School safety

City will no longer suspend students in grades K-2, and releases a slew of new school crime data

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Ben Roter, 14, at a New York Civil Liberties Union protest about the use of police force in city schools in October 2014.

Schools will no longer be allowed to suspend students in kindergarten through second grade, one of a series of new safety policies announced Thursday that includes creating a process for removing metal detectors from some school buildings.

The decision to end suspensions for some of the city’s youngest students comes after a city task force issued its second and final report that spells out a series of recommendations aimed at making the school system’s disciplinary practices more fair.

This past school year, 801 suspensions were issued for students in kindergarten through second grade, down from 1,454 the previous year, an education department official said. The new policy will replace those suspensions with “age-appropriate discipline techniques” according to a press release.

Advocates largely praised the new suspension policy, though some thought it didn’t go far enough. “It’s progress – it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kesi Foster, a coordinator at the Urban Youth Collaborative, and a member of the city’s task force. “Transformative change would expand that same understanding and compassion” to high school students, he added, and eliminate suspensions for older students as well.

The new suspension policy drew criticism from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who wrote a letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña blasting the decision. “The new plan claims that the DOE will provide schools with additional resources to address the challenges created by banning suspensions,” he wrote. “We are skeptical these new supports will materialize.”

Moving schools away from punitive discipline toward more restorative practices has been a hallmark of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school reform strategy, but has met mixed reviews. The recommendations issued Thursday come from a city task force, which includes top officials. It was created to move the city away from practices that lead to students getting tangled in the criminal justice system, and which disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students, as well as those with disabilities.

The city also promised to implement a new procedure for removing metal detectors from school buildings, or only use them “part-time,” taking into account factors such as school size and weapon-related student activity near the building, an education department official said. Eighty-eight of the city’s 1,300 school buildings use metal detectors, according to the city, but according to a WNYC analysis, nearly half of all black high school students pass through metal detectors, compared with just 14 percent of their white peers.

“It’s very vague exactly what they’ve been doing or will do,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and member of the city task force, in reference to the metal detector policy. “We think they’re positive developments, but will be monitoring implementation.”

The city used the report to tout reductions in suspensions and crimes committed within schools — which have been the subject of a wider public relations battle with charter school supporters.

The NYPD also issued new statistics that include data on how often students have been handcuffed, and the number of arrests made by officers on school grounds.

According to a preliminary analysis of the data by the NYCLU, there were 1,555 student arrests last school year, and 436 student arrests this year from January through March.

Of the 436 arrests in the first quarter of 2016, just nine — or 2 percent — were white. And while 70 percent of the city’s students are black or Hispanic, that group represented 92 percent of arrests, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

“Similar to street policing, racial disparities in school-based arrests are severe,” according to an NYCLU press release.

While the NYPD data show crime in the city’s schools is down roughly 50 percent since 2004, according the NYCLU, the new statistics also reveal almost 673 uses of restraints during the first quarter of 2016. Eighty-three of those incidents involved students who were emotionally disturbed.

Black and Hispanic students were also more likely to be restrained. Of the 673 restraints, 627 — or 93 percent — were used on black or Hispanic students. Two percent involved white students, Chalkbeat found.

In an interview, an NYPD official acknowledged the disproportionate effect policing has on black and Hispanic students, but said the department is open to discussions on how to eliminate it.

In its announcement, the city also promised to allocate $47 million annually “to support school climate initiatives and mental health services,” including adding mental health supports in 50 additional schools over the next three years.

“Today’s reforms ensure that school environments are safe and structured,” de Blasio said in a statement. “In partnership with the NYPD, my administration will continue to monitor school safety data to ensure enduring reductions in disciplinary disparities while improving school safety citywide.”

Annie Ma contributed data analysis

study up

Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.

At Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit, where the city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a partnership to provide free eye exams to 5,000 children in 2016. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District)

New York City has been trying to help struggling schools by partnering them with nonprofits that provide counseling and health services. A Detroit school recently added a washing machine to make sure students have clean clothes. A Tennessee superintendent just petitioned the state for more funding to offer similar help to students and families.

The strategy, often referred to as the “community schools” model or “wraparound services,” has been embraced by districts across the country. It also makes intuitive sense to help kids in class by directly dealing with out-of-school factors, like poverty, that affect learning.

So do school-based efforts to counter the harmful effects of poverty lead to measurable academic gains?

Here’s what we know: Research shows that these efforts often do help learning, but in a number of cases they don’t seem to have any effect — and it’s not clear why efforts sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t.

The impact on academics is promising

Child Trends, a research group, recently compiled and analyzed the results of 19 rigorous studies that tried to isolate the effects of efforts to improve students’ mental and physical health, offer counseling services, add after-school programs, provide direct social services to families in need, and other similar programs.

Examples include the national Communities in Schools and Boston’s City Connects programs, which place site coordinators in schools to connect students and families to those resources.

When looking at the effect of wraparound services on grades and test scores, those 19 studies come to a mix of positive and inconclusive findings. Results were a bit more positive in math than in English, which is common in education research.

There was also variation within programs, like Communities in Schools, which has become the most evaluated wraparound-style initiative. Separate studies have shown that the program produced test score gains in Chicago and Wichita, but not Austin or Jacksonville. A recent national evaluation focusing on Texas and North Carolina found a mix of outcomes.

One notable finding: across the 19 studies, there are virtually no cases where students appear to do worse thanks to the programs, the review notes. The researchers conclude that the approach is “promising but not yet proven.”

Not included in the review were a few initial evaluations of New York City’s community schools-based turnaround program, which included extending the school day. One analysis found that the program actually seemed to reduce high school graduation rates relative to similar schools that did not participate, and had no effects on elementary or middle school test scores. But another study using a different approach found that the initiative did lead to moderate test score gains.

The impact on attendance, behavior, and other outcomes is inconsistent

One surprising aspect of the research on these wraparound services: there aren’t consistent findings about how the programs affect things other than academics.

In a handful of studies in the Child Trends that examined other outcomes, most found no effects on students’ attendance, behavior, engagement in school, or social-emotional outcomes. Still, a few studies found positive effects and, again, negative ones were quite rare.

One recent paper, not included in the Child Trends review, found that a wraparound initiative in Massachusetts led to substantial gains in students’ math and English test scores. That program made no apparent impact on students’ attendance, their likelihood of being held back a grade, or suspension rates, though.

What makes a program work?

Frustratingly for policymakers, it’s not clear.

The Child Trends report suggests providing community schools with substantial resources over several years is most likely to lead to success. But it concludes that there’s a “lack of evidence regarding the concrete elements that make different models successful or how they must be implemented.”

Meanwhile, there appears to be stronger evidence for the academic benefits of direct anti-poverty programs that are separate from schools. The earned income tax credit, health insurance, child tax credit, food stamps, and simply giving cash to low-income families have all been linked to better outcomes in schools for children.

Finally, many would argue these sorts of wraparound services and anti-poverty programs are worthwhile regardless of students’ short-term academic gains.

Elaine Weiss, who led a group that supported wraparound services, previously told Chalkbeat that the approaches have intrinsic value.

“Don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe after-school and summer programs is inherently a good thing?” she asked.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.