safety survey

In Bronx survey, struggling students explain what’s missing from school discipline debates

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student and member of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, spoke during an event the group organized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where it released a new report. The report is based on a survey of Bronxites that Maxwell helped conduct.

Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student who helped survey her peers about school discipline, recently asked a classmate why she had been suspended.

The girl explained that she had fought with another student who questioned her intelligence. But she also made clear that her problems went deeper than a schoolyard taunt.

“Basically,” Shaka’la explained, “she struggled in class a lot.”

That student was not alone: In surveying nearly 400 students, parents, and teachers at over 50 Bronx schools, Shaka’la and her research team found that students who struggle academically or socially at school are also more likely to get into trouble. Those same students are also the least likely to turn to school staffers for help, according to a new report by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, the South Bronx advocacy group that conducted the surveys.

The report comes as the citywide suspension rate continues its steady descent, and the education department is encouraging schools to adopt less punitive discipline approaches. It also follows significant changes to the city’s school discipline policies last year — including restrictions on the use of suspensions — and City Hall’s formation of a task force to review school discipline practices.

But, the report suggests, those efforts will fall short if they fail to address the underlying reasons for student misbehavior, which often involve a mix of academic challenges, problems at home, and friction with peers.

“While there is important and critical work being done to change policing practices and discipline policy,” the report says, “our research suggests that policymakers and educators must also address these underlying factors in order to transform school climate and culture in New York City.”

The group, which has pushed for improvements to South Bronx schools for two decades, decided to survey Bronxites about their schools in order to expand the school-safety debate beyond suspensions and metal detectors. While their unscientific results could never match those of the city’s massive school survey — which involves nearly 1 million participants — the idea was to add more school-level voices to the debate.

Shaka’la, who is a junior at the Bronx High School of Medical Science, teamed up with fellow students and parents to conduct the surveys in school lunchrooms, parks, McDonald’s restaurants, and churches. (Shaka’la said she used candy bars to coax some reticent interviewees.) Overall, they found that more than half of students said they enjoyed school both academically and socially.

At the event Monday, students and educators learned about "restorative circles," a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.
PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
At the event Monday, students and educators learned about “restorative circles,” a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.

But one in five students said they did not enjoy school, and those were the ones most likely to report having been disciplined in school and having struggled on state tests. Those same students were also twice as likely to say that they would not seek help from a teacher or other school staffer, according to the report.

Many of those students end up abandoning school, according to the report, which is based partly on interviews with students who dropped out of high school. The report says those dropouts were actually “pushed out,” explaining that many were “disengaged, distracted, disciplined, and dismissed long before they stopped attending.”

That was the case for Schurch Burgos, a 21-year-old Bronx resident who said she dropped out of long-struggling DeWitt Clinton High School when she was 15. She said that no one tried to pull her up as she fell behind in her classes, until she finally decided that it was pointless to keep showing up.

“I didn’t have help from teachers, from nobody,” said Schurch, who is now studying to earn a high school equivalency diploma. “I felt lost.”

If someone had intervened, she added, she believes that “would have stopped me from leaving, and I think I would have graduated.”

These issues are especially acute in the Bronx, which continues to have the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate of any borough. The Bronx has also historically seen the most school arrests and suspensions, though those numbers have declined sharply since 2012 along with the rest of the city’s.

The report makes several recommendations. It calls for more social workers to help coordinate schools’ “restorative justice” efforts, a problem-solving approach meant to replace suspensions. It also advocates substituting projects for some standardized exams, which it says will make students more excited about school and help those who perform poorly on tests.

An education department spokeswoman said the report is misleading because it relies on a limited sample of people. She said the city has hired 250 new guidance counselors and offered conflict de-escalation training to some schools, and she noted that suspensions fell by 17 percent last year.

In addition to the discipline-policy changes, the city has also invested heavily in mental-health counseling and other social services at some 130 “community schools” — efforts to confront the root causes of misbehavior and poor academics highlighted by the report.

“It’s an exciting moment,” said Emma Hulse, a Parent Action Committee organizer, “but there is a real need to continue the work and move forward.”

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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