suspension spike

Suspensions in New York City rise for the first time since de Blasio took office

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat
Advocates gathered at City Hall to protest New York City's school discipline policies.

After years of declines, the number of suspensions handed out to New York City public school students increased last school year — the first jump since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014.

The total number of suspensions increased 4 percent in the 2017-2018 school year to 36,668, according to new data released Wednesday by the education department. Principal suspensions, which are handed out for less serious offenses, increased by 3.4 percent. Meanwhile, more serious superintendent suspensions jumped by nearly 6 percent.

The increase comes after a sudden 21 percent spike in suspensions during the first half of the school year but the rate declined in the second half of the year for an overall increase of just 4 percent.

[Related: Here’s what the numbers show for every school in New York City]

“We took swift action to implement and expand interventions,” education officials said in a statement but did not comment further about why suspensions increased so significantly in the first half of the school year, only to fall back in the second half, leading to the marginal increase overall.

As in previous years, black students and students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately suspended, while white students are underrepresented, a gap that slightly narrowed last school year.

New York City has joined many other districts working to reduce suspensions, especially for this population of students. But even supporters of the mayor’s efforts say the city still needs to do more to ensure schools aren’t funneling some student populations into the criminal justice system.

During a rally Tuesday afternoon on the steps of City Hall, activists pointed to a recent report from the city’s Independent Budget Office that found black students are more likely to receive harsher suspensions than students from other racial groups for the top eight out of ten categories of infractions. Rally participants also argued the city needs to step up efforts to replace school safety agents with guidance counselors and other mental health supports.

De Blasio has championed policies that make issuing suspensions more difficult — including among students in grades K-2 — and the education department has started requiring central signoff for suspensions for certain infractions. The city has also invested in training staff members to provide alternatives to suspensions, something that community advocates have asked for.

Although suspensions are up this year, over the last five years, the suspension rate has fallen by 31.5 percent. City officials added that major crimes in schools have decreased 29 percent since de Blasio took office. And in Brooklyn’s District 18, the education department has piloted a program that favors peer-mediation and other less punitive responses to misbehavior, a program that coincided with an 11 percent decrease in suspensions last year and which expanded to three other districts this year.


Yet the city’s new discipline policies have drawn criticism from some quarters. Some union officials and educators have complained that limiting schools’ ability to suspend students without proper training in alternative approaches has made schools more chaotic and dangerous, an assertion that is at least partially backed up by student and teacher surveys.

The data released Wednesday continues to show deep disparities, and many students of color note they continue to be disproportionately targeted for discipline. Research has shown that suspensions can have a long-lasting impact. They are associated with declines in students’ academic performance, and suspended students are more likely to drop out of school and enter the juvenile-justice system.

Malachi Davidson, a recent public school graduate who helps organize students to fight against harsh discipline practices, recalled being suspended in elementary school for a minor fight with one of his classmates. “It was scary. I was really struck to my core,” he said of the experience, which resulted in a weeklong in-school suspension.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat
Malachi Davidson, youth organizer for the Urban Youth Collaborative and Rockaway Youth Task Force

About 46 percent of the city’s suspensions went to black students, even though they represent 26 percent of the student population. That’s slightly better than the previous school year, when that group represented 47 percent of the city’s suspensions.

White students accounted for eight percent of the city’s suspensions — essentially unchanged compared with the previous year — despite being roughly 15 percent of the city’s students. Hispanic students accounted for 39 percent of suspensions and are just under 41 percent of students.

About 40 percent of suspensions were issued to students with disabilities last year, up from 39 percent during the previous year. Overall, 20 percent of the city’s students have a disability.

There is research that some — though not all — of the disparities in school discipline are the result of bias from teachers and administrators. A study in Louisiana found that black students receive slightly harsher punishments than white students do while looking at the same altercation; other research has shown that black students are more likely to be suspended for discretionary offenses such as insubordination.

Black teachers are also less likely to suspend black students than white teachers. (In New York City, although 83 percent of students are Asian, black or Hispanic, less than 40 percent of their teachers are, according to data from the 2015-16 school year.)

“We have made significant progress,” said Deputy Chancellor LaShawn Robinson, who oversees school climate and wellness for the education department, “and acknowledge there is much work to do.”

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”