Discipline matters

Why Memphis hopes principals stop worrying about sagging pants and start welcoming students warmly

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Cutting unnecessary suspensions in Memphis schools might start with a simple “good morning.”

At least, that’s the hope of Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools.

Ramirez and her colleagues in Tennessee’s largest district are among the growing number of educators across the nation who have concluded that suspending students frequently comes at too high a cost. A recent decline in suspensions meant that local students spent a total of 65,000 more days in class last year than the year before, Ramirez said. But too many students are still losing valuable learning time and are getting alienated from school because of suspensions. (Read here about suspension trends in Memphis and across Tennessee.)

Some cities, including Miami and Indianapolis, have outright banned suspensions in most cases. Memphis hasn’t gone so far, but Ramirez said the district is working hard to change the tone it sets for students.

“A lot of our high schools have metal detectors, and we ask our students to go through those first thing,” she said. “The concern is that the first thing a child hears is ‘Pull up your pants.’ What if it was, ‘Good morning. Glad you’re here’?

“We’re really trying to shift the orientation from that of control to that of collaboration and positive culture.”

District leaders are monitoring discipline more closely than ever before, Ramirez said. Officials crunch the latest suspension data every month, investigating spikes and rewarding declines. They work closely with Gerald Darling, the district’s head of school security, who is on board with the basic direction. They’ve trained school leaders to recognize when students need extra emotional support because of challenges in their home lives. And they’ve encouraged principals to adopt alternatives to suspension, such as “restorative justice” programs that prioritize getting students to reflect on and change their behavior over simply punishing them.

Still, Ramirez says those efforts are battling scarcities of time, money and school personnel. Restorative practices are “not happening at the scale we’d like,” she said, suggesting that the district has a lot of work to do to dissuade educators from suspending students.

“Suspensions themselves are sort of the last-resort treatment,” Ramirez said. “For a lot of folks, out-of-school suspension was the primary tool in the box. So we’ve had to get smarter about helping them develop other tools.”

"For a lot of folks, out-of-school suspension was the primary tool in the box. So we’ve had to get smarter about helping them develop other tools."Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer

Shelby County could learn from Nashville, where suspensions — and the racial disparities in who receives them — are on the decline.

There, officials have made school-level changes, rather than district-level trainings that focus on the reasons students might be acting out.

“Students don’t necessarily misbehave because they have adverse childhood experiences,” said Tony Majors, a top leader in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “Student behavior is often associated with the climate and culture in an individual school.”

Ramirez said the culture shift she wants to achieve in Memphis is possible — but not simple, given the systems that schools have had in place for years. When disruptive behavior occurs, school administrators often default to suspension and expulsion in an effort to keep their school safe.

“We are helping folks understand that you still have to keep schools safe,” she said, “but there’s a space in there where we can do that and our students can feel nurtured and our adults, as well.”

Behind the numbers

New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

When education officials announced this month that New York City had achieved the highest graduation rates in history, they made a point of highlighting the gains in high schools that have struggled for years.

At the city’s 31 “Renewal” high schools — historically low-performing schools that receive extra social services and academic support — graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014. That growth is greater than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe (though at 59 percent, Renewal schools’ average grad rate is still still far below the city’s 72.6 percent average).

The city touted these figures as evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, which is projected to cost $850 million, is having an effect — good news for education officials who have struggled to point to clear signs of progress in the face of decidedly mixed results.

But despite the increase in graduation rates, Renewal schools are graduating far fewer students than even one year ago, according to a Chalkbeat review, and roughly half of Renewal schools have higher dropout rates than when the program started — a sign that the city is still struggling to persuade students to enroll and stay in them.

Just 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools last year, 10 percent fewer than the previous year, and 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated three years ago, immediately before the program started rolling out.

August Martin High School, for instance, has boosted its graduation rate by nearly 14 percent over the past two years. But the Queens school also shed nearly a third of its 679 students over the same period.

“In one sense, it can almost be framed as a marketing problem,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Even though many Renewal schools have been losing students since before they were placed in the program, “schools that are struggling and have been identified [as Renewal schools] are not as attractive to families.”

Enrollment problems pose an existential threat. School funding is partially dependent on the number of students in the building, and as that number slips, schools may need extra cash just to offer core math and English classes — let alone extracurricular activities or art classes. And last month, the city cited low enrollment as one factor in its plan to close or merge nine Renewal schools.

Department of Education spokesman Michael Aciman acknowledged the enrollment drop-off, but pointed out that the rate of decline slowed across Renewal high schools this year. “We are explicitly working with school leaders and families to highlight improvements and help them get the word out about the strong work that is happening in an effort to reverse those trends,” he wrote in an email.

The new data also reveals that while a greater proportion of students at Renewal high schools are graduating, dropout rates have remained stubborn: Sixteen of the 31 Renewal high schools posted higher dropout rates last year than when the program started.

Partly due to enrollment declines, the raw number of students dropping out was about 25 percent lower last year than when the program started. But the overall dropout rate at Renewal schools has increased to 19 percent, about one percentage point higher than it was three years ago, and more than double the city average of 8.5 percent.

Aciman noted several efforts designed to shepherd high school students to graduation, including prep for high school exit exams, and tools that allow educators to better track students who are chronically absent or falling behind on credits.

And he pointed to data that shows progress in reducing in rates of chronic absenteeism and boosts in attendance — signs of engagement, he said, that could ultimately affect future graduation and dropout rates.

“Decreasing the dropout rate at Renewal schools will take time,” Aciman wrote, “but we’re putting the necessary structures and early interventions in place to make sustainable improvements.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.