Black girls and trauma

Here’s how one Memphis school is changing the way it disciplines girls of color

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Aspire Coleman listen during a sixth-grade math class. The Memphis charter school has changed its disciplinary practices in recent years to be more informed about the effects of emotional trauma, especially among female black students.

When a 12-year-old girl entered her fifth elementary school in five years, she arrived with a lengthy suspension record — and a past filled with sexual violence and neglect.

Chronic conflict at home had made it hard for her to listen in class and avoid fights with peers. But at Aspire Coleman, a state-run charter school in Memphis, she felt heard by her teachers for the first time. The seventh-grader is poised to finish her first full school year suspension-free.

“I used to get into more drama and fights at school,” said the girl, whose name is withheld to protect her identity. “I was just really angry, and then I’d get embarrassed when teachers yelled at me. But here, I don’t get yelled at like that. We just talk.”

Leaders at Aspire Coleman, whose 525 students are mostly black and poor, have been revamping their disciplinary practices based on gender, with a special focus on girls of color who have experienced trauma. They now offer separate advisory classes to support girls and boys, and have trained staff on how to work with students who have been abused or neglected.

After three years, suspensions are down by two-thirds school-wide, and are well below the national rate for girls of color.

“Education can never be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Principal Owen Ricciardi, “so why would we treat discipline any different?”

Researchers increasingly point to emotional trauma as the root of disciplinary problems that lead black girls, as a group, to be suspended or expelled six times more frequently than girls of any other race — more often than white boys, too. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to homelessness and family dysfunction.

The data has school leaders across the nation rethinking their disciplinary policies. Last fall, the White House co-hosted a conference on the issue that drew representatives of at least 22 school systems from 15 states, including Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which oversees Aspire Coleman. The collective goal was to learn how to build more supportive climates that help black girls overcome childhood trauma and focus on academics, leading to fewer disciplinary infractions.

“The trauma a student experiences is often silent or invisible when that student is at school,” explains Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, which helped to spearhead the conference. “It’s harder for teachers to recognize and it requires training if you want to shift a school climate. Everyone in a school, from the bus driver to the principal, needs to be educated on signs of trauma, on the background of childhood trauma, and the trauma that can be unique to girls of color.”

Black girls comprise only 8 percent of the nation’s students, but represent 14 percent of those who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

And researchers say time missed from school due to suspensions increases the odds of more disciplinary issues, dropping out of school, unwanted pregnancies, or being caught in the juvenile justice system.

The challenges hit home in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which takes over the state’s lowest-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators like Aspire. Among the ASD’s 33 schools, most of which are in Memphis, more than 15 percent of female students have been suspended during the last three years. The vast majority of those girls are black.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire Coleman mixes genders in academic classes but separates them in advisory support sessions.

At Aspire Coleman, almost 97 percent of the student body is black, and 48 percent are girls of color. During its first year as a charter school beginning in 2014, administrators suspended 15 percent of the school’s students, equating to a lot of missed instruction time. Ricciardi vowed to reduce that rate to zero and started out by developing gender-based approaches to discipline. Teachers were trained about the challenges that black girls face in poor neighborhoods, often causing them to act out. Next they learned about restorative justice approaches that build a positive school climate by emphasizing conversation, empathy and reconciliation.

“We’re trying to get educators to buy into the ‘why’ behind how kids act,” said Queria Nunnley, the assistant principal who has shepherded the new approach. “We don’t want them to see a student as acting bad. We want them to ask, ‘Why is this student acting out? What supports do they need?’”

While research on the academic effects of separating students by gender is mixed, educators at Aspire Coleman say gender-based disciplinary tactics have helped in one crucial way.

“We’ve found that girls are much more likely to open up about what’s going on if they are broken off into a group of their own gender,” said Breonna Ponder, who helps provide gender-based programs through Communities in Schools. “We can get deep with struggles that girls in this school disproportionately deal with — like how to be appropriate on social media, how to say no when a boy pressures them, or how to resolve conflict when they have two friends fighting.”

Chantavia Burton, chief of student equity and access for the state-run district, hopes the school’s lessons can be extrapolated to the ASD’s other schools.

“We’ve seen on a national scale the focus on school-to-prison pipelines, and that’s led to a focus on disparities in discipline practices for men of color,” Burton said. “We’re glad those conversations are happening, but we recognize there hasn’t been as big of a focus on the women in our schools. We want to change that. … Women in these communities bear burdens silently. It’s not talked about openly; girls internalize. We in education have to recognize that and realize that just suspending girls who are angry or acting out might not help them on the road to rehabilitation.”

Schools can start, Epstein said, simply by asking students what they are struggling with and what they need. Sometimes the difference is as simple as knowing that girls who have been abused by men would do better in a female teacher’s classroom.

Such was the case for the 12-year-old student who arrived at Aspire Coleman with a history of sexual abuse. Administrators asked her if she’d prefer a male or female teacher.

“It can be difficult for me with male teachers,” the girl acknowledged. “I feel like those personal things about me, the things that have made school hard for me, those get paid attention to here.”

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.