Discipline matters

Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Half of suspensions across Tennessee in the 2014-15 school year were handed out in just 8 percent of schools, many of which serve black students in Memphis.

Statewide, 20 percent of black male students were suspended at least once that year. Black students were also more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

Sky-high suspension rates at some Memphis schools contributed significantly to that disparity. For instance, at Grandview Heights Middle School, fully two-thirds of students were suspended.

The revelations come from Tennessee’s latest discipline data, which state education officials presented last month in Nashville to members of a testing task force. Commissioner Candice McQueen called the high concentration of suspensions at 150 schools across the state “startling.”

“When you know [students] are not in front of any teacher, that they’re on their own, that’s the least-quality option,” McQueen said.

The new data reveals that suspensions are on the decline across Tennessee, and especially in Memphis, where the main school district, Shelby County Schools, has posted a double-digit drop in its suspension rate since the 2013-14 school year.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez said students attended the equivalent of 65,000 more school days last year because of the reduction in suspensions, from 63 per 100 students in 2013 to 50 per 100 students last year. (Many students were suspended more than once.)

But the new data also shows that the city, where most public school students are black, has a long way to go. In the 2014-15 school year, local schools enrolled less than 10 percent of the state’s students — but handed out more than a quarter of its suspensions.

The stunning numbers reflect national trends. Across the U.S., black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended than white students, even as the total number of suspensions falls. A number of school districts, including Indianapolis and Miami, have moved to eliminate suspensions for non-violent offenses or vaguely defined ones such as insubordination that are meted out more often to black students.

The data released by Tennessee doesn’t include the reasons students were pulled out of school. But leaders of both districts in Memphis say schools too often use suspensions when other forms of discipline could address behavior problems while keeping students in school.

Together, 21 percent of students in the two districts in Memphis — Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district whose schools are almost exclusively in the city — were suspended in the 2014-15 school year. MLK College Preparatory High School led the ASD in suspensions, with 57 percent.

The ASD has revised its discipline policy to eliminate expulsions, according to a district spokeswoman.

“We believe students deserve instruction regardless of behavior,” said Jennifer Williams, the district’s manager of enrollment and discipline.

Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, is monitoring suspensions and expulsions more closely than ever, and encouraging schools to adopt restorative justice, where students talk out their infractions with faculty and each other. (Read more about the district’s strategies here.) But Ramirez said not enough schools are yet on board.

“That’s not happening at the scale we’d like,” she said. “The challenge there is not having enough adults in buildings who have time in the course of the day” to guide students through restorative justice.

Almost every school in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has adopted a restorative justice approach, with districtwide help and resources from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. As a result, the district has significantly reduced suspensions and narrowed racial disparities in discipline.

“Changing people’s mindset about the best way to manage discipline is a barrier,” said Tony Majors, Nashville’s director of student services. “But there are more people supportive of alternative discipline practices than opposed.”

We compiled lists of schools with the highest rates of discipline actions across the state. Read through them all or skip to the ones you’re most interested in:

Districts with the highest percentage of students suspended overall
— Districts with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Districts with the highest percentages of students expelled overall
Districts with the highest percentages of black students expelled
Schools with the highest percentages of students suspended overall
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students suspended
Schools with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Schools with the highest percentages of students expelled
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of students expelled
Schools with the highest percentages of black students expelled
— Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students expelled

Districts with the highest percentage of students suspended overall:

  1. Achievement School District, 21.4
  2. Shelby County, 18.5
  3. Madison County, 13
  4. Fayette County, 12.9
  5. Metro Nashville, 10.7
  6. Millington, 9.6
  7. Dyersburg, 9.2
  8. Hardeman County, 8.7
  9. Hamilton County, 7.9
  10. Cleveland County, 7

Districts with the highest percentages of black students suspended:

  1. Shelby County, 21.9
  2. Achievement School District, 21.8
  3. Madison County, 17.8
  4. Fayette County, 17.6
  5. Metro Nashville, 16.9
  6. (tie) Cheatham County, 16.2, Millington, 16.2
  7. Hamilton County, 15.8
  8. Sequatchie County, 15.4
  9. Knox County, 14.8

Districts with the highest percentages of students expelled overall:

  1. Shelby County, .8
  2. Hamilton County, .6
  3. Metro Nashville, Hamblen County, Giles County, Hardin County, .4
  4. Lenoir City, Montgomery County, Sullivan County, Bartlett, Sequatchie County, South Carroll County, .3

Districts with the highest percentages black students expelled:

  1. South Carroll County, 3.2
  2. Lenoir City, 1.5
  3. Hamilton County, 1.3
  4. Shelby County, .9
  5. Collierville, .8
  6. Sullivan County, .7
  7. Metro Nashville, .6, Hamblen County, .6
  8. Montgomery County, .5, Rutherford County, .5

Schools with the highest percentages of students suspended overall  

  1. MNPS Middle ALC, Metro Nashville, 88.9 percent
  2. Union County Alternative Learning Center, Union County, 82.8
  3. Richard Yoakley School, Knox County, 68.4
  4. Grandview Heights Middle, Shelby County, 65.7
  5. MCS Prep School-Northwest, Shelby County, 63.8
  6. KIPP Collegiate Middle, Shelby County, 62.6
  7. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58.6
  8. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 57.7
  9. MLK Prep High School, Achievement School District, 57
  10. MLK Transition Center, Shelby County, 56

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students suspended:

  1. Grandview Heights Middle School, Shelby County, 65.7
  2. KIPP Collegiate Middle School, Shelby County, 62
  3. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58
  4. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 57.7
  5. MLK Prep High School, Achievement School District, 57
  6. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 54.5
  7. South Side Middle School, Shelby County, 53.7
  8. Moses McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville, 52.5
  9. Airways Middle School, Shelby County, 52
  10. Carver High School, Shelby County, 51.2

Schools with the highest percentages of black students suspended:

  1. MNPS Middle Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 87.5
  2. Grandview Heights Middle School, Shelby County, 66.3
  3. MCS Prep School-Northwest, Shelby County, 64.8
  4. Joelton Middle School, Metro Nashville, 64.4
  5. Treadwell Middle School, Shelby County, 63.6
  6. KIPP Collegiate Middle School, Shelby County, 63
  7. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 60.1
  8. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 59
  9. Moses McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville, 58.8
  10. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58.8

Schools with the highest percentages of overall students expelled:

  1. MNPS Middle Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 48.9
  2. Johnson Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 25.3
  3. W.A. Bass Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 18.2
  4. Hamblen County Alternative School, Hamblen County, 16
  5. MCS Prep-Northwest School, Shelby County, 11.5
  6. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.1
  7. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County,  6.8
  8. Smyrna West Alternative School, Rutherford County, 5.9
  9. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 5.6
  10. Martin Luther King Transition Center, Shelby County, 5.3

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students expelled:

  1. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County, 6.8
  2. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 5.6
  3. Geeter Middle School, Shelby County, 5.2
  4. The Howard School School, Hamilton County, 4.7
  5. Brainerd High School, Hamilton County, 4.6
  6. Oakhaven Middle School, Shelby County, 4.3
  7. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 4.2
  8. (tie) Hillcrest High, Shelby County, and Melrose High, Shelby County, 4.1
  9. Trezevant High, Shelby County, 4

Schools with the highest percentages of black students expelled:

  1. MNPS Middle ALC, Metro Nashville, 47.5
  2. Johnson Alternative Learning Center, Davidson County,  27.9
  3. W.A. Bass Alternative Learning Center, Davidson County, 17.1
  4. MCS Prep-Northwest, Shelby County, 11.7
  5. Northfield Academy, Maury County, 11.7
  6. Rock Springs Elementary School, Sullivan County, 10
  7. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County, 9.1
  8. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.7
  9. The Howard School, Hamilton County, 7.1
  10. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 6.4

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students expelled:

  1. Rock Springs Elementary School, Sullivan County, 10
  2. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County,  9.1
  3. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.7
  4. The Howard School, Hamilton County, 7.1
  5. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 6.4
  6. Geeter Middle School, Shelby County, 5.3
  7. Oakhaven Middle School, Shelby County, 5
  8. Brainerd High School, Hamilton County, 4.9
  9. Lenoir City High School, Lenoir City, 4.8
  10. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 4.5

Corrections and clarifications (Oct. 26, 2016): This story has been updated to correct that MLK College Preparatory High School led the Achievement School District in suspensions, not KIPP Collegiate High School, as an earlier version stated. KIPP Collegiate High School is in Shelby County Schools. This story also reflects that the ASD has phased out expulsions for all grades, not suspensions for pre-K through third grade, as an earlier version stated. In addition, this story clarifies that the 21 percent suspension rate in the 2014-2015 school year reflected suspensions across both Shelby County Schools and the ASD.

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.