Monday, September 23, 2013

Keeping Kids in School

Today in Texas, nearly six in 10 students are suspended or expelled at least once between grades seven and 12. Many believe that those numbers are too high.

Earlier this week, Spring Branch ISD joined with United Way of Greater Houston and an Alabama judge to begin piloting a tested school disciplinary program with a proven record of reducing the number of student classroom removals for behaviors that are not criminal.

SBISD’s plan to direct a program patterned after the Clayton County, Ala., System of Care model created by Judge Stephen C. Teske was announced Sept. 16 during the “Keeping Kids in School” community event sponsored by United Way. Judge Teske was the keynote speaker there.

“We hope that all of us working together can pull together a similar system in Spring Branch,” said SBISD Superintendent of Schools Duncan F. Klussmann, Ed.D. SBISD is committed through its key T-2-4 goal to doubling its graduates who earn either a technical, two-year or four-year college degree.

The United Way meeting included a call to action from three of Houston’s highest regarded leaders, all retired. They are Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza with the Galveston-Houston Roman Catholic Diocese, Rabbi Emeritus Samuel E. Karff of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel, and Rev. William A. Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, also emeritus.

Their call for a new conversation involving school discipline is supported by the Greater Houston Partnership, a coalition of key corporate leaders from across the region. Earlier, the partnership asked the three faith leaders to work with United Way on the school-related topic.

More than 150 people, including SBISD leadership and administrators, principals and students, attended the special Sept. 16 meeting held at United Way offices on Waugh Drive. Other area leaders represented were United Way President & CEO Anna Babin, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Texas Sen. John Whitmire, and several local Justices of the Peace.

At issue are the discipline practices involving non-criminal student offenses. The United Way reports that more than 218,000 students across the Houston area were removed from the classroom during 2011-2012 for disciplinary problems, but only 3 percent of such offenses warranted mandatory suspension.

Judge Teske’s event address was titled “When Did Making Adults Mad Become a Crime?” Critics of current in-school and out-of-school suspension policies contend that present practices involving student discipline contribute to what is referred to as the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

 Judge Teske notes that students who are suspended or appear in juvenile court are more likely to drop out of school, which increases the risks for later adult criminal behavior and associated social and economic costs.

Clayton County’s System of Care model includes a tiered discipline system with support services, such as “in school conflict” workshops, to keep students out of suspension centers, or courtrooms.

 The graduation rate in Clayton County increased 24 percent between 2002 and 2009. Since then, this model or a similar one has been replicated in several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New Orleans and Baltimore.

Judge Teske was impressed with the Houston gathering. Later in the day, SBISD principals and other district employees asked questions and shared their personal insights with the judge during a beginning dialogue on discipline topics.

“What you are doing by being here today is making a statement about who you are, and what you believe is really important. Houston and Harris County, Texas, are big stakeholders on the global scene. If you can’t produce quality graduates, you can’t compete globally,” Judge Teske said.

 In SBISD, students sometimes fall through the cracks, Superintendent Klussmann said. For example, as part of a yearly district program called Operation Graduation, Dr. Klussmann met one teenager who was working nights to pay an apartment rent and going to school during the day.

The car she was using broke down. She was ticketed for truancy. Only then did teachers realize that her parents had returned to Mexico. Their daughter stayed behind in the family apartment, determined to graduate from high school and working to pay rent.

“We got that student through graduation, and I know that she will be successful. She’s far more resilient than me,” Dr. Klussmann said. Adults need to ask more questions when teenagers enter the disciplinary system, he said.

Academy of Choice (AOC) junior, Angel Miranda enjoyed his attendance at the United Way forum.

"I can honestly say that the program was very informative and a great experience. Getting to hear from Judge Teske and getting to meet with Sheriff Garcia was just an amazing opportunity. In the program, I learned a variety of new things like stats on how suspension caused dropout rates to increase. The whole thing was a great experience and I am honored to have been part of it," he said.

Miranda attended the program with a handful of other Academy of Choice students and his teacher, Anita Wadhwa, who felt it was important that her students be present.

"We here at AOC are piloting a new model of discipline called restorative justice. Students in the Leadership Class are being trained in this philosophy, which  provides an alternative to suspension, and are learning about hot to facilitate alternative solutions when conflicts arise.Since Dr. Klussman is leading an initiative to change punitive discipline policies, it was only fitting these students attend to represent Spring Branch, Wadhwa said.

Faith leaders framed the risks involved as social, economic and spiritual. A “deep split” in civic society will occur if the current pattern of youth failure continues to occur, Rabbi Karff said.

 Archbishop Fiorenza called Judge Teske’s remarks inspiring. “You impressed me with how deeply you love young people, especially young people that are in need with their family, schools or courts,” he said. The Rev. Bill Lawson called United Way’s gathering “the basis of a social revolution” in thinking about discipline.

 State Sen. Whitmire, D-Houston, shared the podium with the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church pastor. He said that the severe reaction to bad student behavior ranks as a national problem. The longtime legislator chairs the Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee.