Alonso given wider power

The Baltimore Sun

Furthering his hands-on approach to running education in Baltimore, city schools chief Andres Alonso secured the authority last night to sign off on any student suspension lasting more than a week.

Until now, principals have had the discretion to suspend a student for up to two weeks. Under the policy change that the school board approved, they must obtain permission from Alonso or his designee to suspend a student for longer than five days.

The board voted unanimously, with one abstention, in favor of the change. A central office administrator has always had to sign off on a long-term suspension. But now, a long-term suspension will be defined as a suspension longer than five days, rather than 10.

"If being in school is the name of the game, then why have we found it permissible for anyone to say you're gone for 10 [days]?" Alonso said.

The vote came the same night as the school system released figures showing that suspensions increased last academic year, after several years of declines. There were 16,752 incidents leading to suspensions last school year, up from 15,025 in the 2005-2006 academic year but down from 26,057 in 2002-2003.

Of the suspensions last school year, 15,230 were short-term suspensions of 10 days or less, while 1,522 were long-term suspensions or expulsions. (Expulsions, in which a student is out of school for 45 days or more, also require central office approval.)

The policy change is representative of the hands-on leadership style that Alonso has exhibited since becoming chief executive officer of the city schools in July. He has insisted on being personally involved in virtually every aspect of the system's operation, from reviewing the contracts submitted to the school board to interviewing principals before he agrees to appoint them.

Critics have said he is slowing up routine processes, but Alonso - known for working virtually around the clock - says that to reform the system, he needs to understand all its components and be assured that the right people are in place. At the same time, Alonso has said he wants to give more authority to principals, and hold them accountable for the results.

Alonso has designated his new chief of staff, Bennie E. Williams, to help him review long-term suspensions and expulsions. Previously, the cases were decided by the system's student support services office.

In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Alonso explained why he wants to change what constitutes a long-term suspension: "It's the idea that right now it's possible for a school to suspend a child for two weeks and there is no review process." He said that's "out of line" with the impact of a student missing school.

Students out of school on suspension not only fall behind academically, but they often end up in criminal and other trouble. While special education students are legally required to get extra attention while on suspension, those without such disabilities are simply sent home with a "learning packet." Alonso said he'd like to see more students who are placed on suspension continuing to work on academics in an alternative setting.

"In the meantime," he wrote in the e-mail, "we need to assert the importance of students being in school, while at the same time acknowledging the need to provide safe and focused learning settings."

In recent years, teachers in Baltimore and around the state have complained about being pressured not to suspend students, for fear that schools would be labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal government leaves it up to individual states to define what constitutes a persistently dangerous school. Maryland, with one of the most stringent definitions in the country, defines it by the number of suspensions for violent offenses - not by the number of violent incidents.

"It seems to me to suspend a child for not coming to school is to reward them," Alonso said at last night's meeting. "You never reward a child for wrongdoing."

So far, all of Maryland's persistently dangerous schools have been in Baltimore. The state first put 16 city schools on a watch list in the summer of 2004. The next academic year, 2004-2005, was when the Baltimore schools saw their biggest drop in suspensions. The number of incidents resulting in suspension fell from 26,310 in 2003-2004 to 16,625, according to the data presented last night.

The data also show that many students are suspended multiple times. Last academic year, 9,854 students were responsible for the 16,752 incidents leading to

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Suspension increase

The number of incidents in Baltimore city schools that led to suspensions had been declining before an increase last academic year:

Academic No. of

year incidents

2002-2003 26,057

2003-2004 26,310

2004-2005 16,625

2005-2006 15,025

2006-2007 16,752

Source: Baltimore City Public School System

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