Kyrene official says data reveal is what African-American students, parents find troubling

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By Diana Nelson

Data prepared and released by officials of the Kyrene School District show disturbing trends by race, pointing to more behavioral problems and less academic achievement among black students.

At a recent board meeting, internal research analyzed and presented by Dr. Susie Ostmeyer, chief information and accountability officer, showed that black students were involved in a higher percentage of infractions than their comparatively low enrollment number should indicate.

Approximately 25 percent of the infractions, which also included suspension, involved black students.

Looking at data on students who had one or more infractions during the 2017-18 school year, Ostmeyer said black students also received more punishments than their peers.

The district should anticipate black students to commit from 7 to 13 percent of infractions because they are 11 percent of the student-body population, Ostmeyer said.

But, any student behavior—bad or good— creates an opportunity for discussion, Ostmeyer said. “In our strategic plan, we speak to a goal that is defined as an inclusive culture,” she said. “So when students are sharing messages with us, whether it’s through their behaviors or through their verbalization, they’re sharing with us that something isn’t working for them.”

Kyrene also reported that it has difficulty recruiting qualified teachers in general, so its numbers of minority teachers also are low. Currently, more than 90 percent of Kyrene’s teachers are white and seven percent are Hispanic. Another one percent identify as black or Asian.

These findings gave fodder to the Black Mothers Forum, which claims that the district needs to be more sensitive to racial bias in its teaching methods, and also to what the group’s studies indicate is uneven discipline applied to black students who become involved in altercations.

“Kyrene is not providing our black students, particularly males, with a safe and supportive environment,” said Black Mothers Forum founder Janelle Wood.

“Our goal is to partner with the district to deal with and address any inequity that is happening.

“We don’t want kids to receive punitive discipline for minor infractions, because it disrupts their time in the classroom.”

The Black Mothers’ Forum organization, formed to support children, is also concerned with the “prison pipeline,” which Wood says captures too many black males and withdraws them from society.

“Data show that black male students who don’t perform well in school frequently get into trouble, and that leads them to doing prison time.”

She started the Black Mothers’ Forum after resettling in the Valley in 2014. Wood has a background in ministry, community organizing and other avenues of public service. She is also the mother of one son.

Due to her profile in the community, Wood was contacted by parents of black students from Centennial Middle School who were disciplined last year. The incidents led to one student facing a criminal charge for engaging in a fistfight while another was encouraged to attend an alternative school.

Wood says that sometimes the schools are unknowingly applying inappropriate actions because they lack cultural understanding.

Kyrene response

Kyrene counters the allegations by saying that discipline is dispensed without regard to race, relying instead on established behavioral guidelines that are distributed to families with children enrolled in the district.

A list of those guidelines is available online at kyrene.org/cms/lib/AZ01001083/Centricity/ Domain/561/2018-19_FamilyHandbook.pdf

In an email, Erin Helm, the Kyrene district’s director of communications, offered some counterpoints to the mothers group’s statements.

“Without violating FERPA, the federal law that prevents schools and districts from sharing any private student educational record, including discipline records, I can only tell you that the recently reported accounts of individual incidents do not reflect Kyrene’s investigative findings,” she wrote.

“It’s also important to note that if the parent of a disciplined student wished to provide a FERPA waiver, the district would be able to release redacted discipline and investigative files for media review.”

Kyrene follows Governing Board policy which states, in part:

“The discipline, suspension and expulsion of pupils shall not be based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry or any other unlawful reason.”

Members of the Black Mothers Forum met with Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely last April, and Wood says that she has not been contacted again regarding her requests, which are as follows:

  • To host a school board study session to view disciplinary data;
  • To conduct a town hall-style meeting with teachers, students and administrators present to determine their feelings on safety and the learning environment in the district;
  • To reinstate a district position of equity director;
  • To review the demographics of students coming to Kyrene schools from outside district boundaries and any possible demographic correlation to discipline.

Wood also mentioned that she believed someone from her organization would be invited to become a member of the Community Council, which has not happened.

The district did have an open application process for membership on the council, according to Helm, and selected about 30 members who either live in the district or have students enrolled there.

As far the request from the Black Mothers Forum regarding an equity director, Helm said Kyrene didn’t have a director or a department of equity but did have an assistant director position from July 2015 to June of 2017.

Vesely said the assistant director position was eliminated during the 2017-18 school year “when district- level positions were reduced in order to hire academic interventionists on every school campus, to provide direct services to students and better meet their individual needs.”

Both Ostmeyer and Vesley said it would take time for the school district to show significant improvements regarding equity.

“Equity work is a district-wide responsibility that should be embedded in every function of a school district — teaching, learning, hiring, and all operations. It is not the work of a single individual, but all of us together,” said Superintendent Vesely.

But, in early October, the district issued a request for proposals to help improve equity.

The RFP is open for bids for a few more weeks, closing in mid-November. At that time, a diverse committee of individuals from both in and out of the district will review the bids.

The request specifically seeks assistance with professional- development services and materials “related to diversity, equity and inclusion” as well as “restorative discipline practices.”

Helm said the district believes the study session presentation provided a strong start to the conversation between board members and the public, who have the opportunity to speak during the public-comment portion of the board meeting.

“Kyrene wants to be a leader when it comes to equity in public education, and that work starts with transparency — an acknowledgment of where we have gaps in both achievement and discipline and a deep desire to close those gaps to ensure all students have an opportunity to excel,” said Helm.

This was the first of several planned equity presentations in Kyrene.

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