code shift

New York City moves to significantly reduce K-2 suspensions, but isn’t eliminating them

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August.

New York City is moving forward with a plan to dramatically reduce suspensions for its youngest students, according to a revised draft of the city’s discipline code released Friday, and will further limit the use of suspensions for older students.

The changes, which started coming into focus last summer and could take effect in several weeks, will all but eliminate suspensions in grades K-2, except in cases “when a student repeatedly displays behavior that is violent or could cause serious harm, or a student violates the Gun-Free Schools Act,” according to city officials.

Still, the new policy is not the absolute “end to suspensions” for the city’s youngest students the city promised in July.

Though suspensions in that age group have fallen in recent years — down to 801 last school year from nearly 1,500 the year before — the new policy is likely to have a dramatic impact. Officials said that if the proposed discipline code had been in place last year, just 25 students in grades K-2 would have been suspended.

“These changes are promising,” wrote Dawn Yuster, the social justice project director at Advocates for Children. “Students, regardless of their age, should not be forced to miss weeks, months, or a year of valuable instruction time.”

Still, several advocates said the changes were not sweeping enough, and don’t address serious disparities in suspension rates for students with disabilities and those of color.

“The incremental change is important, but it’s been incremental change for a decade,” Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “We’re working with a broken system if we’re talking about telling a six-year-old it’s no longer appropriate to come to school.”

Most of the suspensions handed out to those students come from a small number of schools, and the most common reason for suspending students in that age group is for a category known as “altercation and/or physically aggressive behavior” that was once referred to as “horseplay,” a Chalkbeat analysis found.

The city is “committed to ending suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email. “The proposed changes to the discipline code are significant steps toward meeting this goal.”

The changes would also affect older students: Suspensions would be eliminated as punishments for several infractions, and maximum penalties will be reduced for others.

In grades six-12, for instance, the maximum punishment would be reduced for 14 out of the 62 infractions listed in the discipline code for that age group. In grade three, the maximum punishment would be reduced for 14 infractions, and for grades four and five, the punishments would be reduced for eight infractions.

Kesi Foster, a coordinator at the Urban Youth Collaborative, an advocacy group that works with students on justice issues, said the proposed changes are a step in the right direction, but don’t address systemic problems.

“It’s hard for us to look at reductions in overall suspensions and feel as if we’re getting to the root of the problem, when the disparities remain sky-high.” He pointed to statistics that show black students, who represent 27 percent of the city’s students, account for half of all suspensions.

Foster added that suspensions for an offense called “insubordination” had not been eliminated, a reform advocates say could eliminate a subjective infraction often targeted at students of color (though principals must get approval before suspending a student for it).

The NYCLU’s Miller also noted that the discipline code has not been updated to provide clear guidance on how police officers should interact with students, including when handcuffs should be used.

The education department’s Holness pointed to overall decreases in crime, arrests and summonses and noted, “We are dedicated to addressing the disparities in school discipline.” The city is in discussions to update the agreement that governs how police interact with students, she added.

The United Federation of Teachers, which was critical of the discipline code changes announced over the summer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The union previously argued that the city has not adequately trained teachers in alternative discipline practices, a concern that has bubbled up in some schools.

Daphna Gutman, principal at P.S. 142 in Manhattan, cheered the suspension policy in an interview. “From my experience and my school, [suspensions are] not a useful tool. We think it sends the messages that you’re not welcome in the community. It’s essentially banishment.”

A hearing on the discipline code changes is scheduled for January 25 at Manhattan’s M.S. 131 and the Department of Education will accept public comment through January 30.

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.

Building Better Schools

Training overhaul aimed at a big IPS shortfall: Just 1 in 4 student teachers stick around.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Seventy-four student teachers trained in Indianapolis Public Schools last year. But just 17 of those freshly minted educators were hired by the district after they graduated.

In a district where some schools struggle to hire enough teachers, that gap is a problem.

That’s why IPS is revamping teacher training to give student teachers more time in the classroom and attract new educators to the district.

“We really need to focus in on the folks who are student teaching in our buildings, making sure they have a really strong experience,” said Mindy Schlegel, who leads human resources for the district.

In order to attract new teachers and make sure they are well prepared, IPS is rolling out a host of plans, from making sure student teachers in traditional programs are working with experienced mentors to launching two new residency programs.

The residencies, which will be selective, will allow students to spend one to three years in the classroom — far more than the six to nine weeks education students typically spend teaching, said Schlegel.

Those plans are among three programs getting a boost from a new grant program run by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports Indianapolis school reform.

  • IPS received a three-year, $207,000 grant to pay for a staffer dedicated to improving student teaching in the district;
  • KIPP Indianapolis received a three-year, $38,500 grant for a new yearlong leadership program for current teachers; and
  • Christel House Academy received a $20,000 grant to plan IndyTeach, a transition-to-teaching program at the charter school that it plans to pilot in 2017-2018.

The program will support new efforts to improve teacher recruitment, training, retention and diversity, said Jackie Gantzer, director of talent strategy for the Mind Trust.

“A lot of the best solutions to any one of those pieces is likely going to be developed and driven locally by schools and networks and the teachers who are in that environment,” she said. “We are really interested in testing those hypotheses and seeing what is effective and what can potentially be scaled.”

IPS plans to begin the first teaching residency this fall, with about 10 students from Purdue University’s online degree program in special education. The students will train in IPS schools during the three-year program.

The other residency is still in the planning stages, but the aim is to assign college students to work with experienced teachers in schools using new teacher-leadership models.

One reason the district is focusing its attention on improving recruitment of student teachers is that it is hard to attract educators from other areas, Schlegel said.

“A lot of urban districts are moving in this direction because it is so difficult to get teachers to relocate,” she said. “(We) are really refocusing our recruitment efforts to what local pipelines exist.”