Master Class

After fanfare, inside the Bronx classroom of New York’s Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Alhassan Susso, New York's Teacher of the Year, leads a class discussion in his Bronx classroom.

Twelfth graders at the International Community High School in the South Bronx were pumped when they watched their social studies teacher, Alhassan Susso, receive the state’s Teacher of the Year award in September, the first time a New York City educator has received the honor in two decades.

When Susso’s name was announced, 18-year-old Eric Parache and his classmates watching a livestream of the Albany award ceremony erupted in applause. “I feel so lucky to have him as a teacher,” Parache said.

Susso returned to the school two days later, where he was mobbed by students and colleagues who were eager to offer their congratulations. “It was crazy,” Susso recalled. But the fanfare soon passed, and Susso was back to the obscurity of the everyday job he loves.

Curious about how a Teacher of the Year practices his craft, Chalkbeat visited Susso’s class on a recent morning, where he was introducing a new unit on civil rights to a social studies class of roughly two dozen 12th graders, including a few late stragglers. He was posing some big questions on race — what it is and isn’t and who gets to decide.

The topic was one, in the nation’s most segregated school system, that both he and his students had clearly given some thought. When Susso accepted his award, he noted that he taught in the poorest congressional district in the country.

Many of Susso’s students are immigrants, hailing from West Africa, the Dominican Republic, or Yemen among other countries. Having moved to the U.S. from Gambia when he was 16, the teacher has a deep affinity for the hardships and challenges many of them face. Susso’s own immigrant experience has informed his approach in the classroom.

Before leaving Gambia, Susso completed the equivalent of eighth grade and was a top student, despite suffering from a rare eye disease— a condition he hid from everyone, including his teachers and parents, and left him nearly blind.

“I shielded myself from anyone knowing,” he said, “because disability is very stigmatizing in Gambia.”

At one point, when he was 11, he traveled to a hospital, but with few medical resources, the doctors there couldn’t help. To compensate, Susso stayed up late at night to memorize textbooks, whose words he could just make out, so he could follow the next day’s lessons on his school’s blackboard, which he never could see.

Once in the U.S., he settled in Poughkeepsie, moving in with a brother’s family and enrolling in the local high school. Because of his age, he was placed in the 11th grade.

In retrospect, skipping two grades, he said, “was the best thing that could have happened to me.” Because he was so miserable, he doubts he would have graduated if he’d had to make it through all four years.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability,” something he said was also true about his students, many of whom arrive at the school reading far below grade level. “There is not an achievement gap,” he insisted. “There is an opportunity gap.”

Like some of his students, Susso often arrived in class feeling angry, hungry, or exhausted and forever out of place. “I was the only African student,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends.” Sharing a home with his brother’s family proved untenable, and within eight months, Susso was living on his own and having to support himself with after-school jobs in a country he still scarcely knew or understood.

“Based on what I went through,” he said, he tries to provide many “different opportunities for students to feel relaxed and comfortable” in his fourth-floor classroom. “That is the only way,” he said, “that learning can occur.”

His room is lined with inspirational quotes, and he likes to begin each lesson with upbeat music. That morning, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” was playing on Susso’s computer as two boys with basketballs under their arms and a girl in a sweatshirt began to saunter in. The girl was happily mouthing the lyrics — “Take back my life song/Prove I’m alright song” — as she pulled a notebook from her backpack and greeted additional classmates as they entered.

Susso then led the class in a series of affirmations — “I am somebody” and “I will leave my mark on my generation” — which were like a pledge of allegiance to the students’ future selves. Susso then had students begin a “do now” exercise, which asked for written responses to a prompt: “Should citizens follow all laws passed by the government?” He then invited students to turn to an “elbow partner” to discuss what they had written.

Up to this point, the lesson was briskly paced and well-organized but not dramatically different from other classrooms. Where Susso really shined was in the ways he got students to think hard about complex issues and the clear rapport he’d already developed with students so early in the year.

Susso believes this personal connection is critical. He’s been known to visit students’ families in the hospital and stays after class to help them learn “life skills.”

At Susso’s Poughkeepsie high school, the adults weren’t always so supportive. He recalled one incident in a math class, when a teacher asked him to solve a problem on the board. Still hiding his vision problems and unable to see the equation, Susso replied simply, “I don’t know.”

The teacher responded by mocking Susso. “We know the people who are going to drop out of college,” he recalled the teacher saying, “if they even make it there.”

Another teacher took umbrage when Susso wore traditional African garb to class.

“If people want to wear their funny clothes,” the teacher said in front of Susso’s classmates, “they can stay in their country; this is America.”

Yet Susso said he and this teacher eventually became extremely close. “He got to know me as person,” Susso said. “He saw how hard I was willing to work.” By year’s end, the teacher was having students interview immigrants around Poughkeepsie and collected their stories in a bound book for the school community to share.

Still, Susso was often carrying a heavy weight, as he knows his students frequently do as well. Back in Gambia, a beloved sister contracted Hepatitis B, and the family worked to get her a visa to travel to the U.S. for treatment. But the visa was denied. Four months later, she died.

In the years immediately after, Susso became determined to go to law school to become an immigration lawyer so he could help families avoid the fate his had endured. Many of his students now, he said, worry about their legal status and that of their families.

In college, a counselor suggested that if Susso really wanted to “empower young people,” he should become a teacher instead.

Susso followed this advice and fulfilled part of his student-teaching requirement at International Community High School in the Bronx. The principal was so impressed, she promised him a job once he got his master’s degree. At age 34, he has now been teaching at the school for more than five years.

Bespectacled and darting about the classroom in brown pants, a beige dress shirt and navy-and-pink tie, he probed his students’ views with good-natured insistence.

When he called on one student who hadn’t volunteered to speak up, she moaned, “Noooo!” And he replied with a coaxing and enthusiastic “Yessss!”

Perla Novas, who is from the Dominican Republic, said she particularly liked how Susso is funny and lets students “talk a little bit” instead of demanding silence. “He cares about us and talks about values and why we should strive to be a better person,” she said. “Not a lot of teachers do that.”

Parache, the student who had watched Susso win his award in class and who is also Dominican, argued that citizens had a special responsibility to follow “all the laws,” because, he said, “when you become a citizen, you take a vow, you make a promise, to be good.”

“So what if the government passed a law that said ‘All Dominicans are to be deported next week,’” Susso inquired. “You said we’re supposed to follow all the laws.”

A female classmate chimed up, “But it’s not just ‘all the laws,'” she objected. “We also have rights.”

“So a law can be unconstitutional?” Susso asked, before sneaking in a review of some key terms and historical concepts, such as the 14th Amendment, the three-fifths compromise (in which slaves were counted as a fraction of a human being), “myth” and “segregation,” which he asked note-taking students to define or explain.

Susso then handed out sheets that contained a historical account of a Chinese family traveling through the American South in the 1950s, beginning to tie their debate to the unit ahead. Susso asked where such a family might sit — at the front or back of a bus — given the era’s Jim Crow laws enforcing racial separation.

“The middle?” one student asked.

Susso laughed, noting there was “no middle” in those days. Some students insisted Chinese passengers would be considered “colored”; others maintained they’d pass as “white.” Susso then had students take turns reading out loud from the passage. The Chinese passengers, it turned out, had been instructed to ride with whites but felt more kinship with blacks and so insisted on sitting at the back.

One student, Nicole Mendez, noted how Susso always went  “very deep into a topic” and was “very good at explaining things,” she said.

Susso again played music — this time a segment from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” — as students sought out new partners to discuss what they’d written about the 1950s story.  Susso said he always provided a two-minute break about halfway through the class, just to make it more inviting. About 60 seconds later, the class was again attentive and focused.

What would happen, Susso asked, if he woke up one day on the wrong side of the bed, “and decided I am now white,” he wondered. Could he do that as the Chinese family had? Why or why not?

A discussion ensued about how Susso and students perceived race in each other and themselves — whether they were “brown,” “black,” “cinnamon,” or “pink.”

Susso asked where “the best place to see segregation” was at their high school.

One girl called out, “The lunch room!” Students nodded knowingly, as they described the self-sorting that went on. “I hang with the Dominicans,” one girl, who indicated she was mixed-race, said.

Bringing the conversation back to the American south, Susso asked who got to decide what race someone was.

“The whites determined where people sat,” one girl said, which then led to the formulation of a more general precept: “The ones with the privilege get to decide.”

Another student countered that race was just “a myth,” utilizing the vocabulary word from earlier in the lesson, and that race didn’t refer to any biological difference. But, she added, “Myths can be powerful.”

Students then summed up what they’d learned in a final individual writing assignment, their “exit ticket,” which he could review later. As the students studiously finished up, a woman’s voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Period one is now over.”

In just 45 minutes, Susso had gracefully and expertly moved his students through several different exercises: reading, writing, and deep class discussions, and provided some music and fun besides.

“He’s an immigrant like us,” Perla Novas said, as she gathered up her books to head to her next class. “He asks questions that make us think.”

 

Literacy

How it feels to be Javion: 16 and struggling to read in Chicago Public Schools

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16. But now, he's working hard to change that — with help at home and in school. The stakes are high.

Javion Grayer’s aunt had given him the book thinking he might connect with the main character: a black teenager in crisis, struggling to make the right choices at school and evade trouble in a neighborhood affected with violence.

But two months after receiving “No Way Out,” 16-year-old Javion was still on the third page. Written at a third-grade level, the novel was too difficult for him to read.

He opened the book.

“Two days ago,” he started, “Grandma fell on the ….” He paused. “Front,” he said, and then “steps.” He skipped the next word, “banging,” then continued.

“Her head on the … porch,” he said, substituting another word for the correct one, “pavement.” Instead of the next two words, “spraining her,” Javion read “straining her.”

Then he looked up at his aunt, Katrina Falkner, with pleading eyes and turned the book her way, pointing at a word. “Ankle,” she whispered. He repeated it like he was weighing a question, and nodded.

Javion worked his way down the page, brow furrowed, stopping at or skipping over what he couldn’t understand. After five minutes, halfway through the page, he closed the book, exhausted.

“I can read some of it,” he said. “But I can’t read all of it, it’s a little too hard. I need help.”

It’s an assessment that everyone in his life shares — from his aunt, who became his legal guardian when his mother died two years ago, to his teachers at the small alternative high school he began attending this fall.

They know the stakes are high. An estimated three in 10 adults in Chicago lack basic literacy skills. They are more likely to earn lower wages, face unemployment, wind up in jail, and be mired in poverty than are adults who read well. Javion has little more than a year to avert becoming part of that statistic.

How Javion became a high school student reading at the second-grade level is impossible to say for sure. But multiple forces play a role: Intergenerational poverty and violence abetted by segregation and disinvestment that have strangled opportunities for black families in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Underperforming schools concentrated in underserved communities. A special education system that avoided serving students. A patchwork approach to literacy instruction.

And thousands upon thousands of students like Javion, who have endured deep, searing losses and trauma.

“Things he may have missed.”

Javion was born at Saint Anthony Hospital on New Years Day 2002 to Margie Grayer. His birth certificate doesn’t list a father. Grayer, then a 26-year-old receptionist, lived with her three other children; her younger sister, Falkner; and two teenage cousins in a three-bedroom apartment at the Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, a notorious public housing development forged from racist housing policies that reinforced segregation and further concentrated poverty on the South Side.

Chicago was already in the process of demolishing the neglected and crime-ridden housing project, so after Javion arrived, the family moved five miles south to Englewood, another segregated black community struggling with poverty and crime.

From kindergarten to second grade, Javion attended Woods Elementary Math & Science Academy, which was later closed for low performance and underenrollment. He missed many days of school, according to school records, and was forced to repeat second grade.

Grayer transferred Javion to Bass Elementary School a half a mile away. He passed second grade there, but was asked to repeat the third grade.

That happened at a third school, Stagg Elementary School in Auburn Gresham. The family moved there after a gunman on a bike shot and injured Javion’s two older brothers, then 15 and 16. They survived.

Javion arrived at Stagg just as it was undergoing a “turnaround,” a handoff to outside management and an often turbulent transition, designed to raise test scores at chronically underperforming schools. Stagg promoted Javion every year. At his mother’s request, the school evaluated him for the first time — in seventh grade — for special education services. That year, 87 percent of his fellow seventh graders were reading below level. Javion’s assessment found a mild intellectual disability, according to school records.

After that, Javion remembers, a dedicated aide started joining him in class once a day.

“She was the one lady who would help me a little, she would sit in the classroom and teach me how to read a bit and then she would leave,” Javion said.

But after a brief stretch of progress came calamity. Javion’s mother became ill and died suddenly the summer after he finished seventh grade. From tenuous stability, his life spun into turmoil that he could recount only much later.

Schoolwise, Javion thinks he didn’t get any one-on-one help during eighth grade. Nor did he get any at Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville, which he entered in 2017, around the time that he moved in with Falkner. He left that school after only a few weeks because of the long commute, transferring to Excel Academy, an alternative school in Englewood.

There, according to records, he participated in most courses, without any special accommodations beyond getting extra time and guidance from his teachers. The school determined that his disabilities didn’t require direct services from a special education teacher, although his teachers were supposed to consult with those specialists quarterly. The report cautioned that Javion had missed so much school — 16 of the first 42 days of the year — that the assessment could be incomplete.

This year, Javion started at a third high school, Community Youth Development Institute, where his annual meeting to review and update special education services took place this month, nearly halfway through the school year.

On the day that Javion’s evaluation team planned to share their conclusions, his aunt walked up the Auburn Gresham school’s steps seeking answers for her nephew.

“I’m just hoping somebody will finally help him out,” she said.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Javion’s aunt Katrina Falkner heads into his high school for a meeting with the special education team there.

When she entered the counselor’s office to discuss an individualized education program, Javion already was sitting in the cramped room with three women — a case manager, a psychiatrist, and his special education teacher — tossing a plastic stress ball into the air.

For the IEP meeting, the school had sized him up. Karen McDillon, the school psychiatrist, described Javion as pleasant, respectful, cooperative and “very soft-spoken.” She said he has many friends at the school, thrives socially, and despite his deficits, has strengths. He’s a strong visual learner who responds well to charts, favors nonverbal reasoning, shows willingness to learn, and benefits from individual explanations and coaching.  

But she said his reading scores from October placed him at the level of a second-grader. He struggles with how to decipher the individual sounds in a word and combine them. Word parts, prefixes and suffixes confuse him. Many of his reading errors come from dropping syllables or assigning incorrect vowel sounds to unfamiliar words.

However, evaluators finally have arrived at a welcome explanation for Javion’s struggles.

“We’re feeling that’s not so much a reflection of his ability,” said his case manager, Nancy Bobel, “and is more of an issue of things he may have missed early on in his education.”

Special education problems

It’s unclear why Javion seems not to have been screened for special needs until seventh grade.

His current IEP team believes that his seventh-grade review missed addressing his gaps, and that he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

That 2015 diagnosis identified him as having a cognitive impairment or intellectual disability, meaning that his capacity would be limited. But he’s made so much progress recently, in less than a semester, that Bobel said, “We’re changing his disability label to a learning disability, which means he has the capability of learning much more than what was originally thought.”

How could Javion repeatedly fall through the cracks?

Chicago Public Schools declined to respond to multiple queries related to Javion’s education. A spokesperson also declined to explain the district’s approach to teaching reading to older students like him who struggle to read.

If indeed the district neglected to provide Javion early on with special education, he wasn’t the only student who missed out.

A state investigation found in May that Chicago schools systematically shut out qualifying students from special education, by failing to train staff, improperly assessing students, and sending parents conflicting information, all in violation of state and federal laws. The state assigned a monitor to oversee the program, but parents and advocates still say that improvements have been slow to appear.

None of that has surprised parents and groups like Community Organizing and Family Issues on the Near West Side. Falkner joined the group even before she became Javion’s guardian, and attended training in leadership special-education advocacy. Buoyed by what she learned, she nudged her sister to push the school to evaluate Javion’s needs.

In July, at a Chalkbeat forum with caregivers at the organization, Falkner told a table of mothers, grandmothers and aunts about Javion’s reading challenges.

When she finished, there was barely a dry eye left among the group.

Javion now receives more than four hours a week of special help for all core subjects, and spends nearly two-thirds of his school time away from regular classes. A low student-teacher ratio offers more individual attention and fewer distractions, according to his evaluation.

And the school responded to Falkner’s demand to focus more on his reading skills to accelerate his fluency and comprehension.

“Hopefully, now that he’s going to be receiving services all through high school, we’ll be able to get him caught up to a level where he can function independently on his own in the world,” said school psychiatrist McDillon.

A late intervention

Catching up depends on Javion becoming a better reader.

He remembers failing reading assignments from an early age, and zoning out when he couldn’t read a worksheet or passage in a text. He doesn’t have a favorite book or writer. He also said he has always shied away from reading aloud in class.

“Some of it, I can get through it, but some of it I can’t. So I don’t like reading in front of other people,” Javion said.

As kids get older, catching up becomes much harder. After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

But Javion lacks the skills to do that effectively.

He’s hardly alone in moving ahead in school without mastering phonics. It’s possible his teachers never taught it. In teaching reading, many schools across the nation have pushed “whole language” over sounding out words. Instead, students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas.

Whether Javion’s elementary schools did that is not certain. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals a wider degree of autonomy to choose what and how students are taught.

When Tim Shanahan became director of reading for Chicago Public Schools in 2001, he asked for a list of the reading programs used at schools — “and they literally gave me two stacks of paper that went from the floor to the top of my desk.”

As he went through the stack, he said, “there were schools that didn’t have any program, and schools that have as many programs as you can imagine.”

A struggling reader who moves from school to school and gets direction that conflicts with what they have heard before might become frustrated and resistant to reading, said Shanahan, who is no longer with the district. He said the impact of Chicago’s scattershot approach to literacy instruction would be heightened for students like Javion who attend multiple schools in the pivotal early years.

Javion’s current school has an approach, but not a curriculum. Community Youth Development Institute is an alternative charter school enrolling 180 or so students ages 16 to 21. True to its start by a pastor and his wife in 1996, the school is operated in an old church building. Nearly all students are black, and from low-income households in and around communities like Auburn Gresham and Englewood.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

The school relies on a “personalized learning” model — mostly computer programs — to help students catch up. For Javion, that means working with a popular reading remediation program called Read 180, meant for students whose reading skills are several years behind.

It also means taking small-group classes with Kelly Morgan, the school’s sole special education teacher, who said she is building her curriculum “from scratch” based on their needs. Morgan has Javion working on learning common prefixes and suffixes so he can grow the number of words he can identify.

The special education team, which creates individual plans for all 30 of the school’s students with disabilities, also prescribed working on a page of the dictionary every day to build his arsenal of familiar words and practicing filling out job applications to tie lessons back to the real world. Those tasks, they said, would help Javion become a better reader.

“As he builds his vocabulary and his ability to decode, and to learn those sight words, then his fluency and his comprehension will improve,” said Bobel, his case manager.

Louisa Moats, a leading national expert on literacy, said that it’s unlikely Javion was ever taught to read properly if he’s reading at a second grade level. She suggested that even older students trying to learn how to read need to start at the beginning with phonics — putting letters and sounds together to make syllables that go into bigger words. Then, for practice, a student like Javion needs intensive instruction with a trained and supervised teacher.

Moats said research indicates Javion would require at least three hours of instruction a day taught by trained teachers. Half of that time would be the mechanics of reading, and the other half he’d need to make up what he’d missed in math and other subject areas, “because if he can’t read it means he’s probably way behind in his general knowledge,” Moats said.

“I’m not ashamed.”

At the IEP meeting, there’s some news. In less than one semester, Javion’s reading skills increased half a grade level, according to a STAR reading assessment administered in October — something that has likely has never happened for him before. The school special education teacher, Kelly Morgan, said she’s optimistic that he’ll continue to gain.

“I think he has a lot of potential,” Morgan said. “He’s a very intelligent young man, he’s very dignified, he’s very quiet, very thoughtful. I think that he just needs a little fine tuning in some areas, but he’ll be OK.”

Still, the odds are stacked against Morgan’s efforts, and Javion’s. In addition to starting from a deep skills deficit, Javion must contend with other ongoing challenges.

At the epicenter of those challenges has been his mother’s sudden death two years ago. In July 2016, Margie Grayer complained about shortness of breath. Her children urged her to go to the hospital. She refused for a week, Javion said, but finally went on Aug. 1. She died of pneumonia 10 days later.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Katrina Falkner at her Englewood apartment, holding an obituary for her sister Margie Grayer, Javion’s mom.

Javion recalls his brother shaking him awake in bed to tell him the news. The family gathered at the hospital and cried at her bedside.  

“It wasn’t anything going through my mind. I was just hurt,” Javion said. “I didn’t want to talk to nobody.”

“Now I try not to think about her, because if I think about her, I might cry.”

After Grayer’s death, her former boyfriend — the father of two of Javion’s siblings — cared for Javion and the other children. But in September 2017, the man vanished without an explanation.

That hurt, Javion said, because they were close, much closer than Javion and his biological father, who rarely shows his face. Javion does not know why he left or where he went, just that the lights were off and no food was in the fridge when he abandoned them.

That’s when his aunt took in Javion and his younger sister. But Falkner has her hands full. She’s also a foster mother to 10-year-old twins. They all live on a quiet block in Englewood, surrounded by vacant lots. Falkner volunteers with various community groups, and coordinates mentoring and education activities for area youth via her nonprofit 66th & Union Life Crew.

She works temp jobs. She spends a lot of time navigating the maze of guardianship and public benefits for the kids.

But Falkner has been able to advocate for Javion and his siblings. Still, she fears family history is repeating itself in Javion.

Falkner’s mother was functionally illiterate — meaning she lacked the reading and writing skills to meet everyday needs — like one of Falkner’s younger brothers.

“He’s 34, and he still needs help,” she said.

For Javion, other traumas followed his mother’s death. In December 2017, Javion and several companions narrowly survived a shooting connected to clashes with students from his former high school. Falkner said it was gang-related, but not directed at Javion. The shooting prompted Falkner to switch Javion’s school — the second time he transferred after a shooting.

Just three months later, in February, his 15-year-old cousin was shot to death on the South Side.

Javion’s life reflects the perfect storm that Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said young black men weather in Chicago and across the nation. An activist for black male literacy, Tatum says a lack of culturally responsive instruction, achievement struggles, and disproportionately high rates of school discipline together prevent black boys from succeeding in school — and having positive life trajectories.

“Those are triple threats that become a very dark abyss,” Tatum said.

“Young black men are not going to sit in classrooms where they don’t experience good things, and it’s hard to experience positive experiences in classrooms when you cannot read well.”

Javion’s special education plan puts him on track to graduate in June 2022, when he will be 20. He didn’t come to the school with a single credit earned.

Remarkably, despite the trauma, loss and turmoil in his life, Javion is upbeat. He’s getting counseling at school to help him deal with his grief now. He’s driven to improve as a reader, and remembers what his mom told him.

“She told me to read,” he said. “Because one day you might be able get a good job or anything. You can get anywhere. You can start your own business if you know how to read. I’m going to try to start my own business one day, designing clothes.”

That’s why on the eve of Thanksgiving, the day before what would have been Margie Grayer’s 43rd birthday, Javion woke up in bed with a purpose.

He joined the other kids for breakfast, and afterward, he and his cousin Myshayla, 9, walked to the living room of their Englewood apartment and browsed through the bookcase.

Javion grabbed “No Way Out,” the book he had struggled so mightily with a couple weeks earlier. Myshayla is the house’s resident whiz kid, and one of the only people who regularly reads one-on-one with Javion.

She watched intently as he started off where he stopped before.

This time, he’s able to finish the page.

“I’m not ashamed,” Javion said proudly. “I just want to get better.”

explainer

What it will mean if Betsy DeVos rolls back the Obama school discipline rules

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety on August 16, 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Two years ago, it seemed like scrapping Obama-era guidance around school suspensions might be at the top of Betsy DeVos’s to-do list as education secretary.

The rules encouraged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions, and have been supported by progressives and civil rights groups. But they have been heavily criticized by conservatives, who say they’ve made schools less safe. Still, the guidelines have stayed in place, even as conversations about school safety have taken on new intensity.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the final report of the school safety commission convened after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will recommend that the guidance be eliminated. That would be a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools, a connection that remains questionable and hotly debated. The report is expected this month.

“The Federal Commission on School Safety has studied the topic of school discipline extensively and will make a recommendation on the Obama-era school discipline guidance in its final report,” Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill said.

The debate about these guidelines is long-running and fierce. Here’s a guide to what’s at stake and what to look out for as decisions are made.

Catch me up: What is this guidance?

This all centers around a letter issued in January 2014 by the education and justice departments. It said that school leaders should seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom, especially when their behavior isn’t violent.

The guidelines also pushed districts to take a close look at how students of different racial groups are punished. The letter said that disparities could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.

Leaders from both departments made clear that this was an issue they would take seriously. “We will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” they wrote.

Many districts were already changing their approaches. Research on the connection between suspensions and dropout rates, among other issues, had been pushing districts like Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and curb suspensions.

It’s unclear exactly how many more districts adjusted their policies because of the directives — one survey of superintendents in 47 states found that 16 percent of districts did — but Obama officials certainly encouraged the shift.

Why has it become such a big deal?

The short answer is that the guidance has become significant to both the political left and right, with practical and symbolic import. On the left, it represents the fight against racism and the potential of the Trump administration to set that back. On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.

For instance, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, has described the guidance as “coercive.” According to Eden’s analysis, at least 350 districts were investigated by the Office of Civil Rights from 2009 to 2017 “for the purpose of intimidating them into adopting discipline policies favored by the Obama administration.” In his view, the guidance trampled on local authority, pushing districts to poorly implement changes that led to disorder in schools.

National school boards and superintendents groups have also been critical of the guidance, saying it cut into local autonomy. Teachers in certain districts have reported that they have been hamstrung without good alternatives to suspension. Some of those critics got a hearing before department officials late last year.

DeVos has also heard from supporters of the guidance. To them, the guidance simply codified longstanding laws meant to protect against discrimination. Some have conceded that changes were poorly implemented in some cases. But much of the education world — including teachers unions and certain education reform groups — has urged DeVos to maintain the Obama-era rules.

These tensions have likely been heightened by the president. Rescinding the guidance, to some progressives, would be an extension of the Trump administration’s racist policymaking. Indeed, the language used by some opponents has had racist undertones, like an essay in a Manhattan Institute publication titled “No Thug Left Behind.” Breitbart, the far-right site, has described the guidance as an “Obama-era school leniency policy of reducing reports of violent behavior committed by minority students.”

How did this all get connected to the school safety commission?

The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted the Trump administration to convene a school safety commission and reinvigorated conservative opposition to the discipline guidance.

Commenters blamed Broward County’s alternative discipline programs, meant to reduce suspensions, for allowing the shooter to escape scrutiny for earlier offenses. And they blamed the Obama guidance for leading to the creation of Broward’s program, a claim that percolated through conservative media.

That connection doesn’t make sense. Broward’s program launched in 2013 — before the Obama administration issued its 2014 guidance. But politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio repeated the claim that the guidance contributed to the massacre, which killed 17.

Trump named DeVos chair of the school safety commission, and “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” was one of its areas of focus, suggesting the decision was inevitable.

The Post reports that the commission, as expected, will not recommend new gun restrictions.

It’s also worth noting that legitimate questions have been raised more recently about Broward County’s initiatives to reduce suspensions, which were held up as a model by the Obama administration. The Broward superintendent originally claimed that shooter Nikolas Cruz was not part of district’s Promise program, which was meant to avoid referring students to police after non-violent offenses. A local NPR station would later report that he was. Other local reporting suggested that teachers felt ill-equipped to implement the disciplinary changes, and some reported that student behavior got worse as a result.

What will changes mean for schools and students?

The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking and embolden opposition to discipline changes already underway.

Still, a number of districts have already said they are committed to seeing through the changes they’ve made.

If the guidance is rescinded, “I think in our district, it wouldn’t change anything,” Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, said recently. Still, he said, “I think it helps when you have voices like that at a federal level making a statement.”

Going back to the core issue here — do suspensions really harm students?

There’s lots of evidence that students who get suspended have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than students who don’t get suspended. It’s also well documented that black students, students with disabilities, and boys are much more likely than others to be suspended or expelled.

To critics of exclusionary discipline, this is strong evidence that those disciplinary tactics are deeply problematic. But it’s also true that the connection doesn’t prove that suspensions harm students — only that students headed for worse outcomes are also the students who get suspended, which is not surprising.

Recent research gets closer to pinning down cause and effect, though. In Louisiana, a study  found that when a black student and a white student got into a fight, the black student was suspended for longer, though the difference was very small. And a handful of recent studies have shown that suspensions do actually cause lower test scores, though again, the effect was fairly small.

And has cutting back on suspensions made things worse, a key claim of discipline reform critics? There’s limited evidence, one way or another. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result.

Meanwhile, there’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.