safety survey

In Bronx survey, struggling students explain what’s missing from school discipline debates

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student and member of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, spoke during an event the group organized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where it released a new report. The report is based on a survey of Bronxites that Maxwell helped conduct.

Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student who helped survey her peers about school discipline, recently asked a classmate why she had been suspended.

The girl explained that she had fought with another student who questioned her intelligence. But she also made clear that her problems went deeper than a schoolyard taunt.

“Basically,” Shaka’la explained, “she struggled in class a lot.”

That student was not alone: In surveying nearly 400 students, parents, and teachers at over 50 Bronx schools, Shaka’la and her research team found that students who struggle academically or socially at school are also more likely to get into trouble. Those same students are also the least likely to turn to school staffers for help, according to a new report by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, the South Bronx advocacy group that conducted the surveys.

The report comes as the citywide suspension rate continues its steady descent, and the education department is encouraging schools to adopt less punitive discipline approaches. It also follows significant changes to the city’s school discipline policies last year — including restrictions on the use of suspensions — and City Hall’s formation of a task force to review school discipline practices.

But, the report suggests, those efforts will fall short if they fail to address the underlying reasons for student misbehavior, which often involve a mix of academic challenges, problems at home, and friction with peers.

“While there is important and critical work being done to change policing practices and discipline policy,” the report says, “our research suggests that policymakers and educators must also address these underlying factors in order to transform school climate and culture in New York City.”

The group, which has pushed for improvements to South Bronx schools for two decades, decided to survey Bronxites about their schools in order to expand the school-safety debate beyond suspensions and metal detectors. While their unscientific results could never match those of the city’s massive school survey — which involves nearly 1 million participants — the idea was to add more school-level voices to the debate.

Shaka’la, who is a junior at the Bronx High School of Medical Science, teamed up with fellow students and parents to conduct the surveys in school lunchrooms, parks, McDonald’s restaurants, and churches. (Shaka’la said she used candy bars to coax some reticent interviewees.) Overall, they found that more than half of students said they enjoyed school both academically and socially.

At the event Monday, students and educators learned about "restorative circles," a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.
PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
At the event Monday, students and educators learned about “restorative circles,” a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.

But one in five students said they did not enjoy school, and those were the ones most likely to report having been disciplined in school and having struggled on state tests. Those same students were also twice as likely to say that they would not seek help from a teacher or other school staffer, according to the report.

Many of those students end up abandoning school, according to the report, which is based partly on interviews with students who dropped out of high school. The report says those dropouts were actually “pushed out,” explaining that many were “disengaged, distracted, disciplined, and dismissed long before they stopped attending.”

That was the case for Schurch Burgos, a 21-year-old Bronx resident who said she dropped out of long-struggling DeWitt Clinton High School when she was 15. She said that no one tried to pull her up as she fell behind in her classes, until she finally decided that it was pointless to keep showing up.

“I didn’t have help from teachers, from nobody,” said Schurch, who is now studying to earn a high school equivalency diploma. “I felt lost.”

If someone had intervened, she added, she believes that “would have stopped me from leaving, and I think I would have graduated.”

These issues are especially acute in the Bronx, which continues to have the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate of any borough. The Bronx has also historically seen the most school arrests and suspensions, though those numbers have declined sharply since 2012 along with the rest of the city’s.

The report makes several recommendations. It calls for more social workers to help coordinate schools’ “restorative justice” efforts, a problem-solving approach meant to replace suspensions. It also advocates substituting projects for some standardized exams, which it says will make students more excited about school and help those who perform poorly on tests.

An education department spokeswoman said the report is misleading because it relies on a limited sample of people. She said the city has hired 250 new guidance counselors and offered conflict de-escalation training to some schools, and she noted that suspensions fell by 17 percent last year.

In addition to the discipline-policy changes, the city has also invested heavily in mental-health counseling and other social services at some 130 “community schools” — efforts to confront the root causes of misbehavior and poor academics highlighted by the report.

“It’s an exciting moment,” said Emma Hulse, a Parent Action Committee organizer, “but there is a real need to continue the work and move forward.”

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.