Suspension gap riles St. Paul school board

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 10:38 PM

About 15 percent of black students in St. Paul were suspended at least once last year, compared with 3 percent of whites.

Frustrated over the number of black students in St. Paul public schools who are suspended every year, school board members this month suggested setting stricter goals for administrators and punishing schools that fail to lower their rates.

Although black students make up 30 percent of the district enrollment, about 15 percent of all black students were suspended at least once last year. That's compared to 3 percent of all white students, who make up 24 percent of the enrollment. While the rate of suspended black students steadily dropped between September 2006 and June 2010, it spiked during the past school year.

"Most of these issues are adult behavior, which should be turned around quickly," board member Anne Carroll said at this month's committee of the board meeting. "There needs to be ramifications for this behavior."

The conversation about suspension rates has come up several times this year and is often tied to discussions about the academic achievement gap between white and minority students and goals the administration has established to close those gaps.

Though this month's discussion was spirited, no action was taken by the board. Members said they are likely to discuss it again at December's meeting.

To address the problem, the district decided in 2009 to spend about $450,000 of $58 million it received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to institute the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program.

The program requires administrators and teachers to periodically evaluate their school rules and determine which ones call for suspensions and which call for lesser punishments. They're also encouraged to be more explicit about what is expected of students in order to be successful at school.

"We're no longer going to assume that students know how to behave in school," said Tom Delaney, the district's assistant administrator for its PBIS program.

In order to be recognized by the state as a PBIS model school, administrators must, among other things, reduce suspensions and expulsions, office disciplinary referrals and increase attendance and academic achievement. That could take up to five years for a school and up to a decade for a district.

"It takes time to absorb change in practices for both adults and students," Superintendent Valeria Silva said.

Three years into the program, 16 of the district's 69 schools are 80 percent or more compliant in the PBIS program. That's more schools than they expected to have by this time but it's still not enough, Delaney said.

"This year we're doing a full-court press," he said.

No easy explanation

Administrators said reasons for the suspension disparities between races are complex. Among other things, deeply rooted stereotypes could play into administrators' attitudes toward students and students' attitudes toward administrators.

Also, a defensive attitude that's standard in a child's home or neighborhood may be interpreted as demeaning behavior at school. How a teacher interprets and responds to that attitude may be heavily influenced by a student's race.

The problems in St. Paul are a microcosm of those nationwide, Delaney said. Schools have "not always been a welcoming environment for black students" and board members and administrators agree change is necessary.

Suspensions have become a focus nationally as schools have been held more accountable for the achievement gap under No Child Left Behind.

"Suspensions are necessary to maintain a safe and controlled learning environment," Delaney said. But "when a student isn't in the school building, they're not learning."

The district's administrators, principals and teachers are currently going through "cultural proficiency" training to learn how to evaluate their own stereotypes and reflect on their treatment of people of different races.

"We're not pointing fingers here," Delaney said. "This is about fixing a system. Taking it on is going to take the entire community."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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