trending downward

Suspensions continue to fall in New York City schools under de Blasio

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016.

Suspensions in New York City schools are continuing to fall, though not as sharply as in previous years, according to new data released Friday.

From September through mid-March, schools issued nearly 7.5 percent fewer overall suspensions compared with the same period in 2015. Principal suspensions, which are handed out for less serious offenses, dropped to 16,059 so far this school year, a six percent drop. More serious superintendent suspensions dropped 11 percent to nearly 5,900.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed policies that make issuing suspensions more difficult, including a new discipline code that requires written approval from the education department to suspend students for certain infractions. The city has also invested in training staff members to provide alternatives to suspensions.

“We are encouraged by the steady decline in suspensions and incidents across the city,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. She added the city is “providing targeted supports to schools that have historically high suspension rates to implement proactive and effective interventions to keep students in the classroom where they can learn.”

Overall, between 2013-14 and 2015-16 suspensions have plummeted by 30 percent.

But the city’s new discipline policies have drawn criticism. Some union officials and educators have complained that limiting schools’ ability to suspend students without proper training in alternative approaches has made schools more chaotic and dangerous, an assertion that is at least partially backed by student and teacher surveys.

City officials point out that reports of serious crimes in city schools are at “an all-time low” and that arrests and summonses have fallen as well.

The education department addressed another longstanding criticism from advocates: That school-based arrests, summonses, and suspensions disproportionately affect black and brown students, as well as those with disabilities. Officials noted that suspensions for insubordination — which is often viewed as a subjective offense that invites bias — decreased 32 percent to 340 suspensions from last July through December, compared with the same period in 2015.

Though the new data do not include student demographics, the most recent reports that include racial data show that black students represent half of all suspensions, despite being 27 percent of the student population.

Suspensions for students in grades K-2, which the city plans to significantly curtail in forthcoming updates to the discipline code, fell 38 percent.

“We are encouraged by the decrease in suspensions for students in grades K-2 and for insubordination, and also acknowledge that racial disparities in suspensions persist,” education officials wrote in a press release. Whether those disparities are shrinking won’t become clear until the city releases complete demographic data in October.

“Although the city has seen a positive drop in the numbers of suspensions, we still have far to go,” said Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children, who added that her organization receives hundreds of calls each year from students facing suspensions, and that most are black or have disabilities.

Yuster criticized the city’s commitment to school discipline reform in the long term. “The city’s preliminary budget does not contain the funding that is needed to maintain the gains from earlier investments in school discipline reform and support schools that are looking to move away from exclusionary discipline practices.”

The education department also reported that students were taken away by emergency medical personnel due to an emotional or psychological condition 484 times from last July through December, down 20 percent compared with the same period the previous year — the first time the statistics were reported. City officials said the decrease is evidence that de-escalation trainings are having an effect.

Advocates have repeatedly criticized the practice of calling 911 to handle disorderly students, and a 2014 settlement barred schools from making 911 calls before trying to defuse the situations themselves.

Overall, the number of times students were transported from schools by EMS for any reason went virtually unchanged at about 4,300.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.