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.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.