Suspension Intervention

How often does New York City tell its principals they can’t suspend a student?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy, including insubordination or "B-21."

Before 2015, principals only had to seek approval from the city for the most serious suspensions. But starting in April of that year, the city added an oversight mechanism: Requiring principals to get permission from the education department before suspending students in grades K-3, or a student in any grade for insubordination.

Some school leaders and union officials complained, saying the policy makes it harder to maintain order.

But how often does the city overrule a principal’s judgment?

In all, the education department rejected about 22 percent of suspension requests under those categories during the 2015-16 school year, the first full year under the new code. Officials rejected 453 of the 2,008 requests to suspend students for insubordination, or 23 percent. And they rejected about 20 percent of the 1,039 attempts to suspend students in grades K-3, or 31 percent if you include the more serious suspensions that already required approval.

“It is promising to see that there are rejections and that suspensions are not rubber-stamped by the Department of Education,” said Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children. “They’re using this as a way of showing schools they’re serious about the policy changes.”

The requirement that principals earn approval for certain suspensions came as part of a series of edits to the discipline code — championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio — designed to discourage their use and move schools toward less punitive approaches.

The number of total rejections (659) is tiny compared to the total number of principal suspensions issued last year (27,122). (Principals have long been required to clear more serious superintendent suspensions with the department; last year, schools issued 10,525 of them and were rejected 2,171 times.)

Still, in concert with the city’s shift away from suspensions more generally, the decision to require an extra layer of approval in certain cases may be having an effect. Overall, suspensions have fallen by roughly 30 percent under de Blasio’s watch, continuing a downward trend that began under his predecessor.

“There’s kind of an unwritten rule where schools know these suspensions aren’t going to be approved, so schools don’t put a whole lot of them through,” said Damon McCord, co-principal at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens.

Officials have taken particular aim at suspensions for insubordination, one of the offenses that now requires approval. Advocates charge that its inclusion in the discipline code contributes to the disproportionate removal of students of color and those with disabilities from their classrooms — and its use has plummeted 75 percent over the past two school years. The city has also pledged to virtually eliminate suspensions for the city’s youngest students (that policy is expected to take effect later this month).

But the dramatic drop in suspensions has earned mixed reviews from some educators who say there has been a parallel dip in discipline. Ernest Logan, head of the city’s principals union, argues school leaders should be trusted with suspension decisions, as long as they’re following the discipline code.

“When the chancellor selects a principal, then you should give that principal the authority to run their schools,” Logan said in response to the rejection numbers. “Why do you have a principal there if you don’t accept their judgment?”

Lois Herrera, CEO of the education department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, which oversees the suspension approval process, said the extra layer of oversight ensures students are only suspended if they are actually interfering with their peers’ educations. “We saw it as an opportunity to add that extra quality control and make sure if we had to suspend, it was appropriately used.”

Suspensions are more likely to approved if the misbehavior constitutes a pattern, interferes with instruction, or other alternatives have been exhausted, Herrera said, noting that forthcoming updates to the discipline code will “strengthen” the requirement that schools try other options first.

“If we say no [to a principal], it doesn’t mean we’re turning a blind eye to misbehavior,” Herrera said, because her office often helps schools find alternative approaches. Asked if principals could simply suspend students for similar infractions that don’t require approval, she said she there was no evidence of that in the data.

McCord, the Queens principal, said the education department rejected his attempt to suspend a student who repeatedly tried to skip afternoon classes. “We probably didn’t do a good enough job articulating the prior interventions we’d already done,” he said.

Still, he supports the city’s review policy.

“We just found other ways to address [misbehavior],” he noted. “If you’re working that hard to suspend a kid, you probably need to rethink your approach.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”