Keynote Address – Urban League Scholarship Dinner – 2015

I would like to thank the Urban League for inviting me to share my thoughts with you this evening and I’d like to add my congratulations to Ms. Kirk and Mr. Muse along with the very worthy scholarship winners.

Two weeks ago, I attended New York University’s Summer Institute entitled, Creating Safe and Caring Schools: School Discipline through Equitable and Responsive Practices. I was pleased to be invited to sit on a Leadership panel asked to discuss dis-proportionality and the struggles our district has experienced when addressing inequities in placement, classification or suspension of students. This is a national crisis. Binghamton City Schools was recognized as a district that is working to address these issues transparently and candidly.

Attending conferences is the best way to share best practices and experiences with colleagues from other areas and consider what research-based initiatives would best serve our district.

I was particularly impressed with the keynote presentation given by Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement project, a Columbia educated lawyer and the author of Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Program. It wasn’t that the information was particularly new to me, but it reinforced an event that had occurred just a week ago, sharing this information with you is not intended to embarrass or criticize, but merely to provide an example of what I’m sure plays out again and again across our schools, our state and our country.

Several teachers scheduled an appointment with me to discuss serious concerns they had with discipline, acting out behavior and lack of student engagement in their building. This is not a new issue, but one I have discussed with the faculty several times during my tenure as superintendent. Discussion centered on the ineffectiveness of in-school suspension, disrespect, insubordination, talking, students arriving late to class, leaving class without permission, etc. Having taught in a large middle school south of Albany and also having been a middle school administrator, I know certain times during the school year are more stressful than others. It is also a difficult time in a student’s life as they transition from children to young adults; the developmental changes, the increasing peer influence, the experimentation…certainly trying times for students as well as parents and teachers.

I listened carefully to their frustrations while wondering what the impact, if any, our professional development was having on changing practice and culture.

As I continued to mull over the multiple issues, I glanced down at the discipline reports. These were reports from our data system on the student’s teachers had identified as the most difficult. The reports also include little pictures of each student. When I looked at their pictures, all were of color with the exception of one white student and ALL were male!

When l looked at their faces I laughed!!! Their faces were impish and devilish…I was immediately brought back to my teaching days. On the first day of school, I would read the names off the roster glancing back and forth at the name and then at the face of the student in an effort to learn the names of the 100 + children in my classes. Every so often I would hesitate and smile, making a mental note that I might have to keep my eye on particular students. Lively, active, spirited students full of potential. As a young teacher, I would remind myself that my job was to guide these students, engage them, motivate them and more than anything else, encourage them to go on to do great things…. not break their spirits.

As I reflected on my conversation with the teachers, reverberating in my mind was the statement,

“To be successful all students deserve a head start, not a head start to the juvenile justice system!!!”

It also raises the bigger question of how black males are viewed by our society. The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights reported in 2014 that 42 % of all preschool-age black children received at least one out-of-school suspension compared to 28% of their white peers. The department also found that black males are three times more likely than their peers to be suspended and expelled, resulting in the loss of valuable instructional time. You can see the cycle…. suspension which is really exclusion, loss of instructional time…. return to the classroom only to be behind in the work…acting out…suspension…exclusion and the vicious cycle continues. If we, as a society, say removal of a student from an educational environment because they are disrespectful, late to class, insubordinate, are legitimate grounds, and continued offenses lead to harsher and harsher penalties, can’t we see that we are moving these students rapidly along the path to school alienation and incarceration? Have we learned nothing??? Suspensions do not change behaviors. The only path out of poverty is education and suspensions remove students from the path.

A University of Chicago study revealed that high school students with one school arrest had a 26% graduation rate as compared with their non-peers’ rate of 64%. (Education Week, March 31, 2015). What kind of life will these students experience without a high school diploma and a criminal record?

In this day and age of accountability, we hear so much about the achievement gap, but when we remove students from opportunities, when we segregate them from positive role models and stimulating environments, when we set low expectations for academic performance and ignore classroom practices that address the learning and developmental needs of racially diverse learners, we create an opportunity gap. Vanderbilt University Educational Professor Dr. Richard Milner in his recent publication, “Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms” says

“To truly serve students well, we need instead to look at the gaps in how we are teaching all students and other opportunity gaps. By opportunity, I mean there are stark differences between and among students regarding their exposure and experiences – economic resources, rigor of the curriculum, expectations of teachers and parental involvement.”

Two decades ago, in response to Columbine High School’s tragedy, many school districts instituted a zero-tolerance policy. Any student behavior that was identified as disruptive and disorderly was dealt with harsh penalties. We did the same with drug abusers by sentencing them to multiple decades in jail for three offenses…. the old three strikes you’re out. Zero tolerance polices resulted in greater police involvement, arrests for minor offenses, court appearances and criminal records.

So, what are we doing in Binghamton City schools and how do we plan to address the “children of promise” who were identified by the frustrated teachers who met with me? First and perhaps most importantly, we prioritize cultivating relationships with students. Students need to know educators as people and educators must make personal connections with students. A district-wide mentor coordinator will work with the guidance department and administration to provide students with mentors.

The Housing Authority’s Youth Development staff will interact with students developing relationships and making positive home contacts. They have been working at the high school since 2013 and greatly affected the school’s climate.

Next year we are piloting restorative practices on the sixth-grade level. Two sixth grade teachers have provided admirable leadership in exploring and researching the ways it is more effective than punitive disciplinary measures. Restorative practices allow primary stakeholders (victims, offenders and family members) to come together to explore how everyone was affected by the offense and how to repair it.

To address the concerns of the teachers I spoke of earlier, sixth grade teachers will be recommending students for participation as seventh graders in a research study with Binghamton University. These seventh-grade students will be involved in a unique program that engages them in a curriculum based upon their interests, is infused with technology, contains authentic learning experiences, involves community service and each student will have a mentor. Parents will be solicited for active participation in bi-monthly meetings so they can be supported along with their children. It will be a formal research study with the hopes that we can publish the results and share our findings with others.

Office referrals and suspension rates will be closely monitored along with the classes from which the students are coming. This is in an effort to identify those teachers who need more support and additional professional development.

We are facing a crisis in this country where children are being suspended; expelled or disciplined more harshly because they are gay, lesbian, transgender, have disabilities or are children of color. Binghamton City Schools will continue working aggressively to address inequities of every kind so every student feels respected, valued and can reach their full potential. Tonight’s event recognizes four successful students, but we must continue to ensure increasing numbers of students feel the satisfaction of genuine success.

As always, I remain committed to working towards equity and opportunity for all students.

Dr. Marion H. Martinez

Superintendent, Binghamton City Schools

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