essentially lecture us on our lack of propriety. She made a concerted effort to tell us she was not visiting to “intimidate” us, which as you can imagine at the time rang particularly hollow. We didn’t hear much on the subject after that; rumors swirled that the principal had ordered all copies of the paper still in the school trashed, and our stacks of excess issues suddenly were missing the satire issue.

It is unclear what happened regarding that issue, but I can say that the Survey currently has a different faculty adviser. I do not know whether this had anything to do with the above-mentioned dispute. In my rather non-objective view, she was a capable manager of the paper and excellent teacher, but such is how things go.

Postscript

When I was contacted by GothamSchools to adapt a post from my blog into this piece, I was asked to include quotes from current staffers at the Survey. I spoke to several students currently on the paper, and all declined to comment, citing the fact that they were still at the school. I can say with certainty myself that exactly one year ago, as this controversy was looming over us as we prepared the final issue, I would not have put my name to this story either.

Abraham Moussako is a 2011 graduate of Bronx High School of Science, where he was an editor of the Science Survey student newspaper. He is currently a student at McGill University in Montreal. This piece is adapted from a post on his blog, Another Note in the Cacophony.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.