Discipline matters

Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Half of suspensions across Tennessee in the 2014-15 school year were handed out in just 8 percent of schools, many of which serve black students in Memphis.

Statewide, 20 percent of black male students were suspended at least once that year. Black students were also more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

Sky-high suspension rates at some Memphis schools contributed significantly to that disparity. For instance, at Grandview Heights Middle School, fully two-thirds of students were suspended.

The revelations come from Tennessee’s latest discipline data, which state education officials presented last month in Nashville to members of a testing task force. Commissioner Candice McQueen called the high concentration of suspensions at 150 schools across the state “startling.”

“When you know [students] are not in front of any teacher, that they’re on their own, that’s the least-quality option,” McQueen said.

The new data reveals that suspensions are on the decline across Tennessee, and especially in Memphis, where the main school district, Shelby County Schools, has posted a double-digit drop in its suspension rate since the 2013-14 school year.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez said students attended the equivalent of 65,000 more school days last year because of the reduction in suspensions, from 63 per 100 students in 2013 to 50 per 100 students last year. (Many students were suspended more than once.)

But the new data also shows that the city, where most public school students are black, has a long way to go. In the 2014-15 school year, local schools enrolled less than 10 percent of the state’s students — but handed out more than a quarter of its suspensions.

The stunning numbers reflect national trends. Across the U.S., black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended than white students, even as the total number of suspensions falls. A number of school districts, including Indianapolis and Miami, have moved to eliminate suspensions for non-violent offenses or vaguely defined ones such as insubordination that are meted out more often to black students.

The data released by Tennessee doesn’t include the reasons students were pulled out of school. But leaders of both districts in Memphis say schools too often use suspensions when other forms of discipline could address behavior problems while keeping students in school.

Together, 21 percent of students in the two districts in Memphis — Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district whose schools are almost exclusively in the city — were suspended in the 2014-15 school year. MLK College Preparatory High School led the ASD in suspensions, with 57 percent.

The ASD has revised its discipline policy to eliminate expulsions, according to a district spokeswoman.

“We believe students deserve instruction regardless of behavior,” said Jennifer Williams, the district’s manager of enrollment and discipline.

Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, is monitoring suspensions and expulsions more closely than ever, and encouraging schools to adopt restorative justice, where students talk out their infractions with faculty and each other. (Read more about the district’s strategies here.) But Ramirez said not enough schools are yet on board.

“That’s not happening at the scale we’d like,” she said. “The challenge there is not having enough adults in buildings who have time in the course of the day” to guide students through restorative justice.

Almost every school in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has adopted a restorative justice approach, with districtwide help and resources from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. As a result, the district has significantly reduced suspensions and narrowed racial disparities in discipline.

“Changing people’s mindset about the best way to manage discipline is a barrier,” said Tony Majors, Nashville’s director of student services. “But there are more people supportive of alternative discipline practices than opposed.”

We compiled lists of schools with the highest rates of discipline actions across the state. Read through them all or skip to the ones you’re most interested in:

Districts with the highest percentage of students suspended overall
— Districts with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Districts with the highest percentages of students expelled overall
Districts with the highest percentages of black students expelled
Schools with the highest percentages of students suspended overall
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students suspended
Schools with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students suspended
Schools with the highest percentages of students expelled
Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of students expelled
Schools with the highest percentages of black students expelled
— Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students expelled

Districts with the highest percentage of students suspended overall:

  1. Achievement School District, 21.4
  2. Shelby County, 18.5
  3. Madison County, 13
  4. Fayette County, 12.9
  5. Metro Nashville, 10.7
  6. Millington, 9.6
  7. Dyersburg, 9.2
  8. Hardeman County, 8.7
  9. Hamilton County, 7.9
  10. Cleveland County, 7

Districts with the highest percentages of black students suspended:

  1. Shelby County, 21.9
  2. Achievement School District, 21.8
  3. Madison County, 17.8
  4. Fayette County, 17.6
  5. Metro Nashville, 16.9
  6. (tie) Cheatham County, 16.2, Millington, 16.2
  7. Hamilton County, 15.8
  8. Sequatchie County, 15.4
  9. Knox County, 14.8

Districts with the highest percentages of students expelled overall:

  1. Shelby County, .8
  2. Hamilton County, .6
  3. Metro Nashville, Hamblen County, Giles County, Hardin County, .4
  4. Lenoir City, Montgomery County, Sullivan County, Bartlett, Sequatchie County, South Carroll County, .3

Districts with the highest percentages black students expelled:

  1. South Carroll County, 3.2
  2. Lenoir City, 1.5
  3. Hamilton County, 1.3
  4. Shelby County, .9
  5. Collierville, .8
  6. Sullivan County, .7
  7. Metro Nashville, .6, Hamblen County, .6
  8. Montgomery County, .5, Rutherford County, .5

Schools with the highest percentages of students suspended overall  

  1. MNPS Middle ALC, Metro Nashville, 88.9 percent
  2. Union County Alternative Learning Center, Union County, 82.8
  3. Richard Yoakley School, Knox County, 68.4
  4. Grandview Heights Middle, Shelby County, 65.7
  5. MCS Prep School-Northwest, Shelby County, 63.8
  6. KIPP Collegiate Middle, Shelby County, 62.6
  7. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58.6
  8. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 57.7
  9. MLK Prep High School, Achievement School District, 57
  10. MLK Transition Center, Shelby County, 56

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students suspended:

  1. Grandview Heights Middle School, Shelby County, 65.7
  2. KIPP Collegiate Middle School, Shelby County, 62
  3. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58
  4. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 57.7
  5. MLK Prep High School, Achievement School District, 57
  6. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 54.5
  7. South Side Middle School, Shelby County, 53.7
  8. Moses McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville, 52.5
  9. Airways Middle School, Shelby County, 52
  10. Carver High School, Shelby County, 51.2

Schools with the highest percentages of black students suspended:

  1. MNPS Middle Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 87.5
  2. Grandview Heights Middle School, Shelby County, 66.3
  3. MCS Prep School-Northwest, Shelby County, 64.8
  4. Joelton Middle School, Metro Nashville, 64.4
  5. Treadwell Middle School, Shelby County, 63.6
  6. KIPP Collegiate Middle School, Shelby County, 63
  7. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 60.1
  8. Hillcrest High School, Shelby County, 59
  9. Moses McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville, 58.8
  10. Hamilton High School, Shelby County, 58.8

Schools with the highest percentages of overall students expelled:

  1. MNPS Middle Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 48.9
  2. Johnson Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 25.3
  3. W.A. Bass Alternative Learning Center, Metro Nashville, 18.2
  4. Hamblen County Alternative School, Hamblen County, 16
  5. MCS Prep-Northwest School, Shelby County, 11.5
  6. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.1
  7. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County,  6.8
  8. Smyrna West Alternative School, Rutherford County, 5.9
  9. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 5.6
  10. Martin Luther King Transition Center, Shelby County, 5.3

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of overall students expelled:

  1. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County, 6.8
  2. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 5.6
  3. Geeter Middle School, Shelby County, 5.2
  4. The Howard School School, Hamilton County, 4.7
  5. Brainerd High School, Hamilton County, 4.6
  6. Oakhaven Middle School, Shelby County, 4.3
  7. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 4.2
  8. (tie) Hillcrest High, Shelby County, and Melrose High, Shelby County, 4.1
  9. Trezevant High, Shelby County, 4

Schools with the highest percentages of black students expelled:

  1. MNPS Middle ALC, Metro Nashville, 47.5
  2. Johnson Alternative Learning Center, Davidson County,  27.9
  3. W.A. Bass Alternative Learning Center, Davidson County, 17.1
  4. MCS Prep-Northwest, Shelby County, 11.7
  5. Northfield Academy, Maury County, 11.7
  6. Rock Springs Elementary School, Sullivan County, 10
  7. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County, 9.1
  8. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.7
  9. The Howard School, Hamilton County, 7.1
  10. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 6.4

Schools (excluding alternative schools) with the highest percentages of black students expelled:

  1. Rock Springs Elementary School, Sullivan County, 10
  2. Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County,  9.1
  3. DuBois High School of Leadership Public Policy, Shelby County, 7.7
  4. The Howard School, Hamilton County, 7.1
  5. Hamilton Middle School, Shelby County, 6.4
  6. Geeter Middle School, Shelby County, 5.3
  7. Oakhaven Middle School, Shelby County, 5
  8. Brainerd High School, Hamilton County, 4.9
  9. Lenoir City High School, Lenoir City, 4.8
  10. Whites Creek High School, Metro Nashville, 4.5

Corrections and clarifications (Oct. 26, 2016): This story has been updated to correct that MLK College Preparatory High School led the Achievement School District in suspensions, not KIPP Collegiate High School, as an earlier version stated. KIPP Collegiate High School is in Shelby County Schools. This story also reflects that the ASD has phased out expulsions for all grades, not suspensions for pre-K through third grade, as an earlier version stated. In addition, this story clarifies that the 21 percent suspension rate in the 2014-2015 school year reflected suspensions across both Shelby County Schools and the ASD.

portfolio push

The City Fund’s next steps: These 7 cities are the focus of the biggest new education player

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

A new group that’s raised millions to promote its brand of school reform has begun spending that money in seven cities — and its staff may be planning to try to influence elections, too.

The City Fund has already given grants to organizations and schools in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Newark, Denver, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Nashville, according to one of the group’s founders, Neerav Kingsland. Those grants amount to $15 million of the $189 million the group has raised, he told Chalkbeat.

City Fund staffers have also founded a 501(c)(4) organization called Public School Allies, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat, which Kingsland confirmed. That setup will allow the group’s members to have more involvement in politics and lobbying, activities limited for traditional nonprofits.

The details — some first reported by The 74 on Sunday — offer the latest insight into the ambitions of The City Fund, which is looking to push cities across the U.S. to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The $15 million that’s already been spent has mostly gone to local groups, Kingsland said.

In Denver, the recipient is RootED, a nonprofit that launched about a year ago. RootED’s head Nate Easley said his organization has issued roughly $3 million in grants, partially based on money from The City Fund. Some of that has gone to community groups that organized parents to speak out about the city’s superintendent search. Other money has gone directly to charter schools and district schools that are part of Denver’s innovation zones, which mean they are overseen by a nonprofit organization and that teachers can vote to waive parts of the labor contract.

Easley’s approach is consistent with The City Fund’s favored policies, sometimes called the “portfolio model.” In their ideal scenario, parents would be able to choose among schools that have autonomy to operate as they see fit, including charter schools. In turn, schools are judged by outcomes (which usually means test scores). The ones deemed successful are allowed to grow, and the less-successful ones are closed or dramatically restructured.

A version of that strategy is already in place in Denver and Indianapolis. Those cities have large charter sectors and enrollment systems that include both district and charter schools In others, like San Antonio, Atlanta, and Camden, struggling district schools have been turned over to charter operators.

The City Fund’s Newark grant is more of a surprise. Although the district has implemented many aspects of the portfolio model, and seen charter schools rapidly grow since a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Newark hasn’t been a magnet of national philanthropy recently. That may be because the changes there sparked vehement community protest, and the district recently switched to an elected school board.

Charter advocates in Nashville, meanwhile, have faced setbacks in recent years, losing several bitter school board races a few years ago. A pro-charter group appears to have folded there.

Kingsland said The City Fund has given to The Mind Trust in Indianapolis; RootED in Denver; City Education Partners in San Antonio; the Newark Charter School Fund and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation; The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis; and RedefinED Atlanta. In Nashville, The City Fund gave directly to certain charter schools.

The seven cities The City Fund has given to are unlikely to represent the full scope of the organization’s initial targets. Oakland, for instance, is not included, but The City Fund has received a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work there. The presentation The City Fund made for potential funders earlier this year says the organization expects to reach 30 to 40 cities in a decade or less.

“We will make additional grants,” Kingsland said in an email. “But we don’t expect to make grants in that many more cities. Right now we are focused on supporting a smaller group of local leaders to see if we can learn more about what works and what doesn’t at the city level.”

Chalkbeat previously reported that the Hastings Fund, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were funding the effort. The Walton Family Foundation and the Ballmer Group are also funders, Kingsland said. (The Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

The organization had told prospective donors that it had raised over $200 million. Kingsland said Sunday that $189 million is the correct figure.

As the group expands its influence, it will have to contend with the fact that the portfolio model approach has proven deeply controversial, especially where it has led to the closure of traditional public schools and the expansion of non-unionized alternatives.

It’s gained particular traction in a number of cities, like Newark, Camden, and New Orleans, while they were under state control. In Denver and Indianapolis, cities where the approach has maintained support with elected school boards, supporters faced setbacks in recent elections. Public School Allies may work to address and avoid such political hurdles.

The academic success of the approach remains up for debate. Supporters point to research showing large gains in New Orleans, as well as evidence that in many cities, charter schools outperform district counterparts. Critics note that gains in New Orleans also came with a huge infusion of resources, and that results elsewhere have been more tepid.

Kingsland told The 74 that other approaches to school reform might also have merit — but he’s prepared to stand by his strategy.

“It’s possible that personalized learning, early childhood education, increased public funding, or a deeper focus on integration could be the best way to make public education better. Or perhaps the best way to increase student learning is to address poverty directly by giving poor families more money,” he said.

“While I don’t think our strategy is at odds with any of these approaches, it is possible that our effort is just not the right focus. I don’t think this is true, but it could be.”

For now

Indianapolis Public Schools picks Aleesia Johnson as interim superintendent

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Aleesia Johnson

Deputy superintendent Aleesia Johnson will lead Indianapolis Public Schools as interim superintendent while the board searches for a permanent replacement for Lewis Ferebee, who is leaving the district for D.C. schools.

Johnson will be the first African-American woman to lead the district, according to board member Kelly Bentley.

The board unanimously voted to appoint Johnson as the interim superintendent in a meeting Friday. Johnson started working for the district in 2015 as the innovation officer, leading the new strategy to partner with outside nonprofit or charter operators to run schools under the district’s umbrella. She formerly led KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory and worked for Teach for America.

School board members said Johnson’s appointment represents a continuation of the work under Ferebee’s leadership. Ferebee, who joined the district in 2013, was selected Monday to be the next chancellor of D.C.’s public school system.

“I think the work and the path that we’re on is the right path,” Johnson said, “but I think obviously I am a different leader.”

She could also potentially be an internal candidate to permanently replace Ferebee, though she said Friday that she is waiting to hear more about what the board is looking for in its search process. The board has not yet decided on details, holding off until early January when three newly elected board members will be sworn in.

“I know that Ms. Johnson will be able to continue the direction and progress begun by Ferebee and this board without missing a beat,” said school board member Mary Ann Sullivan. “IPS has many transformative initiatives underway, and it’s absolutely critical that the person managing the district is able to not only maintain momentum but sees new opportunities consistent with the best hopes and dreams of our students.”

Ferebee said he expects to address raises for teachers this month, before his last day in Indianapolis on Jan. 4. He is slated to start in D.C. by Jan. 31.

His successor will have to deal with the district’s tough financial situation. Despite winning a $272 million influx of tax dollars through referendums this year, the district still faces the potential of budget cuts and school closures.

The next district superintendent also will have to navigate new dynamics on the school board. Of the three new members joining the board in January, two won seats by voicing opposition to Ferebee’s moves to close high schools and partner with charter or outside operators to run innovation schools.

Board president Michael O’Connor said the mandate for a new leader will be: “How do we continue with the progress that we’ve made?”

Read more from Chalkbeat: ‘We are going to follow through.’ In interview, Ferebee says he is leaving Indianapolis in a good place

Who should replace Lewis Ferebee as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools?

D.C., meet your next chancellor: 8 things to know about Lewis Ferebee and what he might bring to the district