In the Classroom

A strong push is needed to make discipline more fair for all students, panelists say

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Fixing problems in schools that cause black children to face harsher discipline than white students is not an easy challenge to overcome, but local education leaders say building stronger relationships between students and teachers is an essential piece of the puzzle.

When it comes to school discipline, the odds are stacked against black students in Indiana.

They are more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled from school, no matter whether their school has few black students or many. That can have a ripple effect, dragging down their academic performance and increasing the chance that black children will drop out of school.

A panel discussion examining the issue, hosted by The Mind Trust and the UNCF tonight, drew about 70 attendees, including leaders such as Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Indiana data reveals that black students are suspended or expelled at alarmingly high rates compared to their peers. Although they make up just 12 percent of the children in Indiana schools, about 40 percent of students who are suspended or expelled are black, according to Russell Skiba, director of The Equity Project at Indiana University, which tracks disparities in discipline.

It’s easy to think of suspensions and expulsions as a last resort for students who are dangerous or violent. But in fact, only 5 percent of suspensions and expulsions stem from battery, drug-related or violent incidents.

Many students are punished severely for subjective offenses, such as defiance, said Carole Craig, a veteran educator, member of the NAACP education committee and one of the panelists. In order for Indiana to reduce discipline disparities, schools should only be allowed to suspend students for dangerous behavior, she said.

“It’s the policy that’s allowing this. It’s not the behavior of the students,” she said. “We have to look at how do we view race, what are our unbiased opinions about, what kind of perceptions do we have about black males?”

Harsh discipline can have disastrous ramifications for students, reducing the time they spend in school learning and dramatically increasing the chance that they will drop out of school, according to a research summary from Skiba.

The key to reducing suspensions among black students is strong relationships with teachers, said Wanda Legrand, IPS deputy superintendent for academics. Relationships are the bedrock of alternative discipline programs that are less punitive than suspension, she said.

“Relationships with students will eliminate most of the problems that you see in classrooms,” said Legrand, who is implementing race and equity training for the district.

Ahmed Young, who leads Hogsett’s education team, echoed the importance of getting to know students. When he was teaching, his first priority was showing students that he cared about their lives, Young said.

“As a teacher, I would spend the first almost two or three weeks not touching the standards, not touching the curriculum, not touching a single book, but really getting to know each and every one of my students,” he said. “It laid the foundation to have those difficult conversations to address those really substantive issues that each child comes into the classroom with.”

But many teachers don’t have the time or opportunity to build such deep relationships with all of their students. Schools are short on support staff, like counselors, and they don’t have the resources to provide adequate teacher training, Craig said.

“You really want to take a prep period or lunch period to talk and give students that personal attention, (but) you don’t really have that,” Craig said. “Our teachers are absolutely stretched.”

How I Teach

An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain

PHOTO: File Photo

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Cheryl Mosier’s favorite lesson about the properties of light waves is one that her students enjoy, too. Some spend all day Snapchatting about it.

But the lesson also brings up painful memories for the Columbine High School earth science teacher because she was teaching it the day of the deadly shooting there in 1999.

Mosier stopped teaching the lesson for a few years, but ultimately brought it back into the mix. In fact, a video of that lesson was part of the package that earned her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2007.

Mosier shared her thoughts on how she builds relationships with students, why she’s always nice to custodians and secretaries, and what she reads for fun.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I first taught when I volunteered at my local swimming pool during swim lessons. I knew then that teaching fit my personality as I had the ability to have fun and teach content. During high school, I was inspired by my math and science teachers (Ms. Finnegan and Ms. Chaloupka) as they were able to make math and science accessible for all students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ___________Why?

My husband. He teaches literally next door to me, and teaches earth science. We collaborate on everything and help each other solve problems as they arise. We are each other’s sounding boards and he keeps me sane and I keep him thinking outside the box. He hates it when I attend a conference or meeting because I make him change something else.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

Fingerprints of Light — on spectroscopy — is honestly my favorite, but also my most dreaded. I was teaching that lesson on April 20, 1999, so it took me a couple of years to do it again with students.

During the 2007 school year, I applied for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and this lesson was the one my husband filmed for the application. I found out a year later that I was the awardee, so this lesson holds a special place in my heart.

Another reason I love this lesson is seeing the excitement of my students. We use the diffraction grating in “Rainbow Peepholes” — small disks with the grating in the middle to look through — which act as tiny prisms splitting the light into the basic wavelengths. This is the one lesson that is Snapchatted all day long – they love taking pictures of the different lights and make some amazing stories.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students typically collaborate in class and have the opportunity to retake quizzes and tests in an effort to help them learn the content rather than just do the work. When they don’t understand they ask someone – a friend or me to help them figure it out.

My students have to adjust to my style, though, as I make them tell me where in their work their understanding broke down. They have to be able to specifically state where they are stuck, rather than just saying “I don’t get it” because I will ask them “What don’t you get? Show me where you got stuck.” Larger issues of learning styles are managed on an individual basis as I know that not every student can learn from watching videos. So those get addressed as needed and as students recognize what does and doesn’t work for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task? To a casual observer, my students are constantly off task in my room, because they are working collaboratively. Freshmen are very social creatures, and need to be able to interact with each other. At the beginning of the year, I train them in the major tasks for each class, so they know what to expect each block.

If I need to, I’ll put a phone in “phone jail” if they are being distracted by it, but this isn’t very often. One trick I use at the beginning to refocus them is to raise my hand, as they raise their hand, they close their mouth and pass the message to others. Sounds cheesy, but it’s super effective as they are learning how to manage my class.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Every fall, students fill out a Who Am I form that I stole from Pinterest. They get to see my responses and ask me questions, allowing them to get to know me as a human being.

I also have them write down anything I might need to know as a teacher about them, past what is in their school records, similar to the #Iwishmyteacherknew campaign. This opportunity gives me perspective on their individual needs and helps me understand what they might get overwhelmed by each year, or what they might need differently for science learning. As each class is mostly work time, this allows me to interact with my students answering questions, clarifying directions and listening to their conversations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of the main reasons I do my own version of #Iwishmyteacherknew is because of an interaction I had with a family in May last year. I had struggled with a particular student all year long, his behavior was obnoxious daily and he constantly was off task, pulling others off task with him and generally working towards being removed from his peers every block as he just couldn’t handle being in the room.

In May, the family requested a meeting with teachers and the counselor, where we found out that this student has Aspergers. Had I known that, our interactions would have been different because I would have known more about him and his needs as a learner and human in society. Once I heard this, we were able to work with each other each day, instead of constantly playing tug-of-war.

What are you reading for enjoyment? I tend to read teen dystopian novels, because they are fun and fast reads with a bit of science fiction mixed in. I also like to read books that my son might enjoy, even if it takes him months to try one, only to realize Mom was right and the book is lots of fun to read!

What’s the best advice you ever received? In my first teaching job, I was told to never make the custodian or secretary mad at you as they can make your life miserable. This has stayed with me, because it’s so amazingly true. My room is typically cleaner than others because I smile and talk with the custodian. I can talk my way into “favors” with the office staff because I know our school would quickly fall apart without them. Schools wouldn’t and couldn’t run day to day without our educational support colleagues!

Black girls and trauma

Here’s how one Memphis school is changing the way it disciplines girls of color

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Aspire Coleman listen during a sixth-grade math class. The Memphis charter school has changed its disciplinary practices in recent years to be more informed about the effects of emotional trauma, especially among female black students.

When a 12-year-old girl entered her fifth elementary school in five years, she arrived with a lengthy suspension record — and a past filled with sexual violence and neglect.

Chronic conflict at home had made it hard for her to listen in class and avoid fights with peers. But at Aspire Coleman, a state-run charter school in Memphis, she felt heard by her teachers for the first time. The seventh-grader is poised to finish her first full school year suspension-free.

“I used to get into more drama and fights at school,” said the girl, whose name is withheld to protect her identity. “I was just really angry, and then I’d get embarrassed when teachers yelled at me. But here, I don’t get yelled at like that. We just talk.”

Leaders at Aspire Coleman, whose 525 students are mostly black and poor, have been revamping their disciplinary practices based on gender, with a special focus on girls of color who have experienced trauma. They now offer separate advisory classes to support girls and boys, and have trained staff on how to work with students who have been abused or neglected.

After three years, suspensions are down by two-thirds school-wide, and are well below the national rate for girls of color.

“Education can never be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Principal Owen Ricciardi, “so why would we treat discipline any different?”

Researchers increasingly point to emotional trauma as the root of disciplinary problems that lead black girls, as a group, to be suspended or expelled six times more frequently than girls of any other race — more often than white boys, too. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to homelessness and family dysfunction.

The data has school leaders across the nation rethinking their disciplinary policies. Last fall, the White House co-hosted a conference on the issue that drew representatives of at least 22 school systems from 15 states, including Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which oversees Aspire Coleman. The collective goal was to learn how to build more supportive climates that help black girls overcome childhood trauma and focus on academics, leading to fewer disciplinary infractions.

“The trauma a student experiences is often silent or invisible when that student is at school,” explains Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, which helped to spearhead the conference. “It’s harder for teachers to recognize and it requires training if you want to shift a school climate. Everyone in a school, from the bus driver to the principal, needs to be educated on signs of trauma, on the background of childhood trauma, and the trauma that can be unique to girls of color.”

Black girls comprise only 8 percent of the nation’s students, but represent 14 percent of those who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

And researchers say time missed from school due to suspensions increases the odds of more disciplinary issues, dropping out of school, unwanted pregnancies, or being caught in the juvenile justice system.

The challenges hit home in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which takes over the state’s lowest-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators like Aspire. Among the ASD’s 33 schools, most of which are in Memphis, more than 15 percent of female students have been suspended during the last three years. The vast majority of those girls are black.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire Coleman mixes genders in academic classes but separates them in advisory support sessions.

At Aspire Coleman, almost 97 percent of the student body is black, and 48 percent are girls of color. During its first year as a charter school beginning in 2014, administrators suspended 15 percent of the school’s students, equating to a lot of missed instruction time. Ricciardi vowed to reduce that rate to zero and started out by developing gender-based approaches to discipline. Teachers were trained about the challenges that black girls face in poor neighborhoods, often causing them to act out. Next they learned about restorative justice approaches that build a positive school climate by emphasizing conversation, empathy and reconciliation.

“We’re trying to get educators to buy into the ‘why’ behind how kids act,” said Queria Nunnley, the assistant principal who has shepherded the new approach. “We don’t want them to see a student as acting bad. We want them to ask, ‘Why is this student acting out? What supports do they need?’”

While research on the academic effects of separating students by gender is mixed, educators at Aspire Coleman say gender-based disciplinary tactics have helped in one crucial way.

“We’ve found that girls are much more likely to open up about what’s going on if they are broken off into a group of their own gender,” said Breonna Ponder, who helps provide gender-based programs through Communities in Schools. “We can get deep with struggles that girls in this school disproportionately deal with — like how to be appropriate on social media, how to say no when a boy pressures them, or how to resolve conflict when they have two friends fighting.”

Chantavia Burton, chief of student equity and access for the state-run district, hopes the school’s lessons can be extrapolated to the ASD’s other schools.

“We’ve seen on a national scale the focus on school-to-prison pipelines, and that’s led to a focus on disparities in discipline practices for men of color,” Burton said. “We’re glad those conversations are happening, but we recognize there hasn’t been as big of a focus on the women in our schools. We want to change that. … Women in these communities bear burdens silently. It’s not talked about openly; girls internalize. We in education have to recognize that and realize that just suspending girls who are angry or acting out might not help them on the road to rehabilitation.”

Schools can start, Epstein said, simply by asking students what they are struggling with and what they need. Sometimes the difference is as simple as knowing that girls who have been abused by men would do better in a female teacher’s classroom.

Such was the case for the 12-year-old student who arrived at Aspire Coleman with a history of sexual abuse. Administrators asked her if she’d prefer a male or female teacher.

“It can be difficult for me with male teachers,” the girl acknowledged. “I feel like those personal things about me, the things that have made school hard for me, those get paid attention to here.”