NEW ORLEANS — As aggressive educational reform in New Orleans is lauded as a model for the nation, one component that garners less attention is the role high rates of out-of-school suspensions play in determining a school’s overall success.

Jolon McNeil, of the Schools First Project, said she feels that discipline practices have been overlooked, and while there is innovation happening in certain areas of education, more innovation is needed when it comes to discipline — particularly in using tools that keep students in school.

The Schools First Project is part of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and addresses what the group calls the school-to-prison pipeline. Its mission is to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions, push outs and arrests in the school system.

If there is a correlation between academic achievement and time spent in a classroom, then there has to be a correlation between out-of-school suspensions and academic achievement, McNeil argues. “If we suspend kids,’’ she said, “where is the learning happening?”

In the 2008-09 school year, data showed that only 8 percent of schools in New Orleans had out-of-school suspension rates above 20 percent, McNeil said.

Last year, 34 percent of schools had out-of-school suspension rates above 20 percent. That means at least 20 percent of the school’s student body was suspended at least once during the year.

If reform is only focused on the academic side, McNeil said, “we are neglecting the social development part of our jobs — and making sure that kids are learning how to make good decisions.”

McNeil says there is too much reliance on suspensions as a way to correct behavior. And the potential consequences can be grave.

Overuse of suspensions often pushes students out of school, she said, increasing the likelihood that they will drop out and the likelihood that they will enter the juvenile justice system, she said.

McNeil also points to the complicated educational landscape in the city, in which numerous charter operators set their own discipline policies, making it difficult to keep up with the varying rules and expectations.

Her group created a chart that puts a school’s performance score next to its out-of-school suspension rate, data released by the Department of Education. McNeil noted that most of the schools with the highest out-of-school suspension rates also have low performance scores.

Of 30 schools in New Orleans with out-of-school suspension rates above 15 percent, about two-thirds received either D’s or F’s on school performance scores. Ten of the 30 schools had suspension rates higher than 30 percent.

In the Recovery School District, seven of the 10 schools with the highest out-of-school suspension rates received D’s or F’s. One school, John McDonogh Senior High School, did not have a 2011-12 score but was given an F the previous year.

At Sci Academy, which received a B, 49.2 percent of students were suspended, a rate second-highest to Sylvanie Williams College Prep, where 52.5 percent of students were given out-of-school suspensions.

While a majority of the schools with the highest suspension rates have low scores, at Sci Academy, the score has risen along with the rate of suspensions. Moving from a D in 2009-10 to a C and then, last year, to a B, Sci Academy’s out-of-school suspension rate moved from 32.8 percent to 38.1 percent, and last year to 49.2 percent.

But Ben Kleban, the founder and director of New Orleans College Prep, the charter operator for Sylvanie Williams, said the suspension numbers do not tell a comprehensive story.

“Low suspensions don’t mean high academic performance — or vice versa,” he said.

Kleban pointed out that while the data are released by the state, it is entirely self-reported.

There is no authority holding schools accountable to report or to check that the reported numbers are accurate, Kleban said.

Thirty-seven of 73 schools reported an out-of-school rate of less than 5 percent. Seven schools are listed without any suspension data for last year.

If scores are abnormally low, it should raise questions, he said. “We’ve always reported with integrity,” Kleban said.

But Kleban argued against the assumption that students are suspended at his school because they are not wanted — he said it’s the just the opposite and that has the data to back it up.

Less than 2 percent of his students are expelled each year, and less than 2 percent drop out, Kleban said.

Kleban also points out that suspended students are expected to make up their work and that teachers offer after-school tutoring.

“Our mission is to teach kids,” Kleban said. “We don’t want them missing instructional time. But sometimes a student has to be removed from the classroom to protect the learning of others. We do our best to ensure they keep up with the material even when that happens.”

Kleban said his schools, which also include Walter L. Cohen High School and Middle School, serve one of the highest-need populations in the city. He said his schools bring in high-needs students at higher rates than other public schools in the city, and that with new students, it often takes time to adapt and understand the expectations.

One positive change McNeil noted was the Recovery School District’s standardization of the expulsion process across all of its schools, including charters. The policy was approved in April and went into effect Aug. 1.

McNeil also questioned the accuracy of the data, and said she hesitates to rely too much on expulsion data because she has come across too many instances where students are strongly advised to leave, numbers that do not get recorded as expulsions.

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education policy calls for factoring in discipline data when deciding to renew or extend charters.

When New Orleans College Prep recently was approved to open a new school, BESE noted, “While the school’s discipline procedures are clear with regard to behavior, expectations and consequences, they seem to lack positive behavior support strategies to encourage positive behavior and support students encountering behavioral difficulties. The culture of the school would be well-served by addressing this issue.”

But Kleban disagrees with that assessment and lists a variety of positive behavior enforcing programs, such as daily opportunities to accrue points; rewards, including field trips and movie days; and sending positive reports home.

The positive reinforcement programs help to balance out the strict behavior expectations, he said, and when suspensions don’t work for a student, the school works on individual behavior plans.

Kleban said his schools are devoting resources toward reducing suspensions and have implemented alternatives, including restorative practices, that will allow students to stay in school. He said he expects to cut the suspension number in half this year, and as of November had reduced the suspension rate to less than 15 percent in all schools.