downward trend

New York City school suspensions continue to plummet, but stark disparities persist

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protested the city's suspension policy in August.

Student suspensions decreased by nearly 16 percent last school year, as the city continues to push schools to use alternative approaches.

Schools issued almost 7,000 fewer suspensions in the 2015-16 school year compared with 2014-15, according to data released by the city Monday. School-related arrests dropped 10 percent, and summonses issued by school safety officers dropped 37 percent.

The steady drop in suspensions represents a 46 percent decline over five years, and comes after a series of policy changes that have made it harder for schools to suspend students for minor offenses.

But while the number of suspensions decreased in many demographic categories, black students and those with disabilities continue to be disproportionately removed from their classrooms.

About 50 percent of the city’s suspensions went to black students, even though they represent just over 27 percent of the student population. That’s slightly better than the previous school year, when that group represented 52 percent of the city’s suspensions.

Create line charts

White students accounted for nearly 8 percent of the city’s suspensions — up about half a percentage point from the previous year — despite being roughly 15 percent of the city’s students. Hispanic students accounted for almost 37 percent of suspensions and are just under 41 percent of students.

Students with disabilities, who make up around 19 of the city’s students, accounted for almost 39 percent of all suspensions. And while their total number of suspensions decreased by nearly 15 percent, they made up a slightly larger share of student suspensions than in the previous academic year.

City Department of Education spokeswoman Toya Holness acknowledged some of these disparities in a statement, noting that “we still have important work to do to ensure equity in school discipline.” But the city pointed out that suspensions due to insubordination — “historically a major factor of racial disparities” — declined 75 percent between the past two school years to 1,530 suspensions.

While advocates largely praised the reduction in overall suspensions, some remained troubled over persistent racial gaps, and argued that suspensions for insubordination should be eliminated entirely.

Simply reducing suspensions won’t solve the problem of racial injustice, explained Kesi Foster, coordinator for the Urban Youth Collaborative, which focuses on school discipline issues. Black youth are “disproportionately more likely to be suspended, arrested, receive a criminal summons, handcuffed, brought to precinct for a juvenile report, and be restrained as a child in crisis.”

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, who has been a vocal critic of the city’s approach to school discipline, said the numbers show “the trend is in the right direction.” Yet, he added, “Success should not be measured by the number of suspensions, but by the number of schools with an improved school climate.”

The city also released several statistics Monday for the first time. Teacher removals, which allow students to be excluded from a specific class for up to four days, rose 3 percent to 11,943 over the past five years. Holness attributed that increase to the department’s emphasis on more progressive discipline practices.

Though the number of suspensions has been falling since 2012, Monday’s numbers are the latest evidence that the city’s push to change the way students are disciplined is having an effect.

Last year, for instance, the city edited the discipline code so that principals would be required to get approval before suspending students for insubordination. And in July, the city announced it would ban suspensions for students in grades K-2 — though the discipline code does not yet reflect that policy. A Department of Education spokeswoman noted the changes were being finalized, but could not immediately offer a firm timeline for the change.

The city also attributed the decline in suspensions to increased trainings on a variety of restorative justice practices and crisis interventions, and has committed to hiring hundreds of additional counselors and mental health consultants.

“We’re encouraged by the steady decrease in suspensions along with crime, summonses and arrests,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and continue to expand trainings and build stronger community ties to ensure all students feel safe and are ready to learn.”

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”