“Fixing” struggling schools with a load of good intentions only goes so far. Strong leaders have to figure out ways to get children to show up for school and find time, teachers, and learning strategies to help them. School success is measured by student learning gains. Achievement gaps between white and black, rich and poor students must be narrowed. This is only one of the gaps leaders must close.
Take for example, student discipline. Black students are referred to school administrators for discipline infractions in disproportionate numbers. According to state data, black students are also suspended at high rates. While Blacks are 23 percent of the public school enrollment, they account for 43% of all suspensions. Forty percent of the public school students are white, but they account for only thirty percent of the suspensions.
The Florida DOE announced that they will work with districts to reduce suspensions. This suspension issue is not trivial. In 2014-15, the likelihood of 165,000 students’ ability to graduate and function as adults outside the criminal justice system was reduced by the mere fact of their suspensions.
The behavior problems, however, are real. The schools are in a quandary, and feasible alternatives are needed. The expectations for teachers to be able to defuse student outbursts without outside support are unrealistic. What do you do when students bully one another, retaliate with weapons, explode with anger at teachers over problems that occur at home?
None of this is new, and teachers here in Gainesville say that there are not only more problems, they are getting more intense. Take for example, an apparent gang related melee at a local high school involving forty students. Fourteen were arrested. This school’s statistics will look bad. At a meeting this morning at the city police station, gang activities by four national and fifteen local gangs were reviewed. These gangs start in middle school.
Our community has organized an ongoing conversation about equity problems to consider not only what is being done but what more is needed to address the culture of discipline and behavior in a school. The groups consider:
- Are teachers being trained to support children impacted by traumatic family histories?
- Are these teachers aware of and able to understand nuances of racial and cultural attitudes in themselves and in the children’s families?
- Do both parents and schools maintain high expectations for what children can achieve regardless of their racial origins or family histories?
- Are resources adequate to cover the academic, social and behavioral support for children and families?
It takes an enormous investment in teacher training and on going professional development to have a work force that can be effective in the classrooms, and this training, according to many, is inadequate. Colleges of education or other teacher training institutions have to step up to the plate. School districts have to supplement their efforts.
What are districts doing to help?
- Our district has a center where some students with multiple suspensions go so that they can continue to learn rather than sit at home.
- There are ‘in school’ suspensions where students are placed in a separate room or reverse suspensions when parents are required to spend time in school with their children. Improvements in how these in school suspensions are organized is needed.
- There are ‘at home’ suspensions for students who will not participate in the alternative forms of suspensions.
- There are experiments with in school Restorative Justice circles to resolve conflicts and other family intervention programs.
- There is a staff position to help bring cultural sensitivities into the open.
- There are any number of volunteer tutoring, mentoring, and after school programs.
It is not enough. We have to look deeper. Understanding why and by whom referrals are made can help the public and school staff focus on the effectiveness of policies to support teachers and students.
There is only so much, however, a school staff can do. When schools are located in areas where the problems associated with concentrated poverty and family dysfunction abound and students’ problems overwhelm even strong support services, current state policy is to replace principals and teachers to find a different, more effective approach to teaching, learning, and school management.
When all else fails, schools may be closed and privately operated charters open. In cities where this has occurred, such as New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, the ‘choice’ solutions have also failed. In New Orleans, charters enrollments reflect family income even more than the public schools they replaced. Thousands of children disappeared from school rolls. Student achievement continues to lag and gaps persist. Strict discipline policies result in even higher suspension and dismissal rates. Teacher turnover is twice the level of public schools.
In Florida, one third of charter schools, mostly serving low income populations, fail and close.
There was a time after school integration, in the seventies, when academic gaps grew smaller. It was a time of hope for better opportunities for all students. It did not continue once the flight to the suburbs grew large in the late 1980s. There is a lesson in that if we will look. We have replaced hope with false choices. Schools and children are labeled as failures. Parents who can, choose to leave, but their alternatives in the private sector are no better .
The schools they leave behind are in a downward spiral. All schools and teachers are tainted with the ‘something is wrong’ brush when in fact, most schools and children do well. It is time to change the rhetoric. I am going to think about slogans emphasizing positive change…..let’s see
If the only thing children see is failure, how can they hope?
I go to a school where I can see what is possible for me!
These are just musings. Let’s find examples of positive change that are more than short term spurts of super human effort or bandaids on festering social issues. How do communities promote a sense of fairness and possibility that makes our public schools too valuable to lose—a place where children and teachers want to be?