Code Switch

As New York City’s suspension rate falls, some educators see a parallel dip in discipline

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, one of eight schools where teachers in recent years have had to reapply for their jobs.

From the outside, John Adams High School in Queens looks like a poster child for New York City’s new approach to student discipline.

The number of students given out-of-school suspensions plummeted from 382 in 2011 to just 28 in 2014, according to state records. A new behavior system rewards good deeds with bright green “Rack ‘Em Up” tickets, and fighting results in peer mediation and apology letters. Last year, a group of educators traveled from the Netherlands to observe the system.

But several teachers at the large Ozone Park school say the changes mask serious and persistent problems with student behavior. During a single week in March, one student was found unconscious on the school’s front steps after using drugs, another student was caught with a marijuana pipe, and several students erupted into a physical altercation in a hallway, according to a school log.

Though such incidents aren’t new or rare at many large high schools, some teachers at John Adams pin the misbehavior partly on recent changes in the city discipline code that restrict the use of suspensions. And as Mayor Bill de Blasio pushes schools to find alternative responses, the teachers say that administrators are increasingly wary about racking up high suspension counts.

At a meeting this week at John Adams, which is under city and state pressure to make major improvements, the school’s union representative told teachers said she believed the principal was not suspending students for serious infractions because “that makes their numbers look bad,” according to an audio recording. But she said the problem goes beyond Adams’ leaders.

“This is the problem right here: That the regulations are too lenient,” she said, holding up a copy of the city’s revised discipline code. “It does go from parent conferences to expulsion, but it’s never getting to the expulsion stage. It’s never even getting to the suspension stage.”

Such complaints by teachers at John Adams and elsewhere could spell trouble for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to overhaul the way the school system handles misbehavior — a policy shift that must be enacted school by school, by individual educators, and which is already under assault by pro-charter school groups that say traditional schools have become more dangerous under de Blasio.

When the mayor announced the new discipline policies early last year, he insisted that schools could suspend fewer students while remaining safe and orderly. Since then, suspensions have fallen by nearly a third — a trend officials hold up as evidence that the discipline shift is taking root.

But some educators are questioning that narrative.

Teachers at a few schools say their principals won’t give suspensions even when warranted, inviting some students to act out and threatening their peers’ learning and even safety. Meanwhile, the principals union has suggested that the policies diminish principals’ discretion. And the head of the teachers union, the mayor’s staunch ally on most issues, has brought concerns about the policy’s rollout to the schools chancellor.

Even fierce proponents of the policy change worry that schools have not received the necessary support to transform their discipline practices.

“Schools need to stop the over-reliance on punitive discipline,” said Anna Bean, campaign coordinator for Teachers Unite, an educator-led advocacy group that backs the policy changes. “But a lot of schools are definitely struggling with what do we do instead.”

A message from the top

Cities across the country have pivoted away from suspensions and arrests for nonviolent school offenses in recent years, fueled by research showing such “zero-tolerance” policies tend to disproportionately affect students of color and often fail to improve student behavior. While those numbers have been on the decline in New York City for several years, the de Blasio administration has made clear that they must fall even further.

In February 2015, the city revised the discipline code so that principals now need approval before suspending students for insubordination. Out-of-school suspensions are no longer allowed in response to altercations that involve shoving, throwing objects, or spitting. Officials also vowed to restrict the use of suspensions and handcuffs on young children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) has said that schools can suspend and arrest fewer students, while still maintaining safety and order.
PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) has said that schools can suspend and arrest fewer students, while still maintaining safety and order.

But even when the code permits suspensions, principals are said to be under pressure to consider other options. Teachers say that district officials are more frequently rejecting schools’ requests for more serious, out-of-school suspensions, and principals union leaders say schools’ overall suspension figures are under heightened scrutiny.

“There’s a heck of a lot closer attention being paid now to the numbers of suspensions that people are doing,” said Council of School Supervisors and Administrators Executive Vice President Mark Cannizzaro, adding that some principals feel their discretion has been “compromised.” “People are being called out when their numbers are at a point that someone determines as high.”

Advocates and even the union officials say that some oversight is justified, and that alternative responses can work better than suspensions.

But some teachers argue that principals are declining to give out-of-school suspensions even when the discipline code calls for them because they doubt that department officials will give their approval. Instead, they rely on other consequences or shorter suspensions that typically keep students in school.

During a fight at a small high school inside the Christopher Columbus campus in the Bronx last month, a student tried to stab another boy with a pair of scissors, according to a teacher there. The discipline code, which describes scissors as a “category II” weapon, lists an out-of-school suspension as the minimum recommended consequence for an attempted attack with such weapons.

However, the school recorded the incident as reckless behavior, a less serious infraction that allowed for an in-school suspension, according to the teacher. When challenged, the principal told the teacher that the district’s safety official would likely have rejected the request for an out-of-school suspension. Soon after, several teachers filed a safety complaint with their union. (An education department spokeswoman said she could not comment on the incident.)

Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a different Bronx school that serves grades 6-12, said she knew of several instances where the district office had denied her school’s request to issue out-of-school suspensions. She doesn’t believe it is fair or effective to suspend students for minor misbehavior, she said, but the new restrictions are creating new discipline problems.

Students get the sense that “if I do something and I didn’t get suspended for it, now I can get away with stuff,” she said. “That sense is spreading.”

Lois Herrera, who heads the city education department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, said the city does not factor the number of suspensions into principal or school ratings so that schools feel free to use them when appropriate. However, she said that district officials do inquire about the severity of a student’s misbehavior and the school’s other intervention attempts before approving longer suspensions.

“We don’t want an over-reliance on suspensions,” Herrera said, calling that “the old way of doing business and a very punitive way of doing business.”

Seeking support

In place of suspensions, the city is prodding schools to rely more on interventions such as counseling, peer mediation, and behavior contracts, which officials and advocates say are more effective at preventing misbehavior and treating its root causes.

But there’s a catch: those practices demand more time and training. Instead of just sending students to the office, a “restorative” approach calls for staffers to help students analyze poor decisions, develop a bank of better choices, and apologize for harm they’ve caused.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew (center) has raised concerns with Chancellor Carmen Fariña (right) about principals who have nearly abandoned suspensions, as well as there being too little teacher training as schools transition to alternative discipline systems.
PHOTO: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew (center) has raised concerns with Chancellor Carmen Fariña (right) about principals who have nearly abandoned suspensions, as well as there being too little teacher training as schools transition to alternative discipline systems.

Teachers at several schools said they have yet to receive training or to see school-wide systems of interventions and consequences to replace suspensions. Citywide, only a subset of schools has received training on restorative practices.

Many teachers at Lehman High School in the Bronx are uncertain about how to respond to serious behavior problems in light of the policy changes, said math teacher and union representative Jeffrey Greenberg. Staffers at the low-performing school were told to give lists of students who require emotional or academic support to the school’s nonprofit partner, but they are less sure what to do when students break rules during class that previously would have triggered a call to the dean and a suspension.

“In the old days, the kid would cross the line and [the administration] would take care of it,” he said. Now, “the line is not really clear.”

Advocates have long called for the city to fund on-site coordinators at schools to oversee the conferences, training, and conflict-resolution classes that well-run alternative discipline systems demand. But only 15 schools have received funding from City Council for those positions, and city officials said they have no plans to significantly expand the number of those coordinators.

At a teachers union meeting in January, 62 percent of the 414 school representatives who participated in a survey said their schools do not have enough staffers to intervene when students misbehave, and 80 percent said misbehavior was disrupting learning at their schools, according to a union report.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew has relayed concerns to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about principals who have nearly abandoned suspensions, as well as there being too little teacher training as schools transition to alternative systems.

“What are you going to do differently to make sure this important work is getting done,” Mulgrew said in an interview, referring to the education department, “and not just throwing it at schools?”

Department spokeswoman Toya Holness, who noted that crime in schools is down along with suspensions, said the city has funded 250 new guidance counselors over the past two years along with teacher training. The mayor’s preliminary budget in January included $47 million for school discipline initiatives, such as adding mental-health services, full-time social workers, and “culture coordinators” to schools with the highest suspension rates.

“We believe that we are on the right course,” said Herrera, the school safety official, “in terms of moving away from suspensions.”

Growing pains

Where some critics see the pendulum swinging too fast and far away from suspensions, proponents of the change chalk up those concerns to unavoidable growing pains as the country’s largest school system takes a radically different stance on school discipline.

The restrictions on suspensions for insubordination — such as cursing at a teacher or refusing to leave a classroom — have been an especially difficult transition for teachers, some administrators say. The teachers see those incidents as undermining their authority and allowing a student to disrupt learning for an entire group. In such cases, a phone call home or a meeting strikes some teachers as insufficient.

Pushing for a revised school discipline code in October, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman at a 2014 rally calling for reforms to school discipline policy.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman at a 2014 rally calling for reforms to the city’s school discipline policies.

“A common complaint is that kids don’t know consequences,” said Mike Dunson, an assistant principal at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, which emphasizes restorative practices rather than suspensions. An insubordinate student may eventually face a “fairness” panel made up of students and staff or a mediation, but some teachers would prefer a more immediate, decisive response.

“I ask them what consequences are you talking about,” Dunson said, “and they don’t want to say ‘I mean suspensions,’ but that’s kind of what they mean.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a member of a city task force on school safety, said the city must still do “an enormous amount of work” to help schools rely less on suspensions. But she said schools were already making adjustments on account of the policy change.

“A system that is decades in the making, even with the best of intentions and all the resources in the world,” she said, “doesn’t change overnight.”

John Adams’ principal, Daniel Scanlon, did not respond to a request for comment. An education department spokeswoman said that the school administration follows protocol when responding to incidents, and that the department has provided training to help the school use “guidance interventions” and other alternatives to suspension.

Outside the school last week, several students said they generally feel safe at the school and have noticed fewer fights this year. A few teachers said that any large school will have some serious incidents, and that John Adams’ positive-behavior system leaves suspension on the table even as it offers an assortment of other options.

“Every student is an individual, and they have to be dealt with on an individual basis,” said a teacher who gave only her first name, Patricia. “And I think our faculty and our staff and our administration do very well with that.”

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.