Takeover schools criticized as too tough on discipline

A half dozen community leaders and other speakers told the Indiana State Board of Education today that it must address discipline at four Indianapolis schools in state takeover that they said suspend and expel students at an alarming rate.

“This is a crisis,” said Carole Craig, the education committee chairwoman for the Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP. “This is not business as usual. This is an emergency.”

More than a decade of reports from various groups have shown a stubborn national disparity in serious discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, between black and hispanic students and their white peers.

In March, federal officials raised new alarms about national data that showed black children face more severe discipline more often. Indiana, federal data showed, was the second worst state in the country for the number of suspensions of black boys. Statistics for Indianapolis are an example that the disparity is especially strong in the Hoosier state.

For example, the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights data shows Indianapolis Public Schools, which is 74 percent black and Hispanic, suspended more than 20 percent of its students districtwide in 2011-12 school year and expelled 4 percent. The national rate was 7 percent for suspensions and less than 1 percent for expulsions that year.

Even given that high rate for IPS, four takeover schools stand out in Marion County.

In 2012-13, county data compiled by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office showed the four schools — Donnan Middle School and Howe, Arlington and Manual high schools — were responsible for 6 percent of all expulsions in Marion County. Those schools combined also accounted for more than one in 10 of the county’s suspensions issued. There are more than 200 public schools in Marion County.

The four schools were severed from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 and handed over by the state board to be run independently by charter school groups after six straight years of F grades based on low test scores. Arlington is run by the Indianapolis-based non-profit Tindley Accelerated Schools while Donnan, Howe and Manual are run by Charter Schools USA, a Florida company. Tindley recently asked to end its contract early, saying it was too costly to run Arlington.

Three of the four takeover schools serve a majority of students who are black, Hispanic or multiracial. As a result, Craig said, their high numbers for severe discipline are prime examples of the disparity across the state. While Indiana needs to address discipline concerns statewide, she said, the state board should take immediate action as the ultimate overseer of schools in state takeover.

“Would we doing the same thing if these were children in our suburban districts?” she asked.

A series of speakers echoed the call for action.

They asked for the schools to adopt policies to keep kids in school when they are disciplined whenever possible; get rid of zero tolerance systems that lead to automatic suspensions or expulsions; focus on relationship building for teachers, students and staff to build trust; find better ways to serve students who are not college bound; and create early warning systems to identify students having trouble behaving in an effort to head off severe discipline later.

“Our children and families can no longer accept another year of pathetic accountability and (no) implementation of best practices for students in our schools that are comprised mostly of students who have experienced academic failure — young black boys from low-income families,” Anthony Beverly of Stop The Violence Indianapolis told the board.

But state board member Tony Walker, who is black, cautioned that it might be too much to expect schools to fix the behavior problems of their students who don’t respond well to rules.

“When parents enforce discipline, that usually carries over to how they are going to behave and comport themselves at school,” he said, participating in the board meeting by phone. “When those kids go home — if there is no discipline, no structure or behavioral consequence — whatever structure the teacher puts in place is not going to matter.”

But Patricia Payne, a retired educator who pioneered cultural competency training efforts beginning in the 1980s for IPS, said schools have many strategies they can try to reduce serious discipline and keep kids in class.

“Consistent professional development is needed after teachers get into the classroom,” she said. “Some of them feel that it’s a waste of time, but we have seen evidence that it’s not a waste of time. We can help teachers change their mindsets and their approaches, especially in urban schools through professional development and culturally responsive instruction.”

A major community discussion is needed to find solutions, Craig said, and that should include a serious reconsideration of state takeover. Other approaches for helping failing schools might work better, she said.

“We acknowledge this is a complex issue,” Craig said. “The takeover process is the most disruptive. Why use it for the children who are most vulnerable?”