trending downward

Suspensions continue to fall in New York City schools under de Blasio

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August.

Suspensions in New York City schools are continuing to fall, though not as sharply as in previous years, according to new data released Friday.

From September through mid-March, schools issued nearly 7.5 percent fewer overall suspensions compared with the same period in 2015. Principal suspensions, which are handed out for less serious offenses, dropped to 16,059 so far this school year, a six percent drop. More serious superintendent suspensions dropped 11 percent to nearly 5,900.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed policies that make issuing suspensions more difficult, including a new discipline code that requires written approval from the education department to suspend students for certain infractions. The city has also invested in training staff members to provide alternatives to suspensions.

“We are encouraged by the steady decline in suspensions and incidents across the city,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. She added the city is “providing targeted supports to schools that have historically high suspension rates to implement proactive and effective interventions to keep students in the classroom where they can learn.”

Overall, between 2013-14 and 2015-16 suspensions have plummeted by 30 percent.

But the city’s new discipline policies have drawn criticism. Some union officials and educators have complained that limiting schools’ ability to suspend students without proper training in alternative approaches has made schools more chaotic and dangerous, an assertion that is at least partially backed by student and teacher surveys.

City officials point out that reports of serious crimes in city schools are at “an all-time low” and that arrests and summonses have fallen as well.

The education department addressed another longstanding criticism from advocates: That school-based arrests, summonses, and suspensions disproportionately affect black and brown students, as well as those with disabilities. Officials noted that suspensions for insubordination — which is often viewed as a subjective offense that invites bias — decreased 32 percent to 340 suspensions from last July through December, compared with the same period in 2015.

Though the new data do not include student demographics, the most recent reports that include racial data show that black students represent half of all suspensions, despite being 27 percent of the student population.

Suspensions for students in grades K-2, which the city plans to significantly curtail in forthcoming updates to the discipline code, fell 38 percent.

“We are encouraged by the decrease in suspensions for students in grades K-2 and for insubordination, and also acknowledge that racial disparities in suspensions persist,” education officials wrote in a press release. Whether those disparities are shrinking won’t become clear until the city releases complete demographic data in October.

“Although the city has seen a positive drop in the numbers of suspensions, we still have far to go,” said Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children, who added that her organization receives hundreds of calls each year from students facing suspensions, and that most are black or have disabilities.

Yuster criticized the city’s commitment to school discipline reform in the long term. “The city’s preliminary budget does not contain the funding that is needed to maintain the gains from earlier investments in school discipline reform and support schools that are looking to move away from exclusionary discipline practices.”

The education department also reported that students were taken away by emergency medical personnel due to an emotional or psychological condition 484 times from last July through December, down 20 percent compared with the same period the previous year — the first time the statistics were reported. City officials said the decrease is evidence that de-escalation trainings are having an effect.

Advocates have repeatedly criticized the practice of calling 911 to handle disorderly students, and a 2014 settlement barred schools from making 911 calls before trying to defuse the situations themselves.

Overall, the number of times students were transported from schools by EMS for any reason went virtually unchanged at about 4,300.

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.

Looking for options

State board raised questions over plan for Pueblo schools and management partners

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Board of Education on Monday asked Pueblo City Schools and state officials to submit slightly different plans for three struggling schools by mid-June.

While the district already planned to partner with two outside companies to improve student performance at the three schools, the board directed state officials to give the outside companies more of a management role in the next version of the plan.

While the board approved improvement plans for several other schools and districts this month, its request for changes to the plan for Pueblo schools was unusual. It also means that in June the board will have two plans to choose from for a final order.

Board members on Monday asked district officials about the work the district has done in the past few years trying to improve performance with an innovation zone — or a group of schools granted similar waivers from some laws and policies — about leadership changes in the schools and at the district level and about whether there have been any successful “bright spots” in recent years.

Board members also questioned district officials on the role of the external companies, Achievement Network and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Charlotte Macaluso, Pueblo City Schools superintendent said the management companies would not govern the schools.

“They would serve as a partner to identify needs,” Macaluso said.

But board members weren’t sold on a partnership of equals, and directed state officials to create a governance plan outlining how the companies would work with the schools. They also expressed frustration at the lack of a formal vetting process for the companies that would work with the schools. The same issue came up at hearings for Greeley schools earlier in the day.

The three schools include Heroes Academy, a K-8, Risley International, a middle school, and Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third-graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The initial state and district proposals call for the three schools to work with two external companies. For Heroes and Risley, the recommendations also suggest allowing the schools to waive some district and state rules.

Risley got innovation status in 2012, giving it such flexibility. So far, the status has not improved the school’s performance. For Heroes the autonomies would be new.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.