chalk talk

How this Memphis student-turned-professor is seeking to address racial stereotyping in school discipline

Jason Okonofua still feels a deep sense of injustice when he remembers the one time he was arrested while growing up in Memphis.

Jason Okonofua (Photo by Yasmin Anwar/UC Berkeley)

Two decades ago as a student at Ridgeway High School, Okonofua was caught in school with an inappropriate flyer handed to him by a classmate. His principal told him he would be suspended — a punishment that Okonofua took issue with.

“I was on the math team, honors classes, within the upper track of the school,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe suspension was the answer. So I told her I’d stay in that office until we came up with a different plan. That’s when she told me I’d be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace.’”

Okonofua spent a few hours in juvenile detention before being released without being charged, due to his good grades and track record. But he’s carried that experience with him ever since.

Today, Okonofua is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has dedicated his career to tackling the school troublemaker stereotype that leads to over-disciplining students, especially black males.

With the backing of Google, Okonofua is developing an online intervention for 20 middle schools in several soon-to-be-announced Southern states. The goal is to motivate teachers to check their biases against African-American students before meting out punishment. A similar intervention tool that he developed has reduced suspensions in three school districts in California.

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Okonofua about his Memphis childhood and how it’s impacted his work. Here are the highlights, condensed for brevity:

What was your school experience in Memphis?

Because of family situations, I moved from school to school throughout the city. I went to eight schools total throughout my childhood in Memphis. My last school was Ridgeway High School.

In 10th grade, I stood out because I was one of the only black students taking AP/honors classes. The Memphis Rotary Foundation had a program to send Memphis students over the summer to elite prep schools, which were usually on the East Coast. I got recommended and ended up at St. George’s School in Rhode Island. By the end of that summer, St. George’s was interested in me coming back as a full-time student based on my academics and athleticism. Memphis schools had wired fences around the schools and metal detectors. This school was a walk away from the ocean and on this idyllic hill. It was a world away from what I knew. I chose to finish out school there.

You say you saw a lot of over-disciplining black boys while in Memphis. Tell us about that.

Well, I was suspended four times, and all for subjective reasons. I wasn’t in fights, didn’t have drugs or guns. I was being “disrespectful” or “insubordinate” in the eyes my teacher or principal. Instead of explaining to me why I was coming off as disrespectful, they just suspended me. That’s a common story for African-American students. Once you’re disciplined once, then you’re labeled as a “troublemaker.” There are certain groups of students that keep getting suspended over and over again, and research tells us higher suspension rates lead to a greater likelihood of students being suspended again or dropping out. For many students, including myself, a suspension wasn’t the answer. And research also tells us the kids that typically fit into the category of “troublemakers” are black students.

It’s also important to think about school environment when it comes to this issue. One of the schools I went to was East Middle School, which was then on the same campus as East High School. It was an overwhelmingly black school in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. There were metal detectors at the front door to greet us every morning. At Colonial Middle School, another school I went to in East Memphis, there weren’t metal detectors. There was landscaping and fresh paint. Now, what’s the difference between students at East and students at Colonial Middle? See, there’s a stigma direct toward racially marginalized, low-income students.

Tell us about the work you’re doing today.

Before I came to UC-Berkeley, I was at Stanford studying teacher-student relationships, and how bias and stereotyping can shape the way we perceive and respond to things. Our research, which focused on the teacher perspective, found that teachers wanted to discipline black students more severely than non-black students. We found that the root of that stereotype is that these teachers were perceiving black students to be more of “troublemakers.” I led an intervention study for teachers, which led to reduced suspensions in three school districts.

Now, I’m working on an intervention tool — with the help of Google — that could be implemented in multiple states for at least 100 teachers. The intervention essentially asks teachers questions online and points them to articles about student development and stories from children’s perspectives. The goal is to humanize the child and really hit home why empathy is important when interacting with students.

This experience is meant to be a psychological thing as opposed to a policy thing. School districts try policies, like banning principals from suspending kids for certain behaviors. But changing policies don’t always change the cultures of schools. Once a teacher reorients the way they view a child, they respond differently when that child acts out. Instead of sending a student straight to the office, the teacher is able to address behavior in a more empathetic way, and make the child feel respected. In turn, this maintains the integrity of the teacher-student relationship and decreases the rate of the student acting out again.

My work in no way tries to point a finger at teachers. They are not actively trying to harm students. But implicit bias is the culprit. How can we offset the effects of the bias? We’re all exposed to stereotypes when we watch TV or interact with others. The biggest objective of my work is this: If there is bias, how can we stop that from affecting the way people interact?

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”