Suspension Intervention

As discipline code revisions delayed, advocates want some suspensions banned

The school discipline code will soon get its first update under the de Blasio administration, and advocates are hoping that Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s talk of discipline reform will translate into a new suspension policy.

Specifically, organizations like the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the New Settlement Parent Action Committee want the revised code to ban suspensions for Infraction B21, or “defying or disobeying authority.” It’s a move that some other big cities, including Los Angeles, have already made in an attempt to reduce the number of students taken out of the classroom—though not one with universal support from educators.

The discipline code, which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights, is updated and released before every school year. Over the past few years, changes have focused on reducing suspensions and promoting alternative discipline measures.

This summer, the discipline code revision has been postponed indefinitely, though it will likely be completed within the next two months so it can go into effect in September. Last year the department held a public hearing to solicit feedback on proposed changes to the code, and this year’s hearing, scheduled for June 10, has yet to take place.

A spokeswoman for the department did not provide an explanation for the delay, though she did say the department is continuing to review the code as well as public feedback.

“We’re hopeful it’s delayed for reasons we support,” said Brady Smith, principal of the James Baldwin School in Chelsea, a school that has been proactive in its attempts to reduce suspensions and develop alternative discipline policies.

While the department did not say whether a revised code will prohibit suspensions for Infraction B21, Fariña has spoken about her desire to reduce suspensions citywide. Although suspensions across the city fell 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, some groups of students are still disproportionately suspended.

In the 2012-13 school year, 53 percent of students suspended were black, even though black students constitute 27 percent of public school enrollment. Twelve percent of public school students have special needs, yet those students served 34 percent of suspensions that year.

“Defying or disobeying authority” is the second most common reason for New York City student suspensions. Last May, the Los Angeles Unified School District prohibited suspensions for “willful defiance,” a similar category that advocates say was often used to justify suspensions that could have been dealt with less harshly.

But critics of banning suspensions for “defying authority” argue that punitive discipline can be important for giving students structure and showing that actions have consequences.

Ilana Garon, who has taught high school English for 10 years on the Christopher Columbus campus, said that advocacy groups are not “clear on the realities of the classroom.” Ideally, she believes, schools would have a wider range of options for disciplining students, but suspensions still serve as a powerful deterrent.

“High school students are old enough to know better, that you don’t curse out a teacher,” she said. “If we send them a message that in the working world that’s OK, I don’t think that’s helping them either. Also, when you’re having a class of 34 kids and one kid is being crazily disruptive, you’ve got to think about the other 33 kids. They have a right to education as well.”

Banning suspensions for “defying authority” could also create a resource gap. While the city has committed to expanding restorative justice programs for dealing with discipline issues, those programs would only reach a fraction of city schools, potentially leaving others without new resources for dealing with student behavior problems.

Still, advocates think “defying or disobeying authority” is much too broad a category to be a fair rationale for suspension.

“I think it’s scary when you go to school as a student and for any minor thing, you get suspended and it all falls under one category,” said Lynn Sanchez, a parent involved with the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee. “There are specifics as to pushing, fighting, things of that nature, but anything can be insubordination.”

Rachel Lissy, the senior program officer at Ramapo for Children, said that while discipline policy changes are a start, teachers also need more training to develop classroom management skills and reflect on the sources of student behavior issues.

Teachers never enter the profession looking to punish students, Lissy added. Yet in some cases, “lacking classroom management skills, frustrated by a lack of control, and bruised by the hurtful behavior of their students, [they] may be drawn to punitive practices,” she said.

The ban on suspensions for Infraction B21 would be the latest in a string of changes meant to reduce suspensions and counter the phenomenon of “pushout,” in which a student feels consistently alienated from school and is pushed farther away from graduating, feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

When a suspension does occur, it can take one of two forms: a principal’s suspension, which lasts for one to five days, and a superintendent’s suspension, which can last between six days and a year.

During a principal’s suspension, students are supposed to come to school and complete schoolwork in a specially designated room. For a superintendent’s suspension, students go to a hearing where they have the chance to argue their case and potentially shorten their suspension. Once the suspension begins, the student must report to an Alternate Learning Center, where he or she receives group instruction with other suspended students.

In August 2012, changes to the discipline code prohibited the city from issuing superintendent’s suspensions to students in kindergarten through third grade. The same year, a section in the Discipline Code was created to describe restorative approaches like student justice panels.

For the 2013-14 school year, the language in the code was changed to read that schools “must,” instead of “should,” make “every reasonable effort” to utilize guidance interventions such as counseling, parent outreach, community service when disciplining students.

Aside from pushing revisions to the Discipline Code, some groups are exploring alternate ways to decrease suspensions. The New Settlement Parent Action Committee, for one, has brought students and parents to speak at training sessions for approximately 1,000 school safety agents, according to Sanchez. Approximately 200 police officers and 5,000 school safety agents are currently scattered across the city’s schools.

“I think that it’s an eye-opener for them when they start understanding what the school-to-prison pipeline is, when they start getting data as to which sets of students are mostly affected, when they start understanding what students are thinking,” Sanchez said. “It’s a powerful dynamic.”

Sign up for our morning newsletter for updates on the release of the revised discipline code.

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.