Thursday, April 21, 2016

Suspensions and calm-down rooms in Boston

If you've been following the no-excuses debate, you should definitely check out this story by Peter Balonon-Rosen.

Last year, state data show, the school imposed 325 suspensions overall. Massachusetts schools, on average, out-of-school suspended one in 33 students. UP Academy Holland out-of-school suspended one in 11.


Of Holland’s 233 in- and out-of-school suspensions so far this year, 117 were for first- and second-graders, according to the records supplied to WBUR. The school has about 250 students in those grades. Students with disabilities substantial enough to keep them out of regular classrooms were suspended 37 times, the records show.


The teacher pointed to the school’s philosophy of punishing even small infractions, like rolling their eyes, sucking their teeth or not sitting in “scholar ready position” as setting students off.

A few points before we go on. These suspension rates are the  result of a deliberate policy by the administrators of these schools. If the CEO (yes, they have a CEO) of UP Education Network (formerly "Unlocking Potential" and I'll stop with the parentheses now) wanted to cut suspensions in half, he could do it with a conference call. That call hasn't been made yet because, though public pressure is starting to build, it still does not outweigh the benefits for the administrators.

Of course, there is also a regulatory component, particularly in cases involving the disabled.

Those processes include notifying parents before the student is suspended, holding a hearing on the suspension and, in certain cases, determining whether the student’s disability caused the behaviors, in which case suspension is forbidden. By state law, parents can appeal the suspension to the district superintendent.

For instance, Boston Public Schools’ Code of Conduct lists specific measures: Before any suspension, school staffers must document that they’ve tried discipline that keeps the student in class. Principals must notify the district superintendent in writing before any suspension of a student in kindergarten through third grade. And a student’s parents or guardians can appeal the suspension to Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang.


But UP Academy Holland, while still considered a public school, no longer reports to the superintendent of Boston Public Schools. So, rather than notifying Chang, principals are told to notify Given, the UP CEO. And if parents want to appeal, they would appeal to the CEO, not to a public official.

Calm-down rooms (which we discussed previously) are also present, along with the obligatory claim that the are seldom used.
Jayden was sent to one of the school’s “calm-down rooms.” A first-floor calm-down room is a former storage closet, still labeled “STORAGE” on an outside sign, that’s been turned into a dedicated space for timeouts.

Sometimes students stay in there alone while a staff member waits outside. The door has a small window for observation, although not every corner is visible through it. If a student is in the room longer than half an hour, the staff must notify the principal.

Malikka Williams’ son Malik attended UP Academy Holland in kindergarten. She remembers the first time she saw one of the calm-down rooms.

“Tears just started coming down my eyes, because it reminded me of a hospital ward room for psychiatric,” says Williams. “And I remember at that moment I said, ‘My God, this is not OK.’ ”

School administrators say they put students there only when they pose a danger to themselves or others. Principal Peddie says it allows students to calm down.

“We give students the space and the opportunity to self-regulate and really put themselves in a position where they feel as if they can be successful,” he says.

Quick note on the word "successful." This is a small thing but it illustrates a distinctive trait of the education reform movement. The language of the movement is very much modern corporate-speak, relentlessly aspirational. Certain words such as "success" are repeated with such frequency that they start to lose meaning.

Saying that a crying, traumatized six-year-olds should "put themselves in a position where they feel as if they can be successful” is entirely in keeping. It also shows a tendency to treat small children as components and statistics, not as people.
Eventually, Williams says, she was getting texts and calls almost every day to pick up Malik. More often than not, it wasn’t a formal suspension, just a demand that she come take him out of school. Sometimes, she says, a staff member told her that if she didn’t take Malik, they’d call EMS to do it.

“It got to the point that my phone would ring and my nerves became shot,” says Williams. “I do feel that through the numerous suspensions, calls and emergency removal threats, that you were pushing my son out.”

In January, Malik transferred to another school. Since then, he has not been suspended once.

“My son, when we pick him up, he runs to the car…,” Williams says with tears in her eyes. “He says, ‘Mommy, I had an excellent day!’ I’m so happy. Happy he’s happy.”

Good educators always strive for more excellent days.

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