Policing the Schools

School suspensions, expulsions down but racial disparities still exist in Colorado schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students from right, Maria Recendes, Alexandra Pough, Diana Marquez and Jhovani Becerra listen to Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos at a March 28 press conference. The organization released the first report on student discipline trends after a 2012 law eliminated most of Colorado school's zero-tolerance policies.

Fewer Colorado students were suspended or expelled last year after school districts across the state abandoned zero-tolerance policies.

But schools are increasingly referring students of color to law enforcement officials, according to a statewide report released today by advocacy organization Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

The results of how schools manage discipline infractions in an era sans zero-tolerance policies is a “mixed bag,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres.

But, he said, “the report shows we’re moving in the right direction.”

Prior to the fall of 2012, students would be automatically suspended or expelled for any number of infractions including vandalizing school property or shoving a classmate. But that changed after the Colorado General Assembly passed the Smart Schools Discipline Law that did away with all but one possible infraction — carrying a firearm onto a campus — that could lead to an automatic expulsion.

The law also provided training for school resource officers, established a data collection partnership between schools and law enforcement agencies, and encouraged districts to implement more peer mediation and restorative justice practices.

State Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, called the legislation and its impact a model for the nation.

“The country has been watching us,” she said. “I’m ecstatic we’re already seeing positive results. But our work is not done. We need to ensure our children walk out with a diploma, not a criminal record.”

Earlier this year, the federal departments of education and justice released guidance to schools across the nation on how to break the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline. Colorado laws were already in compliance.

However, Daniel Kim, director of youth organizing for Padres & Jovenes Unidos, said there is huge variability on how schools are applying their new policies across the state.

“A student’s educational opportunity still hinges on where they live,” he said.

The report found across Colorado expulsion rates dropped by 25 percent, suspension rates dropped by 10 percent and law enforcement referrals were down by 9 percent.

But law enforcement referrals for black and Native American students increased by 8 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Kim said his organization would begin to break down the district level data published today and collect anecdotes from students, teachers and parents on what kind of policies are working — and which aren’t.

“We want to know if the culture is really changing,” he said. “Are teachers getting the support they need?”

According to a survey of Denver teachers last year, they aren’t. In fact, they said the new policies that are supposed to keep students in their seats learning are now leading to more distributions and less instructional time for their peers.

Martinez said he hopes schools can provide teachers with the resources they need to turn discipline infractions into teachable moments.

“The end goal is for a safe learning environment for every student,” he said. “There needs to be a really good reason to deprive a student of learning.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”