During the first half of the previous school year 367 K-2 students were suspended from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. During the same stretch this year only 48 have been.
That’s exactly what the school board demanded in August when it passed a policy requiring the superintendent’s approval before children younger than third grade could be kicked out of school for misbehavior. Members agreed that suspending hundreds of young students – most of them black boys – creates stigma and frustration that can derail a child’s academic career almost before it begins.
But reports of dramatic success at Tuesday night’s school board meeting prompted several members to question whether principals are really supporting troubled youngsters and maintaining orderly schools.
“Show your work. Prove your effectiveness,” said board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who had argued for a ban on suspensions and sought more detailed data. “Make me believe that these number changes aren’t too good to be true.”
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“My first thought was ‘Wow!’ and ‘How?’ ” said board member Ruby Jones, a retired teacher who has consistently said some children need to be removed. She questioned whether the “jaw-dropping” reduction means some teachers still face unmanageable classrooms: “We can have some unintended consequences if we do this in a real surface manner.”
Those comments brought a rare public display of frustration from Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who talked about how hard teachers, principals and central office staff have worked to bring down suspensions.
“We stopped that knee-jerk reaction that ‘We’re going to send you home.’ ... I understand that we have work to do, but I don’t want you to send the message that what people have done is not appreciated,” Wilcox told the board.
Last year the vast majority of K-2 suspensions were for aggressive behavior, disruptive behavior and insubordination – offenses that involve a judgment call on whether they’re serious to merit out-of-school suspension. Most of those suspensions were eliminated this year, though they still account for the bulk of remaining suspensions. Other causes of suspension include assault on school staff or students, weapon possession, threats, fighting and inappropriate language.
Kathy Elling, associate superintendent of school performance, described the measures schools are taking now before they resort to suspension. For instance, a troubled second-grade boy did role-playing on the type of situation that caused his outbursts, got extra supervision during difficult times of day and had two in-school suspensions for physical aggression against other children before he was sent home.
Elling said teams of specialists work with schools that are having the biggest behavior problems to help them develop alternatives to suspension.
While the total number of suspensions dropped dramatically, racial and gender disparities remain unchanged. Of the 48 children suspended, 32 were black males. That represents two-thirds of the suspended students, even though black males make up only 19 percent of the student body.
The new policy not only requires quarterly reports on K-2 suspensions but forces Wilcox to review each case where a principal recommends suspension. Sixty-three suspensions, including repeat offenses for 10 students, were approved in the first half of the year, which means Wilcox was averaging at least three reviews a week.
Wilcox told the board he plans to bring them recommendations for improving the process. He also said he’ll provide all the additional data board members requested, including school-by-school breakdowns and suspension numbers for higher grades. But he asked the board members to consider whether they’re crossing the line between making policy, which is their job, and executing it, which falls to Wilcox and his staff.
Wilcox said every time board members ask staff to produce new reports it takes them away from other work.
“If I give you data ... what will you do with it that’s within your purview as policymakers?” Wilcox asked. “Think about ‘to what end?’ when you make these data requests.”
Board member Elyse Dashew agreed that the report “almost feels too good to be true,” but voiced optimism.
“I believe I see a culture shift happening,” she said. “We will continue to study this together.”