Dealing with discipline

Former Newark schools chief Cami Anderson’s new mission: getting schools to rethink student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched a campaign called "Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow."

After a rocky tenure as superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson is now working with charter networks and school districts to reform school discipline, she told Chalkbeat.

Called the Discipline Revolution Project, Anderson’s new initiative aims to help schools reduce suspensions and move away from exclusionary discipline practices.

“There’s an increasing awareness in the reform community, charter and district, that our punitive approach to discipline is very costly to some kids, but there’s not enough talk about what we’re moving towards,” she said in an interview at the New Schools Venture Fund summit. “There’s too much talk about what we’re moving away from.”

Anderson is the former Newark schools superintendent who was appointed in 2011 just as the district received a highly publicized $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Her work in Newark, especially a plan to close a number of the district’s schools, made her a lightning rod for controversy until she resigned under pressure in 2015.

Her new focus on school discipline comes as charter schools have faced pressure to reduce their suspension rates, particularly so-called “no excuses” charters, which often produce high test scores and use a strict disciplinary approach.

Anderson sees an opportunity to get schools to change their practices and wants to ensure discussion translates into action.

“It seems like a conversation is happening … and it’s an important opportunity,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s filled with content. My big fear is that it will stay as a philosophical [one].”

Anderson convened a group of leaders last week from charter networks and school districts, including from Denver Public Schools, Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District and charter networks such as Uncommon Schools and Summit Public Schools.

Specifically, Anderson is hoping to offer tools for leaders interested in improving discipline practices, help schools use discipline data more effectively, and facilitate discussions among school and district leaders.

Charter schools, like traditional public schools, are dramatically more likely to suspend black students and students with disabilities. Advocates argue that exclusionary discipline hurts students and feeds a “school-to-prison” pipeline. This has caused a number of school districts and some charter school leaders to vow to reduce suspensions and emphasize alternatives like restorative justice.

Others within the charter movement have pushed back, including Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz.

“Lax discipline won’t strike a blow for civil rights,” Moskowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Instead it will perpetuate the real civil-rights violation — the woeful failure to educate the vast majority of the city’s minority children and prepare them for life’s challenges.”

Anderson says she’s not saying suspensions should be eliminated altogether, but that schools should put a greater emphasis on preventing student misbehavior in the first place. She also argues that suspensions are simply an ineffective way to address misbehavior.

“Students have to be accountable for their behavior. They just need to be accountable in a way that that they’re going to learn from it,” Anderson said. “Putting them out is almost never the way for that to happen.”

Indeed, there is little evidence that exclusionary discipline has its intended impact, though there is also limited rigorous research on the efficacy of alternatives.

After leaving Newark, Anderson started her own education consulting firm and has worked with charter schools on improving their services for students with disabilities. Anderson said she doesn’t know yet whether her school-discipline initiative will grow into a standalone organization. Last week’s convening, essentially the project’s launch, was funded by the New Schools Venture Fund and the Walton Foundation. (Walton is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

“Part of it is going to be responding to what people say they got out of it and what they want moving forward,” she said.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.