New Orleans — The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana released an alternative report card on New Orleans schools recently that it hopes will call attention to out-of-school suspension rates that in many cases are more than double the state average.
The analysis of the state’s data shows that 59 percent of public schools in New Orleans have an out-of-school suspension rate higher than the state average of 9.6 percent.
The report card also compares the suspension data to school performance scores, showing that 50 percent of the schools that earned an “F” have suspension rates at or above the state average.
“No one is looking at discipline as a measure of a school’s success,” said Jolon McNeil, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana’s Schools First Project.
The report card includes a list of 25 schools with out-of-school suspension rates above 20 percent for the 2011-2012 school year. That means more than 20 percent of the total student body was suspended at least once during the year.
Ten of those schools have a rate above 30 percent. The top five include Sylvanie Williams College Prep with 52.5 percent, Sci Academy with 49.2 percent, Joseph S. Clark High School with 43.2 percent, John McDonogh Senior High School with 39.9 percent and G.W. Carver High School with 38.5 percent.
“We think it’s important that the information about school discipline is transparent and that schools are accountable to the data,” McNeil said.
But Morgan Carter Ripski, president of Collegiate Academies, the charter operator that runs Sci Academy, said the numbers are not very useful or fair as comparative data.
There are a “zillion ways” they can be calculated, Ripski said, and are entirely self-reported with virtually no accountability or oversight.
“There’s no way to verify the veracity of the data,” McNeil said, noting that a better system of documentation and reporting is needed and that many schools don’t report discipline data at all.
But McNeil said the data does show a disproportionately high rate and cause for concern.
Time in class is linked to academic achievement, McNeil said — when students are in class, they are learning; when they are not in class, they are not learning.
“The research does not show that suspensions improve behavior, school climate or academic performance,” McNeil said. “It points in the opposite direction.”
Suspensions can lead to an increased likelihood students will drop out or end up in the juvenile justice system, she said.
Ripski said that when Sci Academy opened in 2008, it wasn’t going to suspend students at all but quickly realized it wasn’t the right approach.
“The behavior was not taken as seriously without attaching it to a suspension as a consequence,” Ripski said.
She said suspensions are just one tool, and only 13 percent of the suspensions at Sci Academy last year were for more than one day, Ripski said. She said there aren’t any suspensions at Sci Academy longer than five days.
Other students have a better learning environment as a result of class disruptions being removed, Ripski said.
Many students don’t get another suspension after the first, she said, and the school figures out other ways to address the needs of students whose behavior doesn’t improve after multiple suspensions — while still holding a high bar for success.
Ripski said her schools are rigorous about keeping their own data and constantly use it to make decisions and improvements. Better data and accountability across the board will help all schools improve and share best practices, Ripski said.
Tyler Whittenberg, a Tulane law student, said the available data on expulsions can be inaccurate because schools push kids out by recommending that the parents withdraw them — a course of action that won’t be recorded as an expulsion.
Whittenberg volunteers with a group of Loyola and Tulane University law students in an organization called “Stand Up For Each Other.” He said the group was started in 2010 by Loyola students as they noticed a high rate of suspensions and expulsions, particularly in Recovery School District and charter schools.
Schools can “cherry-pick kids,” Whittenberg said. “Kids are getting pushed out because they have low scores the schools don’t want.”
Whittenberg said he’s seen cases where parents are told that the students aren’t expelled but that they can’t come back.
Whittenberg said that his group has handled an average of 50 cases per year. They’ve won about 85 percent of the suspension cases, he said, and in 65 percent of the expulsion cases the students have gone back to school.
Whittenberg said accountability and consistency are major issues.
He said he’s had cases where students have been told to leave school without any paperwork and told that they will be called when they are allowed to return. He’s seen those situations last as long as 20 or 30 days, Whittenberg said.
A majority of the suspensions for the 2010-11 school year were for “willful disobedience,” Whittenberg said, “which can be anything you want.”
In one case, he said a student was kicked out for rolling his eyes.
Whittenberg said there also needs to be more regular evaluations for kids with special education needs, as by law schools cannot suspend students for actions based on their disabilities.
McNeil said that it’s important that the consequences fit the infraction.
With more than 40 autonomous governing boards in the city, there is a lot of disparity in what offense receives what type or length of punishment, McNeil said. She said a greater balance is needed between autonomy and standardization.
In the RSD’s student code of conduct, McNeil said uniform infractions were eliminated as cause for suspension, but only direct-run schools are required to follow the code. Charters can set their own.
Recently, the RSD improved its expulsion process by defining the only expellable offenses for all RSD schools and holding centralized hearings for students recommended for expulsion.
But the standardization and due process doesn’t exist in the same way for suspensions.
McNeil said she hopes that schools with low suspension rates can share what works and schools can get the resources they need to lower their rates — such as helping teachers with classroom management skills.
Whittenberg’s organization advocates counting students four times a year instead of just two. More frequent counts will not add much administrative work, he said, but will better hold schools accountable since the counts determine schools’ per-pupil dollar amount.
Ripski said the ultimate goal is to have no suspensions.
She said her school looks at data weekly to identify students and the circumstances that lead to repeated problems. The school uses restorative justice to work toward solving the root causes of problems, she said, and peer remediation to let students help each other through challenges.
This year, the school started a new program called “Sci Journey.” The program provides individualized support and counseling services to the kids with the greatest needs, Ripski, and gives students an alternative place to go when they are having difficulty sitting through class.
Therapeutic art and gardening programs are proving very effective, she said.
Suspensions focus on the deficits of children, McNeil said. For students already at risk, “The last thing New Orleans needs is a system that doesn’t build on strengths.”
The JJPL’s “Suspensions Matter” alternative report card can be found at jjpl.org. Students who have been suspended or expelled can call Stand Up For Each Other at (504) 410-KIDS (5437).