survey says

Report: Students and educators say school climate has worsened under de Blasio after sweeping discipline reforms

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When education officials announced last October that suspensions plummeted 46 percent over the last five years, they touted the news as evidence that major changes to the city’s discipline policy were taking hold.

But that data has sparked debate among educators and advocates of school discipline reform. Does the drop in suspensions mean that schools are creating richer learning environments where students — especially those of color and with disabilities — are less likely to be removed for minor misbehavior? Or are educators responding to pressure to look the other way instead of issuing suspensions, making schools less orderly in the process?

New evidence presented Tuesday by the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute may help answer those questions. The report shows that after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 school discipline reforms went into effect, which made it harder for schools to suspend students, perceptions of school climate took a big hit.

That conclusion is based on annual school survey data collected by the city during a five-year timeframe: The tail end of the Bloomberg administration, and the first two years of the de Blasio administration. Both of those periods saw similar size reductions in the number of suspensions handed out, but student and teacher reports of school climate — including fights, respect among peers, and drug and alcohol activity — worsened under de Blasio.

“Overall, the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: School climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s,” according to Max Eden, the report’s author.

Of roughly 1,000 middle and high schools included in the survey data, nearly 44 percent had a larger share of students report more frequent fighting as de Blasio’s discipline reforms rolled out, compared with 25 percent in Bloomberg’s final years.

About 52 percent of the schools surveyed during the de Blasio era reported a decline in the percentage of students who said their peers respect each other, compared with 25 percent at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure.

A higher proportion of teachers at nearly 40 percent of elementary, middle and high schools responded negatively when asked if order is maintained in their schools — about six percent higher than during the last two years of the Bloomberg administration.

And middle and high schools that serve higher proportions of low-income students and those of color were more likely to see their school climate worsen.

Those findings come with some important caveats: Because the city significantly changed its annual survey, only five “school order” questions were similar enough to use across administrations, limiting the picture of how changes in discipline policy are playing out. And multiple school discipline experts said there wasn’t enough evidence to imply that reductions in suspensions were to blame for worsening perceptions of school climate, a point the report acknowledges.

“There could be a million other explanations” said David Kirkland, executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center, who added that “the report suggests we need to look at this data more seriously.”

Kirkland, who studies school discipline, stressed that it is important for policymakers to weigh the benefits of reducing suspensions — not simply its costs — including the likelihood that higher-need students may graduate at higher rates or show other academic gains if they aren’t removed from the classroom.

Still, he acknowledged that teacher and student perceptions are important, and may reveal that educators have not been adequately prepared to replace suspensions with “restorative” approaches that favor dialogue and reflection over student removal. The teacher’s union has made a version of that argument — and some educators have said the transition away from suspensions can be challenging.

“I concede the point that maybe we need to roll out the policies in a different way that doesn’t produce backlash,” Kirkland added. “What this evidence suggests is that we need to do more than just reduce suspensions.”

City officials did not dispute the report’s findings — though they noted that the vast majority of students reported feeling safe in their classrooms. “Research shows that overly punitive disciplinary practices are not effective,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein wrote in a statement. “Our investments in mental health and school climate programs ensure students are provided with a safe and supportive learning environment and that they are being held accountable for their actions.”

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.