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.

olive branch?

New Montessori program to launch at Denver elementary, offering home for students at school slated to close

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools moved quickly Friday to try to placate families upset by a vote to close a long-struggling Montessori school in near northeast Denver, announcing the launch this fall of a Montessori program at a higher-performing elementary school nearby.

In a letter to Gilpin Montessori School families, deputy superintendent Susana Cordova said the new Montessori program at Garden Place Elementary would run alongside the school’s traditional program. A similar setup exists at Lincoln Elementary School in the West Washington Park neighborhood.

Gilpin students who live in the area’s enrollment zone — a boundary that includes several schools in near northeast Denver — will be provided free bus transportation, with a stop at Gilpin.

Garden Place scored “green” — the second highest mark — on DPS’s most recent color-coded school performance framework. Gilpin scored in the red — the lowest category.

Current Gilpin students also will be given priority status at other DPS schools with Montessori programs — Monarch, Denison, Lincoln and Academia Ana Marie Sandoval. Seats can be hard to come by at at least some of those schools, however, and transportation may be a barrier to many families.

The district had little time to waste in putting together the option because DPS’s school choice window — when families fill out forms listing their top choices for the 2017-18 school year — opened last week and closes Jan. 31.

The letter to parents Friday did not come as a surprise. At a meeting at Gilpin earlier this week, three DPS board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in the area.

The school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new district policy known as the School Performance Compact.

Since then, however, Gilpin parents and teachers have mobilized to try to save the school. Citing emails obtained through open records request, they have questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building. The board members who attended the meeting defended the new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ put the issue of potentially reversing the closure vote on the board’s Thursday meeting agenda.

Building Better Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”