I bring John, David, Ana and Sally into every training, strategy session and decision-making room I occupy. Well, actually I bring their stories, to remind myself and others of the students we are still failing and the significant work we still need to do to ensure excellence for all students.
John’s family immigrated from the Dominican Republic and he was assigned to a bilingual class where his teacher spoke only English. He’s Black, so in his mostly Latino school, adults often singled him out for being disruptive even when he acted similarly to his peers. Daily, he dealt with awkward and misguided questions about his identity: Are you Black or Latino? Despite the language barriers between John and his teacher and classmates, it was clear he was functioning several grade levels above his peers in pretty much every subject. His family lived in abject poverty, using a camping stove to cook dinner and rationing money for gas and electricity.
Mark appeared to be Brown and, because he was adopted and spent time in group homes, no one seemed to know his race or ethnicity. He’d been in multiple homes by the time he was 8, experiencing immeasurable trauma. He suffered from a degenerative hip disease—and had experienced significant physical abuse—that resulted in over a dozen surgeries and made it hard for him to walk. His school had meticulously spelled out all of his defects and problems and special education needs, in what educators call an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But nothing in that document got at the root causes or pointed out his innumerable strengths, including his deep conviction about right and wrong, and his seemingly endless kindness and positive attitude.
Ana was raped when she was 14 by a family member whose father spent the better part of his childhood incarcerated. When her demons caught up to her, she tried to tell her story only to be put out by her entire family and their extended friends. With nowhere to turn, she ended up on the streets, living in a friend’s car and dropping out. Ana found her way to an alternative school for over-aged and under-credited youth where she also came out as a lesbian questioning her gender identity. No one at either of her schools knew her secrets: that she was the victim of a terrible act of sexual violence, or that she didn’t have a home. She was a good student, after all—compliant and quiet.
Sally’s family isn’t wealthy, but they don’t struggle economically. It became clear early in her life that she wasn’t growing, physically or emotionally, at quite the rate of her peers and she suffered from bouts of extreme exhaustion and frustration. Eventually, she was diagnosed with diabetes and also dyslexia. The process to obtain the medical services necessary to manage her diabetes was, simply put, a nightmare. Her parents were sent in circles and Sally spent as much time out of class checking her monitors and navigating bureaucracy as she did learning strategies to manage her emotions and learning how to read. And, when she was in class, Sally became increasingly frustrated as she fell further behind. Few at school seemed to connect the dots between her physical challenges, her learning struggles and her outbursts.
THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS
We have names for students like John, Mark, Ana and Sally. We identify them as belonging to a “specialized population.” By this, we might mean English-learning, special education, LGBTQQ, court-involved, homeless, over-aged, under-credited, medically fragile or Title I. God forbid you belong to any of these groups and are also Black or living well below the poverty level, which makes your chances of excelling in school almost non-existent. In that case, we label you “at-risk”—for struggling in school, dropping out or worse. We count the number of “adverse childhood effects” (ACEs) you have and record them in databases.
In other words, we spend lots of time describing the defects of students and very little time diagnosing the systemic issues that make their odds of success even longer.
Many traditional schools struggle to support students with these labels. Even our best and highest-performing schools, including those in the charter sector, are struggling with these very same students. When we disaggregate data, we see tremendous gaps in academic achievement between students with disabilities and their general education peers. We see huge gaps in achievement between Black students and their White peers. We see that students who are homeless, in foster care or involved in the court system master grade-level material at much lower rates than their peers.
For years, education advocates called these “achievement gaps.” Recognizing this term could imply that students are the problem, many have recently embraced the phrase “opportunity gaps.” Proponents in favor of this framing point out that students with particular risk factors have fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers and this makes it harder for them to master academic content.
Most school systems not only fail to provide students in need of it with extra support, but actually implement policies and practices that make their chance of success even slimmer. Worse, some implicitly or explicitly suggest “we need to sacrifice the 20% to ensure the success of the 80%.” (I’ve heard this, multiple times.)
We need to stop finding labels for the students and start identifying the systems that make it damn near impossible for them to achieve. By using words that better reflect what the real problem is, we will start to shift our attention to the source of the fire instead of complaining constantly about the smoke.
STUDENTS WHO SYSTEMS FAILED THE MOST
I think we need a new way of talking about students who face barriers erected by adults and sustained by broken systems. So, I have taken to describing students like John, David, Ana and Sally as SSFMs—Students who Systems Failed the Most.
John’s family moved because of lack of economic opportunity and they were left even poorer by a broken and biased American immigration system. He faced racism, lack of support for learning English, and low expectations in a school and system that added roadblocks to his success. David was trapped in the child welfare system that created trauma and was transitioned into a special education system that piled on by further pathologizing him. Ana’s struggles were a result of someone else’s action and she was ignored by schools because she was compliant. Sally started failing in school because of the poor systems to support students with specialized medical and learning needs.
But John, David, Ana and Sally are not outliers or students we should consider around the edges of education policy and practice. They are our students, our friends, our family. John is my former student, who eventually did succeed despite our school and the broader system. David is my own brother, who survived school and is now an amazing dad and change agent in his community. Ana is a student I met as superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City—she excelled in her transfer school and went on to thrive in a prestigious university. Sally is like the children of so many of my friends who, despite the advantages of racial or economic privilege, struggle every day to advocate for their child’s basic learning needs.
It’s time we embrace a new mindset about these students. By calling them SSFMs, we are forced to grapple with how we must change our approach in pursuit of excellence for all students. It’s time to stop admiring that we have a problem and start addressing it.
My column, In The Room, has given me and my readers a front-row seat to important and poignant lessons on leadership. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the first and only female president of Harvard University, the first and only African American woman to run the American Civil War Museum, the chief information officer of the CIA, the head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young, and a national best-selling author and world-renowned psychologist.
I realized, though, during a recent run (where I do my best thinking), that everyone I’ve featured so far is American and either my age or older. Enter 31-year-old phenom, Larisa Hovannisian, founder of Teach For Armenia. Last month, Larisa co-hosted the Teach For All Global Conference in Armenia, which gathered 450 members of their community. Teach For All is a global network of independent organizations in 53 countries, whose shared mission is to develop collective leadership to ensure all children have the education, support and opportunity to fulfill their potential. We met for coffee to talk about leadership, lessons learned, and love.
‘Armenia Needs You Too’
While Larisa went to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and taught in Phoenix, Arizona, she spent most of her childhood in Russia. She shared vivid memories of her birthplace, Armenia, where she returned every summer to spend time with her grandmother. Her poignant stories about her early life reminded me of the challenging history of the region during that time.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia became an independent country. As the fledgling government struggled to become a self-sustaining country, the region suffered a devastating earthquake that killed thousands. The conditions, in part, led to Larisa’s parents moving to Russia to build a “more stable” life.
But Russia, too, was reeling from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Relationships with former satellite states of the USSR were naturally tense and the country was in a deep financial and economic crisis. Terrorism was spreading, and children were being abducted for ransom money.
“This sounds like a lot,” I exhaled. She admitted that her parents were very protective, and she had very little freedom growing up. She was grateful that her father was able to provide a comfortable life because of his work as a lawyer for an international firm. But, she was well aware of the broader context and strife. Many of her friends lacked access to basic services, like education and food.
“I knew I would come back to do something to help someday,” she said of her home country. “I just wasn’t sure how or when.” When she decided to join Teach For America she remembered her Mom saying, “You know, Armenia needs you too.” The seed was planted.
Discrimination in Many Forms
As an Armenian in Russia, she was considered “dark” and “other”—and she felt the effects of this regularly. The unstable financial situation in Russia led to a lot of finger-pointing and resentment. “Armenians are taking our jobs,” she and her family would hear on a regular basis.
She was incensed by the inequities and the scapegoating, and it helped her develop a deep commitment to “justice and fairness.”
We talked about what it was like to attend a mostly white college in the United States. Many people “could not figure out what I was,” she recalls, because she was, literally, the only Armenian on campus. Luckily, she found a band of other women who became her best friends and a personal support group. “The token people of color bonded together,” she joked, but adds, seriously, that the tight-knit circle helped make her college experience. “People didn’t mean to be offensive, so we had to take it with some humor.”
She also felt a responsibility to educate Americans about the Armenian genocide (which was recently recognized as a genocide by the House of Representatives on October 29, 2019) and other aspects of her culture and country. “I ended up [engaging] in activism whether I liked it or not because no one else would.” In a way, she explains, she was grateful because her college experience thrust her into a leadership position.
I asked how she would compare conversations about race here with those in Eastern Europe. “It’s not that there is less or more in different countries,” she reflected, “but at least we live in a country where people can talk about it. In countries like Russia, it’s tough for this to be even acknowledged.”
Having lived in multiple countries, she is deeply aware of how discrimination shows up in so many different forms. “Discrimination [happens when one group considers another] to be ‘other’ or different or minorities…this includes race but also religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”
Focus on Being a Good Teacher
Larisa and I are both proud Teach For America alumnae, having joined the corps right after college. We were both called by the two-part mission: do everything possible to provide students in schools with a game-changing education, and take the lessons learned from the classroom to fight for equity more broadly. Being a classroom teacher and joining a mission-driven organization had a profound impact on my trajectory, so I wanted to know if it was the same for Larisa.
She initially was overwhelmed by the stories of her students, many of whom were living in abject poverty. For some, “the only hot meal they got was school lunch…so I started bringing bags of juice and sandwiches just to make sure my kids weren’t hungry.” Some would describe violence they witnessed in their neighborhoods in great detail. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she told me, because her heart would break a little every day.
“One day I talked to my dad,” she remembered gratefully. He gave her some simple and yet profound advice: “Focus on being a good teacher.” He helped her see that she was expending a lot of energy on things she couldn’t control, as opposed to investing in the one thing she could. “I had to reframe my mindset…and that is when I started having an impact.”
We talked about what a critical leadership lesson that was on two levels. First, it is important to focus on what is in your control and your own efficacy in fixing it. Second, the ability to shift your own mindset can, in fact, produce different results.
Her eyes lit up when she told me about her former students. One boy in particular had severe autism and entered kindergarten having not spoken any words other than reciting lines from cartoons. Within six months of being in her class, he started talking in short sentences and could hold a conversation. His mom told Larisa, “You’ve given my son an opportunity to talk to me and our family—and that is always something I’ll love you for.”
Asking Men to Be Allies
Shortly after her two years in the classroom, Larisa decided to start Teach For Armenia. She wrote a business plan, started assembling a Board of Trustees, and looking for money—at the ripe age of 23.
It turns out this was even more audacious than it sounds. “Back in 2013, not a lot of young women started companies in Armenia,” she tells me. “The idea of a young entrepreneur and underdog is an American thing…[Armenia] is very patriarchal and ageist.” But her own childhood adversity, college, and teaching experience gave her confidence, drive, and leadership skills. She laughed and shared, “Being young and naive—not arrogant or overconfident—I thought ‘the sky is the limit, why not risk it.’”
She tells me about many “nasty” attempts to prevent her from succeeding—from usurping her intellectual property to attempting to discredit her in key circles. She recalls plenty of meetings where prospective donors, policymakers, or powerbrokers cut her off in mid-sentence, posed questions to her male colleagues even though she was the CEO, or didn’t acknowledge her presence at all.
I got mad just listening to her, remembering my own battles. Like me, she learned how to advocate for herself. “I’ve gotten good at saying things like, ‘you cut me off, I need to finish my thought or it’s going to be tough for us to have a productive conversation,’” she tells me. “This may come off as me being curt or even mean, but we have to do things to make our voices heard.”
She also shares the important role others have played in addressing inequity. “I am lucky to have male colleagues who are real partners in the work…in one meeting, [my male colleague] said, ‘Actually I’m going to have my boss answer that for you.’”
Personally, I was struck by this example. I am hard-pressed to remember many times when a male colleague was this overt of an ally. Larisa reacted to my surprise. “Sometimes I have to ask or explain,” she said. “The men in Armenia often only shake the hands of other men. I now tell the men I work with that I’d like for them to shake my hand. They weren’t aware it was a problem.”
This exchange makes me wonder if I have been explicit enough with male colleagues about what allyship looks like—I always just felt it was my responsibility to figure out a way to be heard. “Maybe this is a sign of progress,” I remarked, “both that men have been such clear allies for you and that you are so clear about how they need to show up.”
Embracing Meditation and Love
I can’t help thinking about how much is on her shoulders, so I asked her what she likes to do outside of work and how she takes care of herself personally. She shared that for her first few years starting and running the company, she didn’t think much about this and she felt like she paid for it.
“At one point, it caught up to me,” she admitted. Like others I’ve interviewed for In The Room, she started to struggle with anxiety, and eventually experienced full-blown “panic attacks that would come out of nowhere.” They were so profound that the first time it happened, she actually called the doctor because she thought she was having a heart attack.
She came to cherish and prioritize people in her life who gave as much as they took. She embraces and understands the importance of sleep, which she said she took for granted when she was younger. And, she found transcendental meditation. She said she tried yoga, mindfulness, and other things—but meditation was what finally worked for her. It’s become an integral part of her day.
Our most intimate moment came when we talked about our respective life partners. Larisa married someone she describes as her soulmate, who deeply inspires her. She was “introduced” to him on the shelves of a Phoenix bookstore, where she spontaneously purchased a memoir he had written about his family.
Moved by his story—and the cute photo of him on the book jacket—she connected with him briefly online, but they never met. (I admit this highlighted for me the generational divide between me and Larisa!).
Three years later, while pitching a funder, she ran into him at a coffee shop in Armenia. The rest, as they say, is history.
They make time for each other, by scheduling calls and date nights, even it if is just 30 or 45 minutes. They make it a point not to get disconnected even as they are both working on literally solving the country’s biggest problems. “Like me,” she says, “he doesn’t distinguish work and life. It’s not one and then the other—just one big thing.”
Larisa makes me hopeful that the next generation of leaders is up for the task of solving big things.
By Layla Avila, Evan Stone and Cami Anderson
As education leaders, we take our commitment to students and families very seriously, not only to provide them with an excellent education that affords them access to the fullest range of life’s opportunities but also to ensure they are emotionally and physically safe and supported.
That’s why we are dismayed at the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle protections for our most vulnerable students by repealing much-needed federal guidance guarding students from discriminatory discipline practices. This damaging move was announced just before Christmas, even though thousands of teachers and more than 100 educators, advocates, district and state leaders, charter school operators, unions, and other education leaders called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Justice Department to maintain the guidance protecting all students — particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning. Educators are not alone in our concern: DeVos also received letters from a wide swath of groups on this issue, such as state attorneys generaland the civil rights community.
Over the past year, DeVos met with teachers from across the country and promised to listen. But the concerns of families and educators clearly fell on deaf ears. Rescinding the guidance without putting forward a concrete plan for schools to end unjust discipline practices is another baffling example of how the Trump administration is abandoning students and families.
The problem: Too many of these practices are the exception, not the rule.
While there has been progress, a steady drumbeat of data reveals we have miles to go. A study by the bipartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office last year found persistent racial disparities in student discipline. And the 2015-2016 federal Civil Rights Data Collection showed the same trend. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended from school than their white peers — often for the same behavior as their classmates. Latino students also saw troubling disparities compared with white students. Students with disabilities, who make up about 12 percent of public school students, account for nearly a quarter of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident or suspended.
The consequences of inaction are dire. Students who’ve been suspended just once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later on. Continuing to use biased and harsh discipline with students from historically underserved communities — students who probably already have a mountain to climb to succeed in school and beyond — limits their trajectories in life.
The good news is that some schools are pioneering innovative practices — rooted in research — that point the way forward on school discipline:
- Training can help educators build empathy when it comes to student discipline and form productive partnerships with families before incidents occur.
- Schools can build positive cultures that include rigorous academic work in which students hold one another accountable.
- School staff can help students learn social and emotional skills, such as self-management and conflict de-escalation.
- Administrators can focus on hiring and retaining staff members who build strong, inclusive classroom cultures and who reflect the diversity of students.
- States and systems can provide mental-health professionals, counseling staff and other support systems.
- Schools can introduce alternatives to suspensions — such as restorative circles and in-classroom interventions — that address student behavior and help them learn to make better decisions without excluding them from school.
We believe the federal government has an important role to play in safeguarding students’ civil rights, which can be accomplished without stifling state and local decision-making or teachers’ autonomy in their classroom. Without federal action, it can be easy for systems to lose sight of these disparities and their long-term effects. Or schools and systems may choose what’s politically easy and expedient over what’s best for students. Despite this setback, our coalition will continue working in cities and states across the country to effect change — and the federal government must continue to enforce laws that ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.
We can and must do better. Our students’ futures hang in the balance.
Cami Anderson is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project.
Layla Avila is CEO and executive director of Education Leaders of Color.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.
By Laura Faith Kebede
As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.
This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.
Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)
Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?
Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.
The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.
Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?
A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.
Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.
I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.
Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?
A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.
I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.
I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.
Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?
A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.
There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.
Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?
A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.
You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.
Cami Anderson is taking bold and controversial steps to reform education in the Newark Public School system.
The Education System Needs to Learn About Advancement | Joel Klein | Google Zeitgeist.