Anyone who has ever taught a classroom full of children knows the power of the individual student to halt education for every person in the room. When this behavior is habitual and unchanging, the best answer for both that student and the class alike may be to remove the child from the setting. When this is paired with serious infractions such as violence, drugs, presence of weapons etc., one of the solutions widely used, and in cases mandatory in my state of Texas, is an alternative school setting often on a separate campus. In Texas this is called a DAEP, or Disciplinary Alternative Education Program. This is a mandatory punishment linked to various zero-tolerance offenses, as well as accessible by discretion of the administrator. This program has been in place for many years with mixed results I believe it is time to ask ourselves; Do DAEP schools adequately serve their role in our educational system, and ultimately, our students?
The statistics are not good. In Texas in 2011 there were just shy of 56,000 individual DAEP Students. With population growth and students with multiple referrals, this lead to around 110,000 placements in 2012. Considering there are somewhere around 5 Million children attending school in Texas, the number of placements seems reasonable. However these figures become starker when you look at the demographics. The Number of black Students in Texas hovers around 15% according to a 2011 report. The number of black Students in DAEP last year was 24%, over 75% of which were discretionary placements. These numbers are worse for economically disadvantaged students, crawling towards 80% of overall placements. In Contrast, for the 33.3% of white students in Texas, 20% are represented in DAEP, of which 63% were discretionary.
There is an argument that this is a reflection of cultural expectation and importance of education among certain demographics as well as access to resources and assistance. Assuming some small amount of validity to this argument, if the system is working appropriately, these known factors should be taken into account.
The impact of these skewed demographics is lessened if the function of the school is being served. Unfortunately this data isn’t much better. Of the 56K students tested in 2011 in a DAEP setting, 37.6% met the minimum standard. More telling, the percentage drops from 41% to 29% for students with longer placements in these schools. The numbers again are disproportionately lower among minority demographics and economically disadvantaged students. In the testing we require of our students, our alternative educational settings are not helping these kids be academically successful.
Going back to the callous arguments, wouldn’t you expect somewhat lower academic production from these students? After all, if they are in this school, they likely do not or cannot invest in their education at the same level or have family situations that emphasize this importance. Maybe the best we can do is remove them from being a distraction to other students, bring them into a setting where they are not a danger to each others or themselves, and do what you can to not let their academics slip away. But this doesn’t happen either. Gang activity in these schools is constant. Every year students are involved in significantly higher percentages of violent activity and drug use than at a standard campus. Gang recruitment, especially among middle school age children, is incredibly high. Students that go to these schools for minor infractions typically come out involved in higher levels of dangerous and violent activity than previously seen. Recurrence is about 30% of students getting more than one placement within the same school year, higher among minorities and economically disadvantaged students. It is well documented that in the school to prison pipeline, this is the first stop.
If these schools are going to serve a function in our educational system, they by necessity have to be the absolute best schools. They have to have educational approaches that differ from the standard industrial revolution classroom of seats, texts and tests. The teacher to student ratio has to be lower than usual. The extra curricular programs have to be dynamic, and widely available. The investment in each individual student has to be more significant on every possible level.
I am well aware that these are not easy students to teach. When I taught in Houston ISD, I was five minutes from our DAEP School and it sometimes felt like we had an open pipeline to and from our door to theirs for our most difficult students. These kids were my kids. It was easy to want them out of the classroom. It was easy to write them off as someone else’s problem. It took more from each teacher individually to keep working with them, and the system made it easy to get them out. It was easy to give up on them. And it was easy to look the other way when they were boiled down to percentages on a page.
However it’s not easy for everyone. It’s hard for these students. It’s hard to study. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s hard to weigh basic needs of security and hunger and shelter against homework assignments. It’s hard to catch up when you’ve been so long behind academically. It’s hard to get adults to invest in you. It’s hard to be seen as just a kid with your own particular story and needs. It’s hard to know that you are treated by the system as less worthy than the other students and friends for whom it seems to come easier.
As of right now, these schools don’t work. They need reform. They need attention. They need investment. If we can’t do this, than we need to find a different answer, because these kids are the ones that suffer. Let us not miss our opportunity to serve all of our students to the best of our abilities by looking the other way when our system makes it easy.