Houston School Board Refuses To Ban Suspensions

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Despite the fact that school boards across the country have banned school suspensions, Texas has yet to join the growing trend. Five Houston ISD school board members voted to keep school suspensions as a last resort for teachers who are “deal(ing) with kids who they can’t contain” in pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms. The rejected plan also included provisions for a team of specialists and $2 million in classroom management training for HISD teachers.

In lieu of the ban, HISD decided to retain school suspensions of second grade and under students as a “last resort.” Of 2,673 reported disciplinary incidents during the 2014-2015 school year, 87 percent involved youth considered to be economically disadvantaged or at risk, and 84 percent were male. 70 percent of the youth disciplined with suspension were African-American even though black youths comprise only 25 percent of the HISD student body.

The school board’s initial proposal was laudable. It proposed the suspension ban as a positive approach to deescalating conflict in classrooms. It called for more accountability and more disciplinary data in an effort to develop school-specific annual plans to reduce misbehavior and rectify inequities. Encouragingly, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called for a more empathetic approach to discipline, saying, “We understand better now than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. We must take a hard look at how we are handling these issues to ensure we’re not contributing to an already stressful situation for these students.” Furthermore, schools with lower suspension rates have been found to have higher achievement rates and narrowed achievement gaps, while schools with higher suspension rates see the opposite effect.

The school board’s decision was not without dissent. Other board members and teachers voiced opposition to suspension. HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones called suspension an “ineffective” deterrent. Voicing concern for students at-risk for the school-to-prison pipeline, she said, “They go home. There’s nothing at home for them. They come back and it’s even worse. I cannot vote for continuing to perpetuate the pipeline to prison, not just for African-American children, but for any child.”

A similar article appeared earlier this week on Houston Public Media.

Harlem Children’s Zone: Geoffrey Canada’s Efforts to Break Generational Poverty from the Start

This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

A great deal of today’s knowledge on the benefits of early childhood education stems from a research project commenced nearly fifty years ago in a small Michigan town called Ypsilanti.

The Perry Preschool Project, developed by a school administrator named David Weikart, examines the lives of 123 African Americans born into poverty in the late 1950s that were “at high risk of failing school”:

From 1962–1967, at ages 3 and 4, the subjects were randomly divided into a program group that received a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach and a comparison group who received no preschool program. In the study’s most recent phase, 97% of the study participants still living were interviewed at age 40. Additional data were gathered from the subjects’ school, social services, and arrest records.

The preschool program had an academic focus, aiming to teach low-income students some of the basic skills needed for success in the early grades. Teachers also focused on the students’ cognitive development. Students in the “preschool” group were active participants in their education. The study is innovative because it is still yielding data; every few years, researchers interview and track down data about the program’s participants. At age 40, the contrast between the “non-preschool” and “preschool” groups is staggering (see graph below).

Source: HighScope (http://www.highscope.org/)

HighScope has also put together an excellent video and a comprehensive report about their research results for their Perry Preschool Project participants through age 40. For those interested, the HighScope website has a wealth of detail about the lives of the participants. In sum, the results show that participants in the “preschool” program group have performed better throughout their formal education, have made more money at work, and have had more stable family lives.

Why is all of this important? Despite these stunningly clear findings, legislatures across the country still don’t establish and fund proper early childhood programs. Programs like those studied in the Perry Preschool Project can help low-income students compete with their more affluent peers if the support continues throughout their education. In 1965, the federal government allocated Head Start funding for states. However, the recent economic downturn made abundantly clear that pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs are often the first programs to be cut. Pre-K and similar programs are often seen as “optional.” Families in some cities are even having difficulty enrolling their children in kindergarten programs, which are considered optional under the law in many states (including Texas).

In 1997, Geoffrey Canada took matters into his own hands. He founded Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an organization that pulls together all of the educational and social services that could help low-income families in one Harlem neighborhood. Canada’s program, the focus of the recent documentary Waiting for Superman and Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes, serves families inside a 97-block Harlem neighborhood (called a “promise neighborhood”). The premise of HCZ is that kids born into poverty need support from cradle-to-college (and beyond). Therefore, HCZ focuses on the entire family and all of the issues that burden the typical low-income communities. HCZ’s “umbrella” services start at birth and go above and beyond any traditional educational program.

Since founding Harlem Children’s Zone in 1997, Canada has started charter schools in his Harlem neighborhood. However, he also serves families whose children attend other area schools (as long as they are in the 97-block radius). David Brooks has written in the NY Times about the dramatic gains achieved by students attending HCZ schools and/or receiving HCZ services:

Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.

Geoffrey Canada has found an approach to educating low-income students that works. Canada has found a way to break the cycle of poverty.

The most impressive part of Canada’s story is that much of his funding comes from private sources. Canada’s groundbreaking success has come without endless amounts of taxpayer dollars funding his program.

Now, Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has finally started to catch the attention of national policymakers. Several years ago, President Obama approved grants for 20 cities to establish “promise neighborhoods” in areas with especially high-need. Neighborhood Centers, Inc. has led Houston’s “promise neighborhood” in a 3.7 square mile section of the Gulfton area. Results from Houston’s “promise neighborhood” are starting to trickle in, and it looks good for kids involved with the program.