New York City teachers bring Black Lives Matter to the classroom

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Advocates rallied at City Hall in December 2017, to demand the education department provide anti-bias training for teachers and culturally relevant education for students.

Students at Sunset Park High School walked out of class recently to protest the removal of a classmate’s artwork that echoes what some at the predominantly black and Hispanic school feel: That police brutality is a problem in communities of color.

In the piece, a black girl wields a spray paint can to turn a racist message into one of hope. “Bigger than hate,” she scrawls over an epithet. But in the background, a white police officer crouches with his gun drawn.

Based off a piece by a pair of professional artists, the poster was part of a week of action for Black Lives Matter at School, a national series of workshops, actions and community conversations centered around the civil rights movement. Hundreds of New York City teachers brought the social movement to their classrooms last week, leading discussions about racial justice and pushing their administrators to adopt culturally sensitive practices.

The events culminate Tuesday with a rally at the education department headquarters.

“This is our modern day civil rights movement, so it’s important we teach it,” said Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organize events citywide.

But as the Sunset Park protest illustrates, acknowledging racism in the classroom can be treacherous ground for school leaders and teachers. The painting generated controversy after someone posted a photo of it on Facebook, along with the school’s number and an invitation to call in protest. A teacher there said it is no longer on display, despite reports that it was relocated elsewhere in the building.

The week of action comes amid a grassroots movement to integrate New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the nation. Some activists and educators say that movement cannot succeed unless teachers are trained in having tough, honest conversations with students, and have reflected on these issues themselves.

A spate of racially charged incidents in city schools highlights the consequences when that doesn’t happen in a system where 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic, and a majority of teachers are white.

In the past few weeks, the New York Daily News has reported on a Bronx teacher who stepped on the backs of black children during a lesson about slavery; a white principal who was accused of forbidding lessons on the Harlem Renaissance; and a Brooklyn elementary school PTA president who advertised a fundraiser with pictures featuring performers in blackface.

“All of this is just further evidence of a systemic problem in New York City,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for the parent-led group Coalition for Educational Justice. “Systemic problems call for systemic solutions.”

In another show of how difficult the work can be, the United Federation of Teachers recently declined to endorse Black Lives Matter week of action. Organizers say it is the only union do so, out of 10 cities where resolutions were proposed.

An education department spokesman said the city has built racial equity into its principal training programs and has provided a new social studies curriculum that includes “multiple perspectives and voices.” The city has also led anti-bias training for 450 teachers — out of more than 70,000 total — while individual schools and district leaders have done similar work on their own.

“Anti-bias training and culturally responsive teaching are critical to ensuring a welcoming learning environment for all students,” spokesman Will Mantell wrote in an email. “These approaches are integrated throughout New York City schools.”

Frascella, an English teacher at International High School in Prospect Heights, said it’s impossible to ignore the experiences her students bring to the classroom. The network that her school belongs to caters to immigrant students, many of whom have been affected by the rancor surrounding the federal immigration debate.

“They come to us with questions. They’re trying to understand the world they live in,” she said. “We put our students first. We honor their experience and their voices.”

At her school, students threw a party in honor of black lives, hosted a fashion show and raised money for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Frascella said Black Lives Matter helps teachers navigate the complexities through resources like lesson plans. In New York City, teachers held a curriculum fair and acted out demo lessons.

“What we’ve been trying to do is creating spaces for teachers to have those conversations so they feel more confident in their teaching and supported,” she said.


In Newark, reporting lapses hide thousands of student suspensions from public view

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
The state says Weequahic High School suspended 0 students in 2015-16. Federal data show it actually gave 233 students in-school suspensions.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Newark schools are suspending thousands of students, the majority of them black, according to 2015-16 federal data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

But because of reporting lapses, those suspensions are nowhere to be found in the state’s published school report cards, where parents typically turn to seek out such data. Instead, the reports give the false impression that Newark has all but eliminated suspensions.

The flawed reports reveal the district’s longtime struggle to track suspensions — a data challenge that has impeded efforts to stop schools from inappropriately removing students or punishing students of one race more harshly than others.

ProPublica has compiled the federal data, which many people never see, in a new user-friendly portal, allowing the public to explore racial inequities across districts and schools. Using the tool to analyze suspensions in Newark, Chalkbeat found stark disparities between schools and between students of different races — troubling patterns masked by the inaccurate state reports.

The state and federal suspension rates for individual schools differ dramatically, creating uncertainty about schools’ actual discipline practices. Current and former district officials say the federal data is more reliable than the state’s figures, which they attributed to reporting failures at the school level.

For example, the state’s 2015-16 “school performance report” for Weequahic High School in Newark’s impoverished South Ward says its suspension rate was zero. But the federal data indicate that Weequahic, where 98 percent of students were black, gave in-school suspensions to 233 students — an astonishing 70 percent of the student body. (In addition, 31 students received out-of-school suspensions.)

“You’d get suspended for anything,” recalled Daquis Henry, 18, about his freshman year at Weequahic. Henry, now a senior, said suspensions have become less common under the school’s new principal, but, in the past, the policy made him consider staying home.

“It’d be like all my friends are suspended,” he said. “What’s the point of me coming?”

District-wide, 2,087 students received out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 academic year, or 6 percent of the total enrollment, according to the federal data. About 960 students received in-school suspensions, or 3 percent of the enrollment. (Students who received both types of suspensions are included in both counts.)

The state did not publish district suspension rates that year. But in 2016-17, it reported that 1.1 percent of Newark students received out-of-school suspensions, and 0 percent received in-school suspensions — an improbable number in a state where nearly 53,000 students were given in-school suspensions that year.

The federal data show that more than one-fourth of students who received out-of-school suspensions in 2015-16 hailed from just three Newark high schools, where the vast majority of students were black. The schools were Central, Newark Early College (now part of West Side), and Malcolm X Shabazz.

The state report for Shabazz indicated its suspension rate was 0.6 percent, but the federal data show it gave out-of-school suspensions to 246 students — or 44 percent of its student body. It also gave in-school suspensions, which the federal government defines as being removed from the classroom for at least half a day, to 161 students. (Damon Holmes, the school’s former principal, disputed those numbers, saying he recorded a 24 percent suspension rate that year — still about three times the statewide rate.)

If suspension rates are as high as the federal data suggest — or even close — the consequences for affected students are potentially grave. Research has shown that suspensions impair students’ academic performance, and that suspended students are more likely to drop out of school and become ensnared by the juvenile-justice system. (Six percent of Weequahic students and 14 percent of Shabazz students dropped out in 2015-16, compared to just 1.2 percent statewide.)

And Newark’s black students appear to be bearing the brunt of the district’s harshest punishments. In 2015-16, black students made up 73 percent of those who received out-of-school suspensions as well as 67 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement, which includes receiving a ticket or being arrested, although they accounted for just 46 percent of the overall enrollment.

By contrast, Hispanic students, who made up 45 percent of Newark’s district-school enrollment that academic year, represented just 25 percent of students who received out-of-school suspensions and 29.4 percent of those referred to law enforcement.

This racial disparity mirrors national trends, where black students make up 15.5 percent of the enrollment but 39 percent of suspended students, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of 2013-14 data. The 28 percentage-point gap between enrollment and suspensions for Newark’s black students exceeds the 23.5 gap that exists nationally.

Andrea McChristian, an associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the inaccurate state reports hinder efforts to pinpoint which districts and schools are pushing the most students out of class — and, potentially, into the criminal-justice system.

This gap and lack of transparency is especially troubling in light of New Jersey’s stark racial disparities in youth incarceration: Black youth are more than 30 times more likely than their white peers to be detained or committed to a juvenile-justice facility.

“We have to look at the reasons at the front end — what’s the funnel?” McChristian said. “The schools seem like a logical place to start.” But she noted, “It’s hard to quantify that without the data.”

The state’s annual report cards, which include Newark’s inaccurate suspension information, are designed to give the public a view of each school’s performance according to a range of metrics, including test scores and attendance. The reports are a critical tool for families in a “choice” system like Newark’s, where parents are encouraged to compare schools’ performance before ranking them on applications during the open-enrollment process.

However, the state relies on districts to provide much of the data in the reports, including suspension rates. The suspension numbers that Newark submitted were incomplete because many schools, until recently, did not log suspensions in the district’s online database, called PowerSchool, according to district officials.

“It was really a matter of reporting,” said Tashia Martin, a special assistant in the district’s Office of Student Support Services, which oversees discipline policy. “Some schools may not have been reporting in the way that they should have.”

Instead, some schools recorded discipline incidents and responses in third-party systems, such as Google Sheets. Beginning in 2016, the district began to retrain school personnel on how to input suspension data in PowerSchool, Martin said. The district has provided three trainings this school year on discipline policy, including data entry, she added.

“I’m confident that our numbers will be more accurate this year,” she said.

She and other officials said the federal data from 2015-16 is more accurate than the state reports because district officials gathered any missing data from schools.

“A few years ago, when we did not have the right protocols in place, and schools were doing whatever they wanted to do, we had to do a lot more legwork,” Martin said. Because of that “follow up with schools to collect the data, the CRDC report should be accurate,” she said, referring to the federal survey.

But even the federal data is incomplete, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Superintendent Roger León is faced with a suspension-tracking challenge that has long bedeviled the district.

In April 2017, Newark Public Schools officials informed the Office for Civil Rights that suspension data was “missing entirely” for two schools and “a few data elements” were unavailable for several other schools in the 2015-16 survey that the federal government collected. The district promised to “improve the consistency and comprehensiveness of suspension data” in the next survey, which is compiled every two years and will cover 2017-18, by retooling the district’s data system, training school personnel, and monitoring data collection, according to an “action plan” submitted to the federal agency.

The flaws in Newark’s responses to the 2015-16 survey came after the district failed to submit any data at all for the previous 2013-14 survey — making it one of only a few dozen districts out of 17,000 nationwide not to complete the legally required survey.

A U.S. education department spokesman did not immediately reply to inquiries about Newark’s survey responses. But in an email exchange last November with McChristian, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice associate counsel, an official from the civil rights office said that Newark was an outlier.

“The CRDC is mandatory and we have very high response rates,” the official wrote. “However, there are always some districts that do not submit, for whatever reason. As an example, for the 2015-16 school year, there are 17,000+ school districts and only 34 did not submit data.”

Michael Yaple, a New Jersey Department of Education spokesman, said that districts have previously had to submit suspension data in different forms to the state and federal governments. The state has recently put in place a new data-reporting system that should result in fewer differences between the suspension rates reported at the state and federal level, he added.

“The NJDOE is working to continuously improve our data-reporting systems so residents can have better conversations in their communities about the needs of their students,” he said in an email. “In the next few years, the public can expect to see fewer discrepancies between the two collections.”

Lisa McDonald, who was principal at Weequahic High School in 2015-16, could not be reached for comment. The current principal, Andre Hollis, noted in an email that he arrived at the school in October 2017. He said he has tried to steer the school toward “restorative practices,” which are designed to help students reflect on their actions and make better choices rather than being sent out of school.

“We currently record suspensions in PowerSchool and use Restorative Practices to reduce the number of suspensions,” he said.

District officials said they review suspension data each month and follow up with schools that have unusually high rates or disparities between students according to race, gender, or special-education status.

However, the office that reviews discipline data has gone without a leader since June, when she and other top officials were forced out by the new superintendent, Roger León. Now, it falls on León to improve the district’s suspension reporting, whose challenges predate his administration.

“The fact that we’re in transition and these important questions are being asked is a good thing,” said Matthew Brewster, executive director of the superintendent’s office. “That helps us get to a place where we need to be.”

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.


In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.