Data doubts

School discipline data mistakes have ripple effects for advocates battling the school-to-prison pipeline

PHOTO: ACLU of Southern California/Creative Commons

Faulty student discipline numbers for at least three Colorado school districts have muddied efforts to track suspension and expulsion trends, complicated advocates’ plans to press for change and caused state officials in one case to take the unusual step of correcting wrong data.

In early August, the advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos, relying on numbers school districts provide to the state, reported surprising news: The rate of out-of-school suspensions in Colorado schools had shot up by 19 percent in the 2014-15 school year after years of decline.

However, three school districts portrayed as largely responsible for the spike all said their data were wrong, turning what had been a big jump in the suspension rate into a small one.

Getting school discipline data right is critical because advocacy groups campaigning to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” rely on the numbers to define the problem and push for changes in state law. Bad numbers can equal bad policy.

“We’re really, really invested in the accuracy of these numbers,” said Daniel Kim, director of youth organizing for Padres, which is widely known for its efforts to prevent harsh school discipline.

“These aren’t just numbers. These are students’ lives. These are the conditions they walk into every day at school. This is the environment of their school. That’s what these numbers reflect.”

Kim said the group plans to add a notation to its report, making clear that the data discrepancies could affect its findings.

The report attributed the 19 percent spike to big increases in the number of out-of-school suspensions in the Adams 12 Five Star, Colorado Springs 11 and Pueblo City 60 districts.

But shortly after the report’s release, Adams 12 came forward to dispute the findings. Officials said staff mistakes resulted in a report to the state that inflated its 2014-15 out-of-school suspension numbers by thousands and failed to include more than 100 expulsions.

After inquiries from Chalkbeat, Colorado Springs and Pueblo said their data was also wrong but in a different way. Out-of-school suspension numbers in both districts had been significantly under-reported to the state in 2013-14.

Taking into account numbers the districts say are correct, Chalkbeat calculated that the out-of-school suspension rate would have increased by just 2 percent in 2014-15. Similarly, the 7 percent suspension rate decline reported in Padres’ previous discipline report would have been around 1 percent had correct numbers been used for Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

National experts say inaccuracies in discipline data aren’t unique to Colorado and reflect growing pains in the push to elevate school discipline to the same high-profile status as academic achievement.

“This sloppiness wouldn’t be tolerated if it was test scores,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The more people start looking at school discipline…the more accurate the reporting will get.”

Already, he said, the spotlight on school climate and harsh discipline tactics is brighter because of new provisions in the recently reauthorized federal education law.

There’s also been a growing recognition that suspension and expulsion disproportionately affect students of color and can have devastating lifelong consequences—increasing the risk that kids will drop out and end up incarcerated.

Losen doesn’t blame advocacy groups like Padres for discipline data errors.

“It falls on the district,” he said. “This is the information age. There are so many ways in which we are good at tracking information about people and their experiences….It’s a little discouraging that schools are so slow in this regard.”

Genesis of a problem

Months before the Padres report came out, there were whispers among some of Colorado’s education insiders about sketchy discipline data.

The Colorado Children’s Campaign, spearheading an effort to reduce suspension and expulsion among young children, asked the state for data on suspension rates in kindergarten through third grade. The numbers that came back showed that Colorado’s public schools had suspended 7,433 students in those grades during 2014-15—with black and Latino children disproportionately affected.

When the Children’s Campaign circulated the aggregate data among key education groups, a few school district lobbyists and officials challenged its accuracy.

“We got a lot of, ‘Can this be right?’ sort of stuff,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives and interim president at the Children’s Campaign.

Jaeger said that while discrepancies in one or two districts probably wouldn’t have affected the big-picture findings, concern about accuracy was one reason the group didn’t publish the numbers on its website or in its signature “Kids Count” report.

“The data question is something we want to get right absolutely,” Jaeger said.

The Children’s Campaign and other advocacy groups had hoped to see legislation on early childhood discipline during the 2016 session, but it never happened.

“There were a lot of folks who didn’t want to come to the table for a variety of reasons,” said Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, who’s been actively involved in discussions on early childhood discipline.

“Some of it was they didn’t think the data was accurate, but there were other reasons, as well.”

Some of those reasons include disagreement about the best way to handle early childhood suspensions and expulsions in Colorado and the fact that preschool discipline data isn’t currently available from any state agency—leaving a big gap in what advocates know about the problem.

Why so much trouble with the data?

The school districts with problematic data cite various reasons, from self-inflicted “uploading errors” to state-level “coding changes.”

In Adams 12, officials submitted the incorrect data to the state in the summer of 2015. Eight months later—around the time the Children’s Campaign was passing around its K-3 data—officials there realized they’d made two major mistakes.

Not only had they reported nearly 9,000 out-of-school suspensions for 2014-15 instead of the actual 3,585, they’d reported expelling no students, when 121 had received that punishment.

They’d managed to look both better and worse than they actually were.

In an attempt to determine the extent of the data reporting problems, Chalkbeat contacted nine other districts, including four others singled out for having big increases in out-of-school suspensions, and the state’s five largest districts, four of which reported suspension declines.

Jeffco, Aurora, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Greeley-Evans and Harrison said their numbers were correct. Denver didn’t confirm either way. Pueblo and Colorado Springs said they also spotted errors in the numbers that were sent to the state.

Those errors, along with the over-reporting error in Adams 12, made all three districts appear to have far larger year-over-year suspension increases than they really did.

Pueblo 60 spokesman Dalton Sprouse said administrators hadn’t gone back and looked at the erroneous discipline data until Chalkbeat asked about it. He said he’s not sure how the mistake, which resulted in a report of 1,161 suspensions instead of 2,264, occurred.

Colorado Springs 11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby attributed the mistake to a coding change at the state level. She said that in 2013-14, the district was asked to submit the total number of students suspended, not the total number of suspensions, which led to students with multiple suspensions only being counted once. As a result, the district reported 905 suspensions instead of more than 3,200. The next year, Ashby said, the district was asked to submit more detailed data.

But Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said the state has always asked districts to submit the same data year after year.

Of the three districts that cited problems with their discipline numbers, only Adams 12 asked the state to correct the data. This was in February, eight months after the data was first submitted.

The state initially refused, saying it was too late for corrections.

But last week, it reversed course. Meyer said fixes will be made to Adams 12’s numbers on the department’s website and reports submitted to the federal government.

Meyer said the decision represents a rare exception and doesn’t signify a change to the department’s policy not correct mistakes after districts officially submit their data.

That’s largely because the correction process is laborious—requiring a series of time-consuming steps at both the district and state level. Meyer said state officials decided to make the change for Adams 12 partly because the discrepancy was so large.

That doesn’t mean the changes will appear on every website or in every publication that published the original numbers.

“There’s a point when you release this information when it takes on a life of its own and it’s difficult to reel it back in,” Meyer said. “We don’t know who’s using it in what report.”

hear me out

When these New York City schools want creative solutions to their challenges, they turn to the experts: students

Lisandro Mayancela, a student at Brooklyn Law Tech and member of the Student Voice Collaborative, hosts visitors at his school.

On a recent January morning, students Galeel Cora and Jenitza Jack sat in a conference room at Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology — a school that’s a 30 minute bus ride from the one they attend.

They came seeking advice for a problem they see at their school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media: Despite its name, they said, it offers few classes related to the arts or media. They had the seed of a solution — a proposed event called “Fresh Fridays,” which would showcase students’ talents in painting, rap, dance, and other creative endeavors — but they weren’t sure how to get it off the ground.

The administrator they met with, Law and Tech Assistant Principal Melanie Werner, had plenty of ideas.

Maybe the event should be styled after a “gallery walk,” with each different classrooms featuring a different art medium, she suggested. The students nodded in agreement. Go after grants to fund it, she added. Galeel jotted that down. Reach across social cliques to recruit students to both contribute art and show up to the event, Werner offered.

“Get some kids together and come up with a game plan,” she said. “But it has to be fun, or it’s going to lose steam.”

The students were gathering this advice through a program called the Student Voice Collaborative, which trains students to analyze issues at their schools and come up with solutions. One important way they do that is by visiting partner schools — an approach to school improvement that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has also championed through similar programs that promote cross-campus collaboration among adults.

Launched in 2010 and run out of the Brooklyn North Field Support Center, the collaborative aims to add student voices to the mix. Equal parts research project, internship, and civics lesson, the program now spans seven districts and includes about 10 schools each year.

“A lot of times students aren’t involved in these types of conversations,” said Lisandro Mayancela, a senior at Law Tech. “You’re coming up with decisions that will affect the kids the most, so why not give those students a chance to sit down [and] actually voice their opinions?”

Students at each participating school are paired with groups from a different school through surveys and a speed-dating-style event at the start of the year. Then the teams meet every other week to discuss issues at their respective schools and brainstorm solutions. Students are also matched with an “action team” of adults at their own school, who help the students zero in on challenges and then follow through on their school-improvement ideas.

“We try to develop structures that promote youth-adult partnership, so the action team is like the heart” of the program, said Ari Sussman, an official at the support center who launched the collaborative. “Students and adults put their priorities side by side.”

One of the program’s highlights comes about halfway through the year when students take turns visiting and hosting partner schools. For Galeel and Jenitza, that meant taking an early morning bus ride to Law Tech to look for lessons to bring back to their own school.

During their visit, they dropped in on an art class and had a long discussion over pizza with Law Tech’s Student Government representatives, who shared how how they’ve managed to make their school events a success — tips for Galeel and Jenitza to keep in mind as they try to build Fresh Fridays. One Law Tech student suggested recruiting freshman, who would be too green to remember past school events that may have been boring. Another said good music would draw people in — and so would a little positive peer pressure, like a direct invite for popular students who hold sway with the rest of the school.

“I know for a fact that if a popular student is going to a party, I’m going, too,” he said.

They also met with art teacher Maria Pascual, who noted the funding challenges that Brooklyn Community Arts & Media is likely to face if it tries to adhere more closely to its theme. To illustrate her point, she mentioned that students have a hard time drawing on her school’s outdated iPads. Some funding riddles, she said, require creative solutions.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students Jenitza Jack and Galeel Cora visit Maria Pascual’s art class at Brooklyn Law Tech.

“Everybody in your school has a phone,” she told the visiting students as she whipped out her own cell phone and dragged her finger across the screen. “Get your teacher to download a sketchbook, and they can draw on their phones… Start thinking about, ‘What can I do right now.’”

While the program can help students come up with policy ideas, it’s up to their school leaders to give their ideas due consideration and carry them out.

One school that has done that is the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, which was part of the Student Voice Collaborative last year.

After students in the program noticed that 9th-graders’ attendance and grades had taken a nosedive midyear, the principal hosted regular strategy meetings in his office where he and the students could brainstorm solutions. Once they decided to try pairing the freshmen with 11th-grade mentors, the team’s faculty advisor, English teacher Michelle Eisenberg, agreed to train the older students.

By the end of the school year, the 9th-graders’ academics and attendance had stabilized, Eisenberg said. The students’ mentoring idea seemed to have made a difference — but only because the administration took it seriously.

“It’s one thing to invite a group of students to sit down one time and hear what they have to say,” she said. “I think it’s another thing to have students sit down in the principal’s office once a week, being critical and being proactive.”

Future of Schools

One system to apply for IPS and charter schools? Nearly 4,000 students gave it a shot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Princess Glenn hopes to enroll her son at Super School 19.

A new website designed to help families across Indianapolis apply for schools drew applications from 3,862 students in the first round.

The applications to OneMatch slightly exceeded the goal of 3,500, marking the successful launch of a project that has been in planning for more than two years. The deadline was Tuesday for the first application window using the new system.

The OneMatch application, which is run by the nonprofit Enroll Indy, aims to make it easier for families to choose and apply for schools in a city where there is a growing selection of options for students. It allows families to apply for more than 50 charter and Indianapolis Public School district schools through the same website or enrollment office.

Applicants rank their top choice schools, and an algorithm then matches students with schools. This round, families applied to an average of just under three schools per child for a total of 10,518 applications.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook yesterday, and we had parents in our office all day,” Enroll Indy founder Caitlin Hannon wrote in an email the day after applications were due.

In the nine weeks leading up to the first application deadline, staff from Enroll Indy fanned out across the city to tell parents about the process. Since the application opened Nov. 15, they reached about 8,500 families through canvassing and phone banks, and held about 29 intake sessions in partnership with schools and community groups, according to Hannon.

It was during one of those intake sessions that Princess Glenn met staff from Enroll Indy. A parent with two children in IPS, Glenn was a panelist at a meeting about choosing schools on Wednesday organized by UNCF and the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and helped fund Enroll Indy.

When Enroll Indy visited her school, Glenn applied for new schools for two of her children. For her daughter, who is in 3rd grade, she chose a charter school. And for her son, who is in 6th grade, she chose a district magnet with a focus on physical activity.

“My son is one of those kids that, he likes to stay busy,” she said. “For something like that to be available for our kids nowadays, I just think that it’s great.”

Families who applied through OneMatch will receive a single school offer on Feb. 15. Enroll Indy will run two additional application windows in the coming months for families who did not meet the first deadline or would like to reapply.

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. But their success hinges on collaboration between district and charter school leaders. Efforts to create similar systems have stalled in cities such as Detroit and Boston.

Enroll Indy staff members say the aim is to help students who are about to start elementary, middle or high school find the right fit. But one fear among critics of common enrollment systems is that they will make it easier for charter schools to woo parents like Glenn away from traditional public schools. On the other hand, charter schools also fear losing control over the admissions process.

Although OneMatch has gotten some pushback from Indianapolis parents and community members, the effort encountered relatively little public opposition from leaders. Most Indianapolis charter schools are participating, and the IPS school board not only voted to join OneMatch, but also allowed Enroll Indy to lease space in the central office for an enrollment center.

Parents in Indianapolis now face a panoply of school choices. Nearly 13,000 students who live in IPS boundaries attend charter schools, including innovation schools that are overseen by the district. At the same time, the city’s largest district has also expanded choices by creating new magnet schools, and next year, all high school students will choose specialized programs with focus areas such as the arts or information technology.

At the community event Wednesday, Patrick Herrel, who heads enrollment for the district, said that Enroll Indy is the latest effort to make applying for schools easier for Indianapolis families. As recently as four years ago, families who wanted to apply for magnet schools had to turn in paper applications at the district office.

“As those number of choices have grown, we have had to become more sophisticated in our way of helping parents access those choices,” he said. “I think Enroll Indy really represents the next step.”