First Person

Voices: School discipline and race in Denver


Padres y Jóvenes Unidos organizer Sarah Brown recaps results of a recent meeting with Denver Public Schools officials about continuing racial disparities in school discipline. 

Nearly 100 students, parents and community leaders came together Dec. 17 to hold Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg accountable for racial disparities and to ask him to limit the role of police in school discipline.

Marco Nunez, Sen. Evie Hudak
Marco Nunez of Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, appeared at a March 8, 2011, rally promoting a bill to study school discipline policies. (File photo)

Students representing Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a multi-issue organization led by people of color who work for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all, presented a report card to the district on its progress with discipline reform.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos secured a promise from Boasberg that Denver Public Schools would implement the report’s Accountability Action Platform: A Community Call for DPS Action, which contains seven key steps that DPS must take in order to fully and faithfully implement the 2008 Discipline Policy.

Padres volunteer Dionna Hudson, alumna of South High School and political science major at University of California, Riverside, said that Denver Public Schools has made “impressive progress” reducing out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates as well as referrals to law enforcement. Hudson said the goal for next school year is to decrease out-of-school suspensions by 70 percent by eliminating out-of-school suspensions for disruption.

Throughout the meeting, students were adamant that the district stop criminalizing students for minor misbehavior. The district received a B+ in the areas of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions because of its progress in these areas over the past school year. The category of “referrals to law enforcement” received a D from Jóvenes Unidos students.

Tori Ortiz, a senior at CEC Middle College and Padres activist, pointed out that although the district did reduce the overall rates of referrals, this only brings these numbers back to the same rates they were before the passage of the 2008 discipline policy. She and other students urged the district not to push students out of school for subjective infractions, such as “disorderly conduct,” “disobedience” and “defiance.”

John Riley with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition echoed the student’s sentiments, saying, “Scared straight doesn’t work, boot camp doesn’t work, incarceration doesn’t work.”

Riley advocated the use of meaningful alternatives such as restorative justice, school psychologists and relevant curriculum that can address the root cause of student misbehavior.

Racial disparities remain biggest failure

At Padres, we believe racial disparities continue to be the most significant failure of the district. Black students represent only 15 percent of the student population yet make up 32 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Latino students make up half of all suspensions, expulsions and arrests. The community was pleased with Boasberg’s enthusiastic response that DPS will commit to eliminating racial disparities within discipline by the end of this school year.

In the category of restorative justice DPS received a C-. Padres students asked Boasberg to commit to hiring a restorative justice coordinator for each high school. District officials said they didn’t have the money to do that. Yet DPS pays for 16 full-time school resource officers at a cost of $1.3 million and only has 4.5 full-time employees with restorative justice responsibilities for the entire district.

Students also demanded that the district require mandatory training on cultural competency, implicit bias and racial discrimination. Although Boasberg said these trainings were necessary to eliminate racial disparities he did not commit to holding these district-wide trainings. Furthermore, the district received a C in data collection. Although the district has made more consistent changes in data collection there is still much more to be done to make discipline data more publically available and disaggregated by race and school. Boasberg agreed to look into the possibility of improving data collection in discipline cases.

Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, closed the meeting with a powerful message of community voice. He called for everyone in the room to continue to work with the district to hold them accountable to these goals and thanked the district for meeting with Padres Unidos in a principled way.

In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, Padres Unidos urges the district to continue to utilize restorative justice, which is proven to make schools safer.

DPS Discipline Statistics 2011-2012

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.