school rules

Coalition proposes sweeping changes to state’s school discipline law to reduce suspensions

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Kids wait to go outside at the Saratoga Early Childhood Education Center.

A top judge and the Assembly’s education chair are looking to change state law to further reduce suspensions.

A package of legislation, proposed last week, would amend the state’s school-discipline law to ban suspensions of young children for nonviolent infractions and limit suspensions to 20 days for all but the most extreme misconduct. The changes would also require schools to consider alternatives to suspension, including methods meant to de-escalate conflict.

“The thought that you get the quote-unquote bad kids out so you can get the quote-unquote good kids to learn is not the answer,” said Judith Kaye, New York state’s chief judge from 1993 to 2009, who has been driving efforts to reduce suspensions and is leading a coalition in support of the changes. “It’s fine that some people do it here and there, but I think we’ve reached a point where we need a more systemic approach.”

The legislation comes as a national movement to reduce suspensions has gained steam, and after New York City overhauled its own, more detailed school discipline code earlier this year. New York City’s changes now require principals to get approval for suspending students for the low-level offense of defiance and bars them from suspending students for long periods for getting into fights.

The legislation, proposed by the Assembly’s education chair Catherine Nolan, would spread some of those ideas statewide. To be enacted, the legislation would need support from the Assembly and the Senate, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But Nolan’s support could make it a priority for the Assembly when lawmakers return in January.

Since the 2010-11 school year, when 73,000 suspensions were given out to students in New York City, the rate of suspensions has been steadily declining. Last year, city students received just over 50,000 suspensions, 11,000 of which kept students out of schools.

But black and Hispanic students still account for 90 percent of suspensions, though they represent just 70 percent of city students. Students with disabilities account for about one-third of suspensions.

Some charter schools have continued to embrace suspensions, even for young students, as a way to maintain an orderly school culture that helps students learn. Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the 34-school Success Academy network of charter schools, defended her schools’ suspension rates for that reason on Thursday. A Chalkbeat analysis found that New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

The proposed changes would add language specifically noting that the law applies to charter schools, which advocates said was an effort to clarify that point. (Charter schools must abide by state laws, but not the city’s own discipline code.)

Kaye said the legislation was intended to apply “universally.”

“We’ve seen people all around the country who are looking into these things instead of just banning kids and putting them on the road to prison,” Kaye said. “That’s not the answer.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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