Hallway Patrol

Students, advocates rail against suspension trends at hearing

Nilesh Wishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School, said he’s been suspended from school so many times that he finally lost count.

“Their first reaction was always a suspension,” Wishwasrao recalled Wednesday at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education’s suspension data released last month.

Wishwasrao said he was suspended “constantly” for what he said were small infractions, such as chewing gum and wearing a hat in school. Sometimes he was more disruptive, “talking back to a teacher, yelling at a dean.”

Finally, Wishwasrao testified, a guidance counselor met with his father to explain that high school probably wasn’t right for him and “it would be better if I get a GED rather than a high school diploma.”

Wishwasrao never graduated and is now pursuing his GED.

Wishwasrao was part of a chorus of criticism from students and advocates who testified at the hearing, held by the City Council’s education committee. Their testimonies came directly after DOE officials shed more light on suspensions in the city schools and promised changes to how some suspensions are handled.

At least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city’s student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony. The majority of them — 70 percent — were suspended just once, she said, but more than one in 10 — about 6,000 students — were suspended three or more times.

Grimm defended the data against criticism that principals and superintendents were unnecessarily punishing students. She cited trends that showed long-term suspensions for more severe behavior and suspensions were declining and said that preliminary data for the 2011-2012 school year indicated a 13 percent decrease in all suspensions.

“Our schools are safer, suspension rates are declining, and students and staff are embracing more positive and progressive approaches towards high-quality learning environments,” Grimm said in her testimony.

But she acknowledged concerns about suspensions for certain groups, particularly young students. At least 814 suspensions were issued to students in third grade or below. Grimm said the department would monitor elementary schools with higher-than-average suspension rates.

“We have identified our younger children in particular as those who we want to pay attention to,” Grimm said.

In addition, Grimm and Elayna Konstan, who oversees long-term suspension centers known as alternative learning centers, announced that the DOE will try to ease the transition back into schools from ALCs by using transition coaches. The program is part of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative to aid black and Latino youth. The DOE sent about 15,000 students to ALCs last year, but just over half ended up attending, meaning that thousands of students spent their suspensions outside of a school environment.

Council members zeroed in on racial disparities in the suspension numbers. Black students, who make up about one third of the student population, represented half of all suspensions. At one point during the hearing, Councilman Charles Barron ordered every DOE official in the room to stand, then chastised Grimm because she and her colleagues were not black.

“Not a single black man is here to give you his perspective,” Barron said. “All white. Why wouldn’t you bring a black man here to give us insight?

Later in the hearing, Councilman Robert Jackson pressed the issue of race with advocates, including representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the data’s release.

“Why do you think black students are being suspended at such a high rate?” he asked. “Is it because they’re black? Is it because of racial discrimination? Is it because they’re more troubled? Is it because they’re more intimidating to teachers because they’re bigger?”

Udi Ofer, the NYCLU’s advocacy director, said there many factors could help explain black students’ higher suspension rates but noted that national research has found that black students are suspended more often than white students for the same infractions.

Council members did not address the fact that the suspension data the DOE released is incomplete. Citing federal privacy laws, the department did not release data about suspensions at hundreds of schools where there were fewer than 10 suspensions.

Another student who testified, Chanwatie Ramnauth, a senior at Hillcrest High School, said she did not believe that the school’s administration was accurately recording suspensions. According to official data, Hillcrest had fewer than 10 suspensions last year, so the DOE did not release details about the infractions. But Ramnauth said she saw suspensions issued daily at her school. She said she saw a dean on Monday confront one student who wanted to know why she was being suspended.

“He told her ‘It’s like a give-and-take marriage,'” Ramnauth recalled in her testimony. “You give me the authority to suspend you and I allow you to go to class.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.