Hallway Patrol

Suspension rates continue to raise concerns, even as they drop

The number of suspensions that principals and superintendents handed out to students is down in the second year since the Department of Education was required to report the data publicly, but it’s still much higher than it was a decade ago.

City schools gave out 69,643 suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year, down from 73,441 in 2010-2011. As was the case last year, the vast majority of suspensions were principal suspensions, meaning students were not allowed to attend school for between one and five days. The number of principal suspensions declined slightly, from 58,386 to 56,385. The decline in the stricter superintendent suspensions was even more significant—those dropped from 15,055 in 2011 to 13,258 in 2012.

The data shows that a decline in suspensions preceded the department’s move to soften the discipline code by making fewer offenses grounds for suspension. Officials attributed the declines to efforts to reduce the penalties for minor behavioral problems and introduce more student-teacher conferences as alternatives to suspension.

“Many schools now are using conflict resolution and peer mediation, which has helped to address issues in a timely fashion,” said department spokeswoman Marge Feinberg. “We started implementing more and more training for these programs prior to 2012.”

This year’s numbers are better for some schools, but many are still high. Lehman High School handed out just over 650 suspensions, placing it second to Susan E. Wagner High School, which had about 700. And P.S. 189 handed out 19 suspensions to its youngest students—four year olds in Kindergarten. Richmond Hill High School topped the list of schools that gave out strict, longterm suspensions known as superintendent suspensions, with 89 suspensions. And like last year, the vast majority of students who were suspended were black or Latino.

For the first time this year, officials included information on the numbers of English Language Learners who received suspensions at each school. The school to give out the most suspensions to ELLs—about 160—was I.S. 061 Leonardo Da Vinci, a large middle school where 26 percent of its 2300 students are ELLs.

The student suspension data were released through the Student Safety Act, a law the City Council passed in 2010 to require transparency about discipline in city schools. The first set of data, released a year ago, revealed that many elementary schools were suspending children as young as five or six, while many high schools gave out hundreds of suspensions. The department came under fire over those high figures, and officials responded by promising to reduce penalties for minor behavioral problems and introduce more student-teacher conferences as alternatives to suspension. They followed up by overhauling the student discipline code in August.

Udi Ofer, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that the lower numbers were promising but still not low enough.

“The decline is clearly a step in the right direction, but the rate of suspensions is still more than double what it was at the beginning of the Bloomberg administration,” he said. He noted that NYCLU’s “Education Interrupted” report, released in 2011, found that there were 31,879 suspensions in the 2002-2003 school year, the first full school year after Bloomberg took office.

Ofer also said he remained concerned with the way the department released the data. The Student Safety Act does not required the city to release total numbers of suspensions for each student demographic category, and it has released those aggregate number selectively. For instance, it released aggregate student suspension data by race and by special education, but it declined to do so by age, gender or for English language learners. Though not required under the law, he said those numbers would be valuable for educators and advocates looking to get a complete picture of student suspensions.

“We commend the DOE for reporting suspension data for the first time in New York City history,” Ofer said. “However, the data is insufficient because we still don’t know the total number of students who were suspended and also English language learners. The DOE should release that immediately.”

In addition to the suspension data, officials released figures on the number of crimes committed in schools over the school year. Those numbers show that crime had a very slight uptick this year over last year—a departure from the slow, downward trend they saw between 2009 and 2011. This year there were 4,107 total crimes committed in schools, and 812 of them were for the seven major crimes. Last year 3,890 crimes were committed, and 801 were major crimes.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.