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.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: