First Person

Voices: School discipline and race in Denver


Padres y Jóvenes Unidos organizer Sarah Brown recaps results of a recent meeting with Denver Public Schools officials about continuing racial disparities in school discipline. 

Nearly 100 students, parents and community leaders came together Dec. 17 to hold Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg accountable for racial disparities and to ask him to limit the role of police in school discipline.

Marco Nunez, Sen. Evie Hudak
Marco Nunez of Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, appeared at a March 8, 2011, rally promoting a bill to study school discipline policies. (File photo)

Students representing Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a multi-issue organization led by people of color who work for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all, presented a report card to the district on its progress with discipline reform.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos secured a promise from Boasberg that Denver Public Schools would implement the report’s Accountability Action Platform: A Community Call for DPS Action, which contains seven key steps that DPS must take in order to fully and faithfully implement the 2008 Discipline Policy.

Padres volunteer Dionna Hudson, alumna of South High School and political science major at University of California, Riverside, said that Denver Public Schools has made “impressive progress” reducing out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates as well as referrals to law enforcement. Hudson said the goal for next school year is to decrease out-of-school suspensions by 70 percent by eliminating out-of-school suspensions for disruption.

Throughout the meeting, students were adamant that the district stop criminalizing students for minor misbehavior. The district received a B+ in the areas of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions because of its progress in these areas over the past school year. The category of “referrals to law enforcement” received a D from Jóvenes Unidos students.

Tori Ortiz, a senior at CEC Middle College and Padres activist, pointed out that although the district did reduce the overall rates of referrals, this only brings these numbers back to the same rates they were before the passage of the 2008 discipline policy. She and other students urged the district not to push students out of school for subjective infractions, such as “disorderly conduct,” “disobedience” and “defiance.”

John Riley with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition echoed the student’s sentiments, saying, “Scared straight doesn’t work, boot camp doesn’t work, incarceration doesn’t work.”

Riley advocated the use of meaningful alternatives such as restorative justice, school psychologists and relevant curriculum that can address the root cause of student misbehavior.

Racial disparities remain biggest failure

At Padres, we believe racial disparities continue to be the most significant failure of the district. Black students represent only 15 percent of the student population yet make up 32 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Latino students make up half of all suspensions, expulsions and arrests. The community was pleased with Boasberg’s enthusiastic response that DPS will commit to eliminating racial disparities within discipline by the end of this school year.

In the category of restorative justice DPS received a C-. Padres students asked Boasberg to commit to hiring a restorative justice coordinator for each high school. District officials said they didn’t have the money to do that. Yet DPS pays for 16 full-time school resource officers at a cost of $1.3 million and only has 4.5 full-time employees with restorative justice responsibilities for the entire district.

Students also demanded that the district require mandatory training on cultural competency, implicit bias and racial discrimination. Although Boasberg said these trainings were necessary to eliminate racial disparities he did not commit to holding these district-wide trainings. Furthermore, the district received a C in data collection. Although the district has made more consistent changes in data collection there is still much more to be done to make discipline data more publically available and disaggregated by race and school. Boasberg agreed to look into the possibility of improving data collection in discipline cases.

Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, closed the meeting with a powerful message of community voice. He called for everyone in the room to continue to work with the district to hold them accountable to these goals and thanked the district for meeting with Padres Unidos in a principled way.

In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, Padres Unidos urges the district to continue to utilize restorative justice, which is proven to make schools safer.

DPS Discipline Statistics 2011-2012

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.