doing a 180

New York City students can be suspended for an entire year. Officials say changes could be coming.

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016

After successfully pressing Mayor Bill de Blasio to reduce the overall number of suspensions issued to New York City students, advocates are focusing on a new target: reducing the maximum length of suspensions — which can now last an entire school year.

In the wake of new discipline data that continue to show stark divides — including a report that found black students often receive longer suspensions than students from other racial groups for the same infractions — advocates and a group of city councilors argue the city must adopt a series of new reforms, including a cap on the length of suspensions to 20 days. Now, the education department is seriously considering a strict cap on the number of days a student can be suspended.

“The biggest thing we can’t wrap our head around is why you can suspend a student for 180 days,” said Tannya Benavides, a fourth grade teacher and volunteer with Organizing for Equity. The organization, which formed about a year ago, is conducting door-knocking campaigns in districts with high suspension rates to help create momentum for discipline reforms, including limits to the amount of time students can be removed from their classrooms.

Only a dozen city students were suspended for 180 days in the last school year, according to city data, but “superintendent suspensions,” which are issued for more serious infractions and can run from six days through the whole school year, were handed out more than 10,000 times. About a quarter of those long-term suspensions were for 30 days of more, meaning that thousands of students were kicked out of their schools for at least a month last year. 

Those suspensions were heavily tilted toward students of color. Black students, who make up 26 percent of the city’s student body, received 52 percent of last year’s superintendent suspensions. White students — who make up 15 percent of students — received 6 percent of the long-term suspensions.

In response to recent advocacy, both City Hall and the chancellor say they are eyeing changes to the discipline code, essentially the manual that dictates how educators respond to student misbehavior, including the length of suspensions.

Advocacy efforts in recent years have broadly focused on decreasing suspensions overall, an effort that has been largely successful. De Blasio has implemented a series of school discipline reforms that have made it harder to suspend students for certain infractions, and dramatically reduced suspensions for the city’s youngest students. Overall, suspensions have fallen by roughly 32 percent since he took office.

But the number of lengthier suspensions has not fallen as precipitously. 

Students who receive superintendent suspensions — which can be issued for infractions ranging from minor shoving to bringing a weapon to school — have the right to a formal hearing and are removed from their school to one of the city’s 37 “Alternative Learning Centers” where students are expected to continue their studies. 

Multiple advocates said that even if students continue to have access to instruction, lengthy suspensions can have serious consequences, setting students on a path to falling behind in school and dropping out. A recent study, focusing on New York City, found that suspensions contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

“Our experience has been with young people who are already struggling, that the long-term suspension compounds those struggles,” said Kesi Foster, who has worked closely with students in the school discipline system and is a coordinator with the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

A group of city councilors penned a letter to de Blasio and Carranza last month seeking a series of discipline policy changes, including the elimination of arrests and summonses for low-level offenses and eliminating suspensions entirely for “insubordination” — a category that advocates argue is subjective and can invite bias. But at the top of their list was a demand to limit the length of suspensions, and shrink the range of days a student can be suspended in several categories.

Top city officials now say they are revisiting changes to discipline policy, which has already been edited under the current administration.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said the mayor has asked schools Chancellor Richard Carranza “to take a hard look at our current discipline code.”

The mayor is concerned with the length of our suspensions coupled with the suspension trends in some of our most vulnerable communities,” Rothenberg said in a statement.

In a brief interview last week, Carranza suggested that he is considering a wide range of possible changes, saying there are “no sacred cows” in the city’s discipline policy.

But previous efforts to overhaul the discipline code have been controversial. Some educators, union officials and school leaders have resisted policies that limit their power to suspend students, arguing that is has lead to more chaotic school environments. And while the city has made some efforts to train educators on “restorative” approaches — such as mediation, in which school adults or peers encourage students to talk through conflicts — critics argue those efforts have not reached enough schools.

Still, advocates hope to take advantage of the latest signal that city officials are open to a new set of policy changes.

It’s getting new attention from the [education department]” said Dawn Yuster, the School Justice Project director at Advocates for Children, an advocacy organization that has pushed for school discipline reform. “We see that we can get traction now, so we’re looking at as many openings as we can.”

404 not found

Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.