school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.

What's Your Education Story?

Bodily fluids and belly buttons: How this Indianapolis principal embraces lessons learned the hard (and gross) way

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Christine Rembert at the Teacher Story Slam, April 19, 2018.

For Christine Rembert, principal at Francis W. Parker School 56 in Indianapolis Public Schools, education is the family business.

Her dad teaches chemistry to adults, and her mom is a retired high school English teacher. So it made sense that Rembert, too, would be an educator. As she has transitioned from a teacher to an administrator, she’s done a lot of learning — in fact, she considers herself not the person with all the answers, but the “lead learner” in her school.

And it hasn’t always been glamorous. Dealing with bodily fluids, for example, is a regular part of her day. As a new principal, she confronted that head-on in an anecdote she recounted in a recent story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media, and the Indianapolis Public Library.

Here’s an excerpt of her story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

The last story I have to tell happened in my first few months as a school administrator, and I’ve learned many things from this story. I was sitting at my desk and doing some work, and my behavior person came in.

That’s the person who’s kind of the bouncer in the school who manages all the naughty kids. So we had that person, and she came in, and she was a tall woman — over 6 feet tall. She looked down at my desk, and she said: Do you want me to tell you the story first?

And I, in all my brand-new administrator wisdom, said no. And she goes, well, I have a teacher and a kid, and we need to talk to you.

And I was like, OK come on in!

Well, note to self: When the behavior person says do you want me to tell you the story, you need to say yes right then.

Because the reason is you have to not laugh.

So the teacher came in, and she has a Clorox wipe, and she’s (frantically wiping her nose). And I was like, OK, that’s weird. She sat down, and the child came in, and she was kind of sad.

I proceeded to hear the story whereby the child had stuck her finger into her (wet) belly button and then held it up to the teacher’s nose and said: Smell my finger.

Public education is like living in a fraternity house.

Check out the video below to hear the rest of Rembert’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students, and parents here.

 

In the Classroom

Known for ‘no excuses’ discipline, Tindley charter network loosens policies to reduce suspensions

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Earlier this year, La Wanda Girton’s son was facing a three-day suspension from Tindley Accelerated School for handing a pencil to another student.

A teacher was trying to settle down the class, she said, and told the students to be quiet. But when Edwin, a sophomore, lent a pencil to a classmate in need, he said, “Here you go.”

Tindley’s network of six charter schools has long been known for strict discipline policies imposed alongside rigorous college prep. But after 14 years and some of the highest out-of-school suspension numbers in the state, the Indianapolis charter network is relaxing its controversial, unapologetically tough approach to discipline in the upcoming school year, Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall told Chalkbeat, in an effort to reduce suspensions and better serve students and families.

“Things are changing,” Marshall said. “Maybe we have to loosen some bolts a little.”

In the next school year, Tindley will move away from automatic suspensions for minor infractions, such as chewing gum and repeatedly coming to class unprepared, Marshall said. Instead, the network will adopt a demerit system, where students accumulate points for misbehaving and face suspensions after reaching a certain number of points.

The flagship high school will also loosen several signature rules — allowing vending machines, longer hairstyles on male students, cell phone use before school and during lunch breaks, and longer passing periods between classes. Gone will be the silent transitions while students stand in line waiting to be dismissed.

“It was a very, for lack of a better word, militaristic way of running the building,” Marshall acknowledged.

The decision to relax the rules came in part from feedback from students and families concerned that some rules were unreasonable. The changes, Girton said, are “well overdue.”

The relaxed rules could offer myriad benefits for Tindley, a cash-strapped network trying to stabilize after fast growth and troubled leadership while facing increasing competition from other charter schools — all during an educational moment that is embracing a gentler approach to discipline.

The changes could keep students — the Tindley term is “scholars” — learning in classrooms instead of sitting out a suspension at home. They could make Tindley more accessible to students who act out because of their backgrounds in poverty or traumatic situations. And they could stem dropouts and retain more students, including those who might be leaving Tindley schools because of excessive discipline.

While charter schools with “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline philosophies often see high academic results, those approaches have also faced heated criticism nationally for being so rigid that, for example, students aren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.

Still, at least one local education expert says even Tindley’s revamped policies could do more to address misbehavior in a preventative way, rather than a reactive one.

“You want to avoid children being suspended, period,” said education consultant Carole Craig, a former education chair for the Indianapolis NAACP who has been critical of Tindley’s strict discipline.

“Chewing gum, not having books, talking out in the hallway — those are misbehaviors, certainly, but why would you want to get to the most extreme on even adding up points and leading to a suspension?” she added.

Craig advocates for a positive discipline system that addresses the root causes of behavioral issues, as well as training for teachers in urban schools on implicit biases and working with children who may be acting out because of traumatic experiences at home.

Nationally, this is part of a larger conversation about stemming disparately harsh discipline against black boys in particular, in addition to Hispanic students and students with special needs.

Tindley serves nearly all black students. Last year, roughly two out of every three students at Tindley’s high school were suspended from school at least once, according to state data. The school, which enrolled 273 students, reported 182 students receiving a total of 568 total suspensions.

None of the network’s six schools, including three elementary schools, recorded fewer than 100 suspensions. The highest rates were at the all-boys’ middle school.

PHOTO: Sam Park
These are the numbers of out-of-school suspensions at Tindley charter schools reported to the state in 2017.

Tindley, which enrolls about 1,700 students across the network, is trying to become more aligned with restorative justice practices and look more into what’s causing students’ problems, Marshall said. Any time students get into trouble, school officials will call families in for conferences.

“What we’re trying to do is bring parents into the consequences before we [take students] out of school,” she said.

Sometimes, she thinks discipline issues arise out of students not being accustomed to the fast pace of Tindley’s curriculum — and then suspending them from school leads students to fall further behind. “It’s proven more effective to put that time into instruction,” she said.

The changes could also push teachers to improve their relationships with students and develop classroom management skills instead of resorting to suspensions, Marshall said.

The shift away from automatic suspensions is a dramatic turn for Tindley, which was an early charter school choice in an underserved, impoverished neighborhood — and, with test scores climbing to be among the best in the city, one of the first to show high achievement among its predominantly black students, many of whom come from lower-income families.

The high school distinguished itself with high expectations and long school days. The school’s front hallway is lined with years of college acceptance letters, with its motto painted in enormous letters: “COLLEGE OR DIE.” In the early years, founder Marcus Robinson explained that while the motto may sound extreme to some people, he felt passionately that it was in fact the reality for many of Tindley’s families. Education, he believed, could be a way out of the crime, drugs, and poverty surrounding them.

Stringent rules were put into place to eliminate classroom disruptions, create a safe environment for students, and establish a baseline of expectations for students coming in from often-troubled schools, officials said.

In 2012, Tindley took its controversial discipline tactics to Arlington High School, a chronically failing school in IPS taken over by the state and handed to Tindley, then known as EdPower, to turn around. While some, including Craig, criticized the high suspension rates that followed, some students said the strategy made the chaotic school feel safer under Tindley’s management, which ended in 2015.

Robinson stepped down from Tindley in 2016 amid scrutiny over his lavish spending at the network’s expense, which exposed broader financial problems within the network. That led to the hiring of Marshall, a former Tindley middle school principal tasked with stabilizing the network.

The kinder, gentler approach to discipline is being explored elsewhere in Indianapolis. At KIPP Indy, part of a national network of schools that also started with a “no excuses” philosophy, schools have started incorporating programs for mentoring, peer mediation, and “holistic social-emotional learning,” executive director Emily Pelino Burton wrote in an email.

“Again, maximizing learning time by keeping our students in the classroom is incredibly important to us,” she wrote.

KIPP Indy recorded 678 out-of-school suspensions last year at its middle school of about 300 students, according to state data.

Indianapolis Public Schools has also taken steps to reduce out-of-school suspensions, though some worry that the sole focus on lowering those numbers could create unsafe school environments because staff might downplay dangerous behavior.

La Wanda Girton, whose son ended up with a one-day suspension after the pencil incident, admits, “I almost have a double standard,” because she chose Tindley in part because of its strict discipline. She values the safe environment and doesn’t want her three children in classrooms where other students fight or throw chairs. But at the same time, she thinks Tindley needed to relax its rules to make school more “reasonable” and “doable” for students.

“I am a Tindley advocate,” Girton said, “but when I would talk to parents about their children being there, as a parent, I’m saying to people, it’s a great school — but it’s very strict discipline-wise. I felt the need as a parent to put that caveat there, because I didn’t want to set people up for failure.”

For her three children, the strict rules have largely not been an issue, she said, with only a couple of isolated incidents, and they have thrived under “the Tindley way.” Girton, who is on Tindley’s parent council, is excited that the discipline changes could make the schools more attractive to other families.

Marshall said she doesn’t expect the changes to erode Tindley’s distinctive culture. Consider, she said, that when the high school began piloting the changes and announced that male students — gentlemen, in Tindley parlance — were no longer restricted to short haircuts, a student double-checked with her before getting his hair done, to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble for showing up with braids and a fade.

On a recent morning, as students arrived before class, they walked into the multipurpose room, where the new rules let them play on their phones and talk before class.

It’s not loud, not like school cafeterias can be, but for principal Marlon Llewellyn, this is a big difference.

“This would’ve been completely silent,” he said. “Girls on one side, boys on the other. No devices.”

But when it’s time for school to start, Llewellyn takes a few steps toward the middle of the room with one hand raised — and within seconds, the room falls completely quiet. Silenced phones disappear into backpacks as classes file out one by one.

Two student ambassadors stay to talk about the discipline changes and how Tindley’s structure and fast pace have prepared them for real jobs. One shaved off his dreadlocks to attend Tindley schools. They wear what they consider ugly, plain shoes every day because that’s the dress code, along with neatly tucked-in polo shirts, sweater vests, and khakis.

They can recite the punishments for misconduct from memory. Horseplay: three days’ suspension. Profanity: 10 days.

Taran Richardson, 16, a sophomore, mentions having been suspended for being involved in horseplay — even when it wasn’t his fault.

“Guilty by association,” fellow sophomore Dajour Finley said, nodding solemnly.

“You’re sending us out of the school with a suspension, so you’re not learning,” Taran said. “They can still discipline us in a decent way and still allow us to receive an education.”

But they also talk about how Tindley is more than the rules — how teachers can see if a student is having a tough day, and might ask what’s going on instead of deeming it insubordination.

“I always thought it was the people that made up Tindley — the staff and students connecting with one another, and striving for success,” Taran said.