disconnected youth

Boldly Breaking Patterns

By Cami Anderson

“When a black or brown youngster is shot — apparently for no good reason — by a law enforcement officer, there is a public response to that violence. And that response is fierce. That response is strategic. And that response, on occasion, makes sure that justice ultimately be done.” — Dr. Clement Price, Rutgers University – Newark Distinguished Professor of History, WBGO News, August 13, 2014

Last month, Newark Public Schools (NPS) participated in a Rutgers-Newark-hosted summit sponsored by America’s Promise, a national non-profit organization that has helped put the goal of increasing graduation rates for all students at the forefront of public discourse. The conversation was rich, positive and solutions-oriented, but I could not shake my angst about what it all meant in the context of the grand juries’ failure to indict the officers responsible for the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As impassioned organizers and mourning community members took to the streets in demonstrations against a range of injustices, the words of the late Dr. Clement Price, a beloved professor of history who recently and unexpectedly passed, rang in my ears.

What responsibility do educators and administrators like myself have to the African American and Latino students Dr. Price spoke about? How do we ensure that education systems equip all students with the skills to access their dreams and not replicate cycles of systemic oppression?

Among education professionals, the term “disconnected youth” refers to young people who are of school age but dropped out, are about to drop out, and/or are trying to return to school. Nationally and in Newark, this group is comprised disproportionally of boys of color, not unlike our juvenile and adult justice systems. Unless you believe that African American and Latino boys are just more naturally prone to struggle in school than their female or white peers — which I obviously do not — it is incumbent on school systems to take an honest look at these persistent inequities and aggressively work to change them.

Consider these alarming statistics. Nationally, about 10 percent of high school students were suspended in school year 2009-2010, but for African American and Latino boys that number is 1 out of 3. These figures mirror research that consistently demonstrates how African American and Latino boys are far more likely to be reprimanded for the same “misbehaviors” as their white peers. 30 percent of all students arrested in school were African American, but this group accounts for only 16 percent of enrollment. Of the high school students who disconnected from school in Newark during the 2012-13 school year, roughly 51 percent were African American and Latino boys even though they only make up 45 percent of the high school student body. Though imbalanced, Newark’s data isn’t as stark as the national average where African and Latino students are three times as likely to be disciplined as their white counterparts, often for the very same “offenses.” Schools and school systems should be places where playing fields are leveled. Education, as Horace Mann said, should be “the great equalizer” and instead, the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels a disproportionate number of African American and Latino students into the justice system is alive and well.

So, what have we done in Newark and where do we need to go from here? Our approach distills to four distinct strategies: (1) focus elementary and middle schools on strengths-based early warning systems, (2) rethink high schools to prevent students from disconnecting, (3) create better on-ramps for students to reconnect, and (4) radically change discipline policies.

Too often, elementary and middle school principals and teachers think of the “drop out problem” as a high school issue despite research indicating that a student’s academic performance in third grade is a strong predictor of his/her likelihood to stay in school. This is no longer true in Newark, where all schools, including elementary schools such as Quitman Street, are accountable for equity. Every Newark public school has chartered a Student Support Team comprised of teachers, administrators, guidance staff, and relevant service providers, trained in a “case management” system to identify and discuss students who begin to struggle academically, behaviorally, or both. This case management system trains educators to notice when students are performing at their best, and to replicate that success by developing an action plan with clear milestones that build on the student’s strengths, rather than overemphasize a student’s shortcomings. Our approach requires adults to challenge themselves continually to find new and improved ways to reach, not blame, students. This system only works if schools are staffed with faculty who regard students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being as their responsibility, and who look to improve their own practice as opposed to assuming an irreparable shortcoming in a struggling student. At NPS, this commitment is reflected in our nationally-recognized teacher contract, which places a high premium on recruiting, selecting, and rewarding best-in-class educators. It is also reflected in school-based professional development and additional support provided by partners and NPS coaches who have a particular expertise in motivating students and creating purposeful, respectful, and culturally-competent classroom cultures.

“Old-school” comprehensive high schools simply do not work for most students — but they are categorically detrimental for students who struggle. Given that 2/3 of Newark students come to the 9th grade at least one grade level behind in reading and/or math, we had to ask some tough questions about how our high schools are designed. We divvied many of our schools into smaller learning communities — in some instances creating academies within large schools and in others actually splitting individual schools into multiple schools. We invented and adopted new models, for example an all-girls school, an all-boys school, an early college model, as well as a sports and careers academy. We rescheduled 9th graders into longer literacy and numeracy blocks, so students are exposed to rigorous content through small groups, one-on-one instruction, and computer-assisted software, making a bet on depth rather than coverage. We worked with schools to develop “graduation trackers” that provided each student with clarity around where they were and how they were progressing towards graduation. We adopted the ACT to afford us a better measure of college-readiness, and we again used our teacher contract to reward and attract the most effective and talented educators into our hardest-to-staff schools.

When traditional schools — even those that have been redesigned — do not work, we need different and new models with even more intensive academic acceleration, time on task, and social-emotional support. During my tenure in New York City, I worked with a group of people to found a network of high schools for court-involved youth called ROADS (Reinventing Options for Adolescents who Deserve Success). ROADS — and other schools like them across the country — are building models that combine intensive counseling, extended school day and year, career connections, and cutting-edge work on literacy and numeracy for students who either struggle academically or who have missed many years of school. In Newark, we have created two “transfer high schools” that are building similar capacity. Every day, young people who have previously dropped out of school decide to reconnect. Too many systems either make this impossible and/or afford these students low-quality options that do not respect their intellectual abilities. Cities and districts need to work together to provide high quality, academically rigorous, and well-designed pathways for young adults. These pathways need to go well beyond helping young people “get a job” and should prepare them for a 21st century labor market where being able to read, write, and do math at high levels is critical for long-term success.

Most importantly, if policies and beliefs around discipline unduly punish a specific group of individuals, then radical changes are necessary. We’ve affectionately begun calling our approach “zero tolerance for zero tolerance.” Without a doubt, student safety is paramount and all students deserve safe and peaceful learning environments. At NPS, we believe this can be accomplished while avoiding the costly outcomes that come with biased school discipline systems. We started by training teams of police, school safety officers, central staff, administrators, teachers and student leaders on “restorative justice” practices that allow groups of students to hold one another accountable for missteps in a healthy and solutions-oriented way. We worked with partners to identify and model responses to misbehavior that show care for all students rather than derailing learning. We’ve rewritten policies to institute new checks and balances around who is at the table when a decision is made to put a student out. This decision is one not to take lightly because statistically, it is a very clear indication that these students will ultimately drop out and/or become court-involved. Similarly, we’ve revisited the policies around who is empowered at the school level to call police to arrest a student — another life-altering decision that too few adults were seeing as such. Research shows that fair, non-biased, restorative discipline policies that seek to support all types of students will lead to improved outcomes for all kids, not just those who adults perceive to be “behavior problems”.

While we admittedly have considerable distance to cover before reaching the goal of a 100 percent graduation rate, we are proud of our progress to-date. The percentage of graduating students who also passed both sections of our graduation exam has increased by 11 percentage points. Last year, 68 percent of our students graduated — up from 54 percent in 2009. This rise is particularly notable because it was achieved while reducing the number of dropouts by 500 students since 2011, applying more rigorous metrics than most districts and yielding 7 percent more actual graduates.

Equally significant is how dramatically our suspension rates and policies differ from years past, with NPS reducing the occurrence of extended suspensions while also proactively monitoring the issuance of suspensions with regard to race, gender, and for other historically over-represented populations such as students with disabilities. From school year 2012 to 2013 there was a 37 percent decline in the number of suspensions within NPS, for a total of 1,305 fewer suspensions. In addition, the District now conducts quarterly meetings to review trends in discipline and school culture to bolster efficiency and accountability. Our celebration of this progress will not distract us from the huge challenges ahead. We have much more work to do, to ensure that elementary schools put all students on a level playing field, that high-schools support all types of learners, that “second chance” options meet students where they are and help them attain previously unthinkable outcomes, and that school-based discipline policies are unbiased and support all students.

I must admit, I am impatient and I take this work personally. As the sister of two men of color, the life partner of one, and the Mom of another — this progress, in Newark and around the country, feels inadequate. At NPS, our incredible team goes to bed every night trying to challenge conventional wisdoms and dismantle the structures that hamper achievement, perpetuate oppression and prevent students from realizing their dreams. We are fiercely driven by the notion that justice should ultimately be done — and that education systems can either continue to cement cycles of systemic racism, or boldly break them.

A version of this article appeared on The Huffington Post.