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.

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.