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 [email protected]

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.