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.”

3-K for All

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces plan to expand universal pre-K to 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to offer prekindergarten to every 3-year-old child in New York City, he said Monday in one of his most ambitious education announcements to date.

Calling the initiative “3-K for All,” de Blasio said the plan will start by expanding pre-K seats for younger children in District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn over the next two years and encouraging more families to enroll in existing seats. The plan builds on de Blasio’s signature education initiative — a push to provide free pre-K to every 4-year-old in New York City — which he highlights as a major success.

“We have proven through the growth of Pre-k for All that it can be done, and it can be done quickly,” de Blasio said at a press conference Monday at P.S. 1 in the Bronx.

But the initiative will take a while to reach every 3-year-old in the city. The city plans to fund eight districts on its own by 2021, but also wants to raise enough outside funding to make it universal by that time.

Over the past two years, the city has enrolled at least 50,000 additional students in pre-K programs, bringing the total to more than 70,000. Still, research has shown the city’s program is highly segregated — a reality schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has described as a product of parent choice.

Officials cautioned the roll-out would probably be even more difficult than expanding pre-K to 4-year-olds and suggested they would need state and federal funding to make it a reality. The city anticipates adding 4,500 new teachers to staff the effort. In order to reach all city school districts, the city will need to raise $700 million in outside funding, de Blasio said.

“This is going to be a game-changer,” the mayor said, “but it’s also going to be hard to do.”

You can read the city’s announcement here.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

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.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”