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.”

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.