Rethinking Discipline

Changes to school discipline policies delayed again

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Senior Judith Nkwor is a peer mediator at Validus Prep, a school that has implemented new discipline strategies that aim to minimize suspensions.

Unlike in years past, the Department of Education will not make any updates to the discipline code as the school year begins this week.

A spokeswoman for the education department said Wednesday that the additional delay, which was first reported by the Daily News, was because officials were working with the Police Department and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice on a comprehensive plan. Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have both spoken of their desire to see changes to school discipline policies that reduce suspensions.

Chalkbeat first reported a delay in updating the discipline code in June, though advocates believed then that changes would still be made before September. The spokeswoman said that changes may happen during the school year. 

School discipline has been under scrutiny for years, with advocates repeatedly sounding the alarm about high suspension rates among black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities. A coalition of advocates led by retired Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye made additional recommendations in 2013, and the discipline code—which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights—has already changed over the last few years to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

“The language has shifted. Now there’s more language on alternative interventions, like involving guidance counselors,” said Shoshi Chowdhury from the Dignity in Schools Campaign in New York. That organization has worked with the city over the last two years to eliminate the use of suspensions for some minor infractions like chewing gum or cutting class, and has met with the de Blasio administration to discuss additional changes. (Fariña’s schedule indicates that she met with Kaye and officials from City Hall in March.)

A spokeswoman noted Wednesday that the city has recently increased its focus on counseling services, adding an Office of Guidance and School Counseling in the spring and 250 new school counselors over the summer. Suspensions are also down by 27 percent since 2011, and arrests have dropped 32 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to city statistics.

Nick Sheehan, who works on the School Justice Project at from Advocates for Children, said advocates are still anticipating big-picture changes.

“Our understanding, from what they’ve said publicly, is that they’re looking to make a bigger announcement and hopefully including a leadership team to look at school discipline and safety writ large,” he said, referencing the major recommendation of the 2013 report. Still, he said, “We’re disappointed they haven’t moved a little quicker on this.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting. 

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.