By the numbers

What do New York City’s youngest students get suspended for, anyway?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would no longer suspend students in kindergarten through second grade, he reinvigorated a debate about his “restorative” approach to school discipline.

Many advocates cheered the policy shift as a move away from punitive measures that can set children as young as five on a collision course with the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the city’s teachers union balked, arguing that eliminating a disciplinary tool before all educators have been trained in alternative methods will only lead to more disruption.

But the debate about what will happen if those suspensions are eliminated hinges, in part, on a basic question: What are the city’s five- through seven-year-olds being suspended for in the first place?

The answer, based on new data from the city Department of Education, offers some ammunition to both sides of the debate. Here’s what the numbers show:

Nearly a third of the 801 suspensions handed out to students in kindergarten through second grade this past school year were reportedly for incidents of violence or serious physical disruption. Those infractions included: reckless behavior with substantial risk of serious injury (115 suspensions); using force or inflicting serious injury to school safety agents or other school personnel (104 suspensions); and Category I weapons possession (22 suspensions), which includes everything from slingshots to guns.

The most common suspension is for an offense that used to be categorized as horseplay. “Altercation and/or physically aggressive behavior” is the technical name of the category, and 373 suspensions were issued for it last year, 47 percent of the 2015-16 total. Until the 2012-13 school year, the education department categorized this offense as “horseplay,” though the broadness of the label makes it hard to know how it is applied in practice.

Most suspensions come from a small number of schools. Just 263 out of the 839 district schools that serve students in kindergarten through second grade issued suspensions last year. And of those 263 schools, 40 percent (or about 105 schools) only suspended one student. That means roughly 19 percent of schools are responsible for 87 percent of all K-2 suspensions, reflecting a trend that also exists among schools that serve older students.

The percentage of young students who get suspended is tiny, and the number of suspensions is falling rapidly. Just 587 of the city’s youngest students were suspended this past year, or less than one-quarter of one percent of all students in those grades. The total number of suspensions issued to K-2 students is down 60 percent over the past four years, a decline that began during the Bloomberg administration. (Last year, the city required that principals get approval before suspending students in grades K-3.)

Some students are suspended repeatedly. Among students who got suspended last year, 26 percent received more than one suspension. The city did not provide demographic breakdowns for the data, such as race or disability status.

Taken together, the numbers may lend some credence to the teachers union’s argument that suspensions are a necessary tool to handle the most severe misbehavior, and that without systematic training, teachers won’t be able to effectively manage their classrooms.

“An ill-conceived ban, combined with a lack of oversight of the current system and no real plan to move forward, will perpetuate an environment of chaos and instability that can undermine the success of the classroom teacher and the achievement of every student in his or her class,” said Richard Mantell, vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, at a recent forum.

Neither the UFT nor the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, commented directly on the new numbers. CSA Executive Vice President Mark Cannizzaro said that suspensions were already falling and the city should “let principals make decisions where appropriate.” Cannizzaro, along with other advocates, noted that schools may report identical incidents in different ways, making the aggregate numbers difficult to parse.

Teresa Ranieri, who has taught kindergarten and first grade for the past 11 years at P.S. 11 in the Bronx, echoed their concerns about the new policy. She said her school only uses suspensions after a series of other interventions, and when students are a danger to themselves or others. She said she wished there had been more discussion and training among teachers before the city announced the new policy.

“When you just ban all suspensions, my next question would be: If I have a child who’s acting out and I’m not getting cooperation from home at all — they don’t come to meetings, they don’t take the child to screenings — what’s my next step then?” Ranieri asked. “None of us have received that support yet.”

City officials stressed that the education department is investing $47 million annually, in part to provide training “to ensure [educators] have the supports they need to manage behavioral challenges.”

“We’re going to be training a lot more teachers — all our pre-K teachers went through special training on social-emotional [support],” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a recent interview. “Most of the principals I’ve spoken to are perfectly OK with the plan.”

One mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she supports the suspension ban. She said her son, who has an individual learning plan for an emotional disturbance, was suspended six times in kindergarten, partly because the school was unable to manage his behavior, which included physical outbursts.

“The point of suspension is you’re showing the child and student the consequences of their behavior,” she said. “If you have a student who doesn’t understand those consequences, [a suspension] doesn’t help them.”

For their part, advocates who support the city’s shift away from suspensions said the new numbers offer evidence that punitive measures aren’t needed.

“When you look at these massive declines and the enormous number of schools who suspend no students at this age, it just reinforces to me that suspending kids in kindergarten through second grade is just unnecessary,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Asked about the more serious infractions, including weapons possession, Miller said there are very few situations where removing a student is actually necessary for the safety of others. The discipline code, she added, allows educators to remove students from their classrooms without logging an official suspension.

“Nobody’s saying that a trained adult cannot take the child out of the classroom and manage their behavior,” Miller noted. “What we’re saying is they shouldn’t then spend days in a suspension room.”

Dawn Yuster, who directs Advocates for Children’s School Justice Project, largely echoed those arguments. She said the most serious infractions, including using force against a school safety agent, are often the result of student behavior that is misidentified or mismanaged from the start.

“This charge doesn’t happen in isolation,” said Yuster, whose organization has handled numerous complaints about school discipline from parents. It “signals that further training [is] needed for school staff to be able to better support students.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.