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.”

New role

Principal Donna Taylor retiring from Brooklyn School of Inquiry, moving to DOE

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry

Brooklyn School of Inquiry Principal Donna Taylor announced this week she is stepping down from her position next month.

Taylor, who has been with the Bensonhurst school since it opened in 2009, will take a position with the Department of Education, where she will support principals implementing progressive education and gifted and talented programs — two focuses of BSI. The school, which runs from kindergarten to eighth grade, is one of five gifted and talented schools open to children citywide.

“BSI was created by a team who believes that students need an inquiry-based, arts-infused curriculum, steeped in technology, where everyone is encouraged to think critically,” Taylor said in a statement. “We came together down here in Bensonhurst to grow our practice and build capacity. I am proud of the work I’ve done together with the school’s community to build and grow BSI.”

Her announcement comes the same week that BSI graduated its first cohort of eighth-graders. Moving forward, Taylor is working with other school staff and her superintendent, Karina Constantino, to ensure a smooth transition. A new principal has not yet been named.

BSI is the only citywide gifted school that participates in the city’s Diversity in Admissions program. The admissions pilot allows principals to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, English learners or meet other criteria. In the case of BSI, the school set aside 40 percent of its available kindergarten seats for low-income students.

While it met that target in its admissions offers this year, it had few open seats because siblings of current BSI students get priority. That meant that only 20 slots were reserved for low-income students.

It will be up to Taylor’s successor, alongside city officials, to decide where to take the pilot program next.

“We have no way of knowing what the new leadership will do or who they will be or what their position will be on the program,” said Sara Mogulescu, the parent of two children currently studying at BSI. “But I know there is a very strong core of commitment to that pilot and to continue to strengthen our community in all kinds of ways, regardless of whether Donna is the principal.”

Despite her many accomplishments, Taylor’s eight years at the helm of BSI were not without controversy. In 2014, Taylor made headlines for a comment she made at an open-house meeting at BSI. She remarked to prospective parents, “If you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.” Taylor subsequently apologized.

Mogulescu said Taylor had built a solid foundation at BSI, and she and other parents were confident about the school’s future — and Taylor’s.

“As much as we are all sad to see her go,” she said, “I think the parents take solace in the fact that she is going to be spreading her wisdom and experience to other schools.”

planning ahead

Big assignment for group of Colorado education leaders: rethink the state’s education priorities

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

A newly constituted group of educators, lawmakers and state officials led by Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne will be charged with creating a sweeping new strategic plan for education in Colorado.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order this week giving that task to a reconstituted Education Leadership Council, which formed in 2011 but has become inactive.

The new-look council will identify statewide priorities for how to better educate the state’s children so they can contribute to Colorado’s workforce, according to the order.

In an interview Thursday with Chalkbeat, Lynne said she expects the plan to include recommendations for how the governor’s office, relevant state departments, the legislature or others can work toward the state’s goals.

The group will begin meeting in August and will spend its first year setting priorities. It is supposed to give recommendations for possible legislation by 2018 or 2019.

Lynne said various state departments and groups already work on initiatives tied to education, but “we don’t have a place where we weave it all together.”

For example, Lynne said, the group could examine whether certain districts still need help getting access to the internet, whether students are being introduced to STEM careers early enough and whether graduates are prepared for the workforce.

Having a strategic plan and clear goals for what schools should be accomplishing could also give officials a better chance of changing school finance, Lynne said, if the group determines that is needed. Reports routinely rank Colorado near the bottom in per pupil funding among states.

“I think it’s hard when people want to talk about changing school finance or they want to address things like compensation for teachers, if you don’t have the core foundation of what do we want to achieve and how do we get there,” Lynne said.

Bipartisan legislation introduced this spring would have created a group with similar goals, but Republicans killed the so-called “vision” bill. Critics said the bill would have created more state bureaucracy and potentially conflicted with school districts’ strategic plans, and called it a ploy to ultimately ask taxpayers for more money.

Lynne said the group commissioned by the governor — which will have as many as 25 members — will include a diverse group of people representing different interests across the state to ensure local districts have a say in the statewide work. It will include directors from five state departments, a superintendent, a school board member, a teacher and a principal.

The original Education Leadership Council was commissioned in 2011 by a Hickenlooper executive order. Recently the group stopped meeting. Members’ terms had expired, and excitement had decreased after the 2013 defeat of Amendment 66, which would have raised taxes for schools. The council helped push for the measure.

When Lynne succeeded Joe Garcia as lieutenant governor, she said she knew she wanted to revive the group.

Her office started planning to regroup the Education Leadership Council in late 2016 before the legislature considered the same work, but she said she paused while legislators considered their bill. When that effort failed, Lynne said her office got back to organizing the council.

The group, Lynne said, will work under a shorter timeline than the one outlined in the failed bill.

Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sponsored the “vision” bill, said the council is the right avenue for this kind of work.

“The legislature is not suited for long-term strategic thinking,” Rankin said. “It’s more about shorter-term action. This is a better way to do it — with our involvement.”

Sponsors of the vision bill, including Rankin, will be part of the leadership council.

Here is a copy of the executive order:



EO Education (Text)