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.

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.