Plans to Address Disparities in Knox County Schools Are at the Forefront—Again

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number of recommendations made nearly a decade ago to help Knox County Schools address glaring disparities in discipline and academic achievement were unveiled, yet again, last Thursday evening during a presentation by a newer task force appointed by the school district to tackle those very same issues. Year after year, since at least 2004, black students in Knox County schools have been suspended at about three times the rate of their white peers, the school system’s own data shows.

More than 100 people scattered among the auditorium seats at Vine Middle Magnet School on April 28 to check out the first public draft of proposals from the Disparities in Educational Outcomes Task Force, or DEO Task Force, a 31-member panel that will take its final recommendations to the Knox County Board of Education in May. After a brief presentation, attendees formed small working groups to offer their thoughts and feedback on the plan.

The tentative recommendations are broken down into four overarching categories emphasizing the need for staff training, more robust programming, a revision of existing policies and practices, and enhanced recruitment and retention efforts to both improve minority academic performance and address variations in how discipline is applied. Specific action items include:

• Ongoing training in cultural competency (all staff); classroom management and professional development (teachers); and dealing with social, emotional, and mental health issues (school resource officers).

• An expansion of school programs such as Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) and restorative justice practices; student mentoring and student advisory councils; and resources and responses for students who have experienced personal trauma. In the community, it calls for more behavioral and mental health supports.

• A review of policies and practices around discipline; more detailed data gathering and tracking of all disciplinary actions, school arrests, and academic performance; forming a partnership with law enforcement to reduce in-school arrests; the creation of a stakeholder (parents and students) bill of rights; matching each student with at least one caring adult; enhancing family and community engagement; and ensuring culturally responsive classroom instructions.

• A focus on personnel, including more minority recruiting; development of activities to attract, support, and retain minority and male instructors; establishing minority professional mentoring and networking opportunities; researching ways to increase the number of school counselors, behavior liaisons, and other support personnel; and ensuring students have access to highly-effective teachers.

The group plans to make final revisions based on feedback collected during Thursday’s meeting and written comments emailed to before its next meeting May 12. It will then present a final report to the school board on May 25, which must vote on whether to adopt and act on the plan.

While not summarized in the same format, many of those same recommendations highlighted Thursday were included in a final report issued in 2007 by the Racial Disparity in School Discipline Task Force, a strikingly similar group with 11 members brought together the previous year to examine issues related to higher suspension and expulsion rates of African-American students, trends that have held over the past decade, schools records show.

That same data, compiled by the school system, was the grounds for a 2014 federal complaint filed against Knox County Schools by the University of Tennessee School of Law Education Law Practicum. UT professor Dean Rivkin, who attended Thursday’s public meeting, filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging disproportionate disciplinary practices against black students and students with disabilities, citing the school system’s data. A few weeks later, Superintendent Jim McIntyre announced the formation of the DEO Task Force to look into the matter. (The OCR declined to pursue a formal investigation against KCS, in part because no specific plaintiff was named in Rivkin’s complaint.)

“This is an important conversation about equity in education and an important conversation about the future of our children,” McIntyre said during opening remarks on Thursday. “Like many other school districts we have witnessed achievement gaps and we’ve also experienced disproportionate discipline outcomes”—”RACISM!” someone in the crowd yelled. McIntyre paused briefly before continuing his speech. He went on the say the school system has been aware of the issues “for more than a year” now, although they’ve been a topic of discussion since before his tenure as superintendent began in 2008.

In 2007, the original task force made recommendations to provide ongoing training in cultural competency and laws related to discrimination (among others); creating “know your rights” brochures for parents; putting in place a system to intervene and redirect student misbehavior in efforts to cut down on the use of suspensions; collecting more robust data on discipline and academic benchmarks and making them directly available to the public; reviewing policies to clearly define some catch-all offenses such as “Conduct Prejudicial to Good Order,” a vague term cited in some suspension and expulsion cases; and forming future task forces to track the implementation of those goals.

All of those recommendations, in whole or in part, are included in the most recent proposals from the DEO Task Force. (The original task force did made two other specific recommendations not included this round, such as establishing a reentry plan for students suspended more than 10 days and partnering with UT to help with data collection and tracking.)

“All of this shows me how far behind Knox County Schools really is,” says Alexander Parks, a member of the Coalition to Stop School Pushout, a loosely affiliated group that has been tracking these issues and the progress of the DEO Task Force. Parks notes that both cultural competency training and PBIS strategies—major components in the DEO Task Force’s recommendations—have been around for decades and are considered best practices among many school systems. So why did it take a rehashed task force a year and a half to come up with these general recommendations?

Most concerns voiced during the meeting centered on the broad nature of the recommendations and the lack of timeline to implement them, But DEO Task Force Co-Chair Elizabeth Alves, chief academic officer for the school system, says measurable goals and timeframes will be included on the final report.

“I think I can speak for everyone on the task force when I say there’s an extreme sense of urgency around this work,” she said. “But this isn’t a one-year plan, it’s going to be a five-year plan. A lot of what we do this first year is going to be foundational.”

Alves said that if adopted by the school board in June, cultural competency training—learning skills to identify and interact with people of different cultural backgrounds—the first action item likely to be implemented, could start taking place before the end of the next academic year. Other systemic changes could take longer.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s announcement, the Coalition to Stop School Pushout issued its own set of alternative recommendations it hopes the school system will act on. Most all of those were covered by various recommendations made by the task force, though the coalition often used stronger language or called for more to be done sooner.

“I like every single one of these recommendations [from the task force], but they seem like they’re from another planet,” Rivkin, the UT professor that filed a complaint against the school system and member of the coalition, said during a working group Thursday. “All of these are good recommendations, but they’re not all implementable in any sort of reasonable time frame. So there’s going to have to be some priorities set.”

Valerie Bachmann, a third grade teacher at Maynard Elementary School, wondered aloud how making time for student mentors would fit into the school’s daily schedule—it would likely cut into recess or lunch time.

“It’s hopeful that we have this plan, but it just needs to be implemented,” she said. “We only have 15 minutes of encore time [each day], so where does it fit in?”

Another high school teacher at the presentation said he supported the principles behind PBIS, but his school lacked the current resources to fully implement the strategy. “If you’re going to give us hope, something needs to be done [to make it feasible],” he said during a group discussion.

The school board has tentatively penciled in $56,000 in next year’s fiscal budget, which totals more than $450 million, to fund cultural competency training, an amount critics and some task force members contend is likely too low.

Only one member on the DEO Task Force served on the original task force in 2006-07. Project Grad Knoxville Executive Director Vrondelia “Ronni” Chandler, has helped both recommendations take shape.

“I am cautiously optimistic about the final recommendations that have emerged,” Chandler says via email following the meeting. “We have been to this point before (of having substantive recommendations),” but there are a few keys difference between the two task forces, she says. One, the present incarnation has a much more diverse selection of members, including people in an out of the school system, than the original 11-person group formed in 2006. This year’s final report will also include “a plan with overarching goals and specific implementation strategies including accountability that, if adopted [by the school board], can help ensure the report does not get lost in the transition of leadership and shelved,” she says.

“Again, I am cautiously optimistic!” Chandler writes in closing.

Earlier recommendations were basically shelved during a transition in leadership in the mid-2000s. The school board voted unanimously in February 2007 to end its contract with then-Superintendent Charles Lindsey, and McIntyre wasn’t seated as his replacement until 2008, a year after the task force wrapped its work. Now, for some, it’s a moment of déjà vu. McIntyre has announced he will resign his post effective in July, having taken a job with UT’s Center of Educational Leadership, an organization that trains new principles, after a somewhat tumultuous tenure with the school system. (He announced in January his intent to step down because he had become a divisive figure in the community and distracted from the district’s focus on education.)

Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas stepped up to the podium Thursday night, saying he wasn’t planning to make a speech but wanted to reassure folks things would keep moving forward under his temporary leadership.

“You have every reason to sit where you are tonight and wonder if anything is going to come from what we’ve done because there’s about to be a change in leadership,” Thomas told the crowd. “Will this be easy? Ha! It will be terribly difficult and challenging work. We have a lot of folks in Knox County and probably some in our school system that don’t even think this is a problem,” but it is, he said, calling the recommendations made by the task force “mission critical” for the school system. 

Featured photo by Clay Duda: Jessica Nelson, at right, offers input on draft recommendations presented by the Disparities in Educational Outcomes Task Force during a working session on Thursday, April 28, 2016.

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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