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.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.