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.”

Poverty in America

Woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant Memphis schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 860 Memphis students were considered homeless in 2016, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.