Effort to reduce suspensions triggers safety concerns in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A small crowd gathered for an NAACP forum on school safety in Indianapolis Public Schools Tuesday.

Eight months after Indianapolis Public Schools rolled out a new approach to discipline designed to reduce suspensions, expulsions and arrests, some teachers and community members say it’s making schools more dangerous.

Last summer, district officials unveiled a new code of conduct and imposed sweeping changes to the way schools should discipline kids. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee called for an end to “zero tolerance” policies that expose kids to serious consequences for breaking relatively minor rules. Instead, Ferebee instructed schools to use positive intervention to reward students for meeting expectations. He also called for restorative justice programs that address misbehavior by encouraging students to help repair damage caused by their actions.

District leaders have heralded the success of this new strategy as a tool for reducing suspensions and keeping students in the classroom. But at a gathering yesterday sponsored by the NAACP, local education leaders raised impassioned concerns that the push to reduce suspensions is putting teachers and students at risk.

“I am hearing from a lot of places that the teachers don’t feel safe,” said Rhondalyn Cornett, head of the IPS teacher union. “I’m getting a lot of calls (and) a lot of emails.”

IPS says students are removed from classes if they are dangerous, but Cornett is not alone in her concerns. They were echoed by several speakers at last night’s NAACP event and the new policy has been criticized by community members during school board meetings.

Andrew Polley, an English teacher at Arsenal Technical High School who spoke to the school board February 22, told Chalkbeat that students have become unruly since the district began the push to reduce suspensions.

Without that threat, he said, there were five fights in the hall outside his classroom during the first half of this year.

“It was madness,” Polley said of the climate at the start of the year.

District officials said they do not have a single measure they use to track school safety, but Wanda Legrand, IPS deputy superintendent for academics, says IPS uses two yard sticks to judge whether school discipline policies are successful. District leaders look at whether schools are reducing punishments that lead to time out of school, such as suspensions, and they look at how school staff perceive the environment.

“We want every school to have a positive culture and a positive climate where teachers are excited to work in them and feel safe as well as students,” Legrand said.

The push to reduce suspensions and expulsions is part of a national trend away from “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline, where students are punished for minor infractions. In the wake of a viral video of a New York City teacher yelling at a student and ripping up her work, the debate has flared across the country. In a recent story, Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green suggested that no excuses might work, but it’s in need of reform.

One reason to cut suspension rates is because there’s strong evidence that some students face much harsher punishment than others. For example, although just 12 percent of Indiana students are black, they make up 40 percent of suspensions, according to Russ Skiba of Indiana University’s The Equity Project.

IPS began working with schools to plan for new discipline strategies last year, Legrand said. Schools were allowed to choose their own approach — either one developed internally or an existing standardized model, she said. Whatever model they chose, it had to be part of a plan for improving safety and behavior in school.

Suspensions, expulsions and arrests are all down this year, according to Legrand. But improving staff perception of school discipline has been a steeper climb. She has heard some negative feedback, she said.

The district is planning to survey educators about safety and other issues after spring break, Legrand said. Administrators hope the survey results will give them a clearer picture of where positive discipline is working and where schools need additional support.

Critics of the new discipline policy charge that teachers did not get enough training in the new model before IPS imposed it in schools. Polley said he could only recall a single, one-hour training session on restorative justice at Arsenal and many teachers at the school are not on board with new approach.

“You talk to the teacher and they don’t understand what restorative justice is,” said Ann Wilkins, an Indiana State Teachers Association staffer who works with IPS teachers. “I’m talking to teachers and administrators that say they haven’t been trained on that.”

Cindy Jackson, who is leading district work on improving school climate and discipline, acknowledged that some schools need a lot more support — including training and staff — to change their school cultures and discipline practices.

It’s big change for administrators and teachers because the district has not focused on social skills and positive support in the past, Jackson said. The district is in the first year of implementation, and it typically takes 3 to 5 years for school districts to build support for new codes of conduct.

“In the long run,” said Jackson, “it is going to help our students be successful and create safe environments.”

Arlington High School Principal Stan Law said that the school struggled to get discipline under control at the start of the year. With the help of several new staffers dedicated to behavior, however, the situation has dramatically improved.

A handful of newer teachers left the school mid-year because they felt unsafe, Law said. But other educators are comfortable, he said. The emphasis on avoiding suspensions has made him more thoughtful about whether to remove students from the classroom for less severe offenses.

“It just forces you to look at things in a different way,” he said.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.