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County leaders: Tackling high suspension rates for black, special education students requires 'change of mindset'

Increasing diversity and promoting inclusiveness is "everybody's job," said schools superintendent Renee Foose Wednesday.
Increasing diversity and promoting inclusiveness is "everybody's job," said schools superintendent Renee Foose Wednesday. (Staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

County and school leaders stressed a collaborative strategy is necessary to decrease the disproportionate number of African-American students, students in special education and low-income students suspended each year in Howard County public schools.

Encouraging inclusiveness and diversity is "everybody's job," said school superintendent Renee Foose at the school board's quarterly meeting with the Howard County Council Wednesday.

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"Sometimes when it's everybody's job, it's nobody's job," Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said.

Although overall suspensions decreased slightly between 2014 and 2015, black students are still seven times more likely to be suspended than white students. The suspension rate for blacks is around 7 percent while rates for special education students and students with free and reduced-price meals hovers around 8 percent, according to a school data.

Beginning this school year, the school system is implementing a three-year strategy to reduce suspensions overall and eliminate discipline disparities. That plan broadly chases two outcomes: creating a safe and positive learning climate and targeting schools, staff and students that need the most support.

Frank Eastham, the school system's executive director of school improvement, said tackling suspension rates is an "extremely complex" issue that requires "a change of mindset," especially for those educators who more frequently discipline students of a particular race.

"Suspensions are not the problem," Eastham said. The challenge is improving classroom instruction to engage students, ensuring the classroom environment is culturally sensitive and making sure teachers represent the school system's diverse student body, he said.

Although the school system has attempted to reduce suspensions in the past, recent analysis shows that efforts "have not done enough to reduce rates and ongoing disparities," according to a July report.

School system officials and council members agreed that suspensions should be a last resort to discipline students because of setbacks created by missed instruction time.

School board member Ann De Lacy said she was especially concerned the school system's staff does not reflect the diversity of the classrooms. Students in some Columbia schools are so segregated the schools represent "a tale of two cities," she said.

According to a county press release that referenced school system data, more than 86 percent of the newly hired teachers for the current school year are white; more than 75 percent of all certificated, management and technical staff in the Howard County Public School System are white; and more than 75 percent of school administrators are white.

Most students in the school system – nearly 41 percent – are white, according to school system data from the 2015-2016 academic year. Blacks comprise 23 percent of the student population and Asians comprise 20 percent. Nearly 10 percent of all students are Hispanic. Mixed-race students and other ethnicities make up the remaining balance, according to school system data.

By December, the school system plans to give principals and program directors access to dashboards with data on suspension rates as part of a broader push to educate school system staff about suspension rates, said Grace Chesney, the school system's chief accountability officer.

"There's a wealth of data we now have," Chesney said, adding the county's suspension rates rank lower than other neighboring jurisdictions and statewide averages.

Racial disparities mirror nationwide trends.

In 2015, Howard's overall suspension rate of 2.5 percent compared to the statewide suspension rate of 4 percent and has consistently ranked lower than the statewide average over the last several years, according to school data.

Still, County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said the data are "very concerning."

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School board member Bess Altwerger said the school system and the county must work together to connect those students with disciplinary challenges to the county's social programs and resources in order to tackle the root causes of disciplinary infractions.

Providing these resources "can't come out of the education budget," Altwerger said.

Budget shortfall

The school system will reshuffle an existing position to create a diversity coordinator position over the next several months.

In February, the school board set aside funding for the new position to oversee the school system's effort to promote cultural understanding and inclusiveness in county schools. The position would primarily lead professional development that lifts student voices and is culturally responsible, Foose said.

Meanwhile, each school department is determining how to trim their budgets and evaluate if filling vacancies are necessary after a contentious budget season left the school system with $50 million less than it requested, said Beverly Davis, the school system's budget director.

The county council and the Kittleman administration passed a $808 million budget earlier this year and found no compelling need to fully fund the school system's record-high request.

The school system has also increased student-teacher ratios from 1:19 to 1:20 in first and second grade; and 1:25 to 1:26 in third through fifth grade. Although average caps limit class sizes to 25 for first and second grade and 30 for third through fifth grade, some classes may have more students than others, Eastham said.

Generally, caps are based on averages across all classrooms.

Ball said he was concerned about the impact of those increases on classroom instruction, and the stress it added for educators and students, citing residents have raised concerns about class sizes as high as 32 students.

School system officials plan to submit a report to the school board in December outlining classroom sizes.

This story has been updated.

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