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.”

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools