on the steps

Advocates ask candidates for school discipline climate change

Junior Benia Darius says the next mayor needs to take a different approach to school discipline.
At a rally Monday, junior Benia Darius said the next mayor needs to take a different approach to school discipline.

After years of pressing Mayor Bloomberg to make school discipline fairer, students and advocates are turning their attention to the candidates seeking to replace him.

At a rally outside City Hall just before a City Council hearing on school climate Monday, students and advocates from the Dignity in Schools Campaign called on the next mayor to take a different approach to school discipline. They want a model that relies less on suspensions and other punitive measures, and also ensures that black and Latino students are not disproportionately affected by school discipline.

“We need a mayor that is going to implement and fund restorative justice in our schools,” said Benia Darius, a junior at Bushwick School for Social Justice. “I am soon going to start my training as a peer mediator, and I’m going to be part of the change in my school. But what I want to know today as a student is what you as mayoral candidates are going to do to change these issues in our schools?”

According to Department of Education data, the number of students arrested in schools during the last quarter of 2012 was nearly 50 percent lower than during the same period in 2011. But black and Latino students made up the same proportion of arrested students in each year: 93 percent.

All of the leading Democratic candidates either attended the rally or sent representatives. Bill Thompson, the former school board president and comptroller, was there from start to finish and signaled that he would support the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

“I want to be the mayor who works along, yes, with our students, but also with education professionals to make sure our environments are safe but that students and particularly students of color aren’t being targeted, aren’t being singled out for suspensions and arrests,” Thompson said.

Other candidates said they were sympathetic to the issues the students raised. After the rally, Comptroller John Liu, another mayoral candidate, drew a sharp line between the racial breakdown of students who are suspended and arrested and the Bloomberg administration’s “stop and frisk” policy.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Liu said. “You see the disparities in the school suspensions and disciplinary actions disproportionately against students of color, and you see things like racial profiling and stop and frisk that are clearly tilted disproportionately way against people of color.”

“It’s time to end this disparity and ensure that students — regardless of race, income, or disability — are provided with positive approaches to discipline that help keep them in the classroom and off the street,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

In a statement and a column in the Huffington Post Monday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn highlighted recent changes to the Department of Education’s discipline code, which she noted had followed the council’s 2009 Student Safety Act. She also said there are now more supports to help students before they misbehave. (Like the rest of the Democratic candidates, she supports “community schools” that offer counseling and other services alongside academic instruction.)

“But there is still more to be done,” she wrote in the column, which she co-authored with Robert Jackson, the council’s education committee chair.

Later, Jackson pushed Kathleen Grimm, a Department of Education deputy chancellor, and the commanding officer of the NYPD’s School Safety Division Brian Conroy, to explain the disproportionate arrest and suspension rates among black and Latino students.

“NYPD and/or DOE, in your opinion, why is that, if you have an opinion?” Jackson said. “And what do you think we can do to reduce those numbers?”

“Clearly none of our disciplinary actions taken based on race or creed or gender or any classification,” Grimm said. “We are as troubled as you that this number seems to be sticking and we aren’t moving this down. I think through additional supports and training and lessons learned through Young Men’s Initiative, we have the ability to address this problem.”

In testimony during the hearing, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which supports the Dignity in Schools Campaign, called on council members to reduce the amount of information that the Department of Education can redact from its regular school safety reports.

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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