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.

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”