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Keep them in class [Editorial]

It's heartening that Baltimore City's new schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, has made limiting the number of out-of-school suspensions for the system's youngest children a priority in his first weeks on the job. In doing so he has sent a strong signal to principals and teachers that they need to find alternative methods for disciplining troublesome or disruptive students and that kicking kids out of school is rarely effective and should only be used as a punishment of last resort.

This week, Mr. Thornton told school board members that from now on principals will be required to consult with the central office before suspending pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Last year Baltimore schools suspended more 4- and 5-year-olds than any other jurisdiction in the state, a practice many educators believe is too extreme for such young children and may be counterproductive as well.

That's because one of the goals of early education is to teach children the basic social skills they'll need to function in a classroom setting. But they can't learn those skills if they're not in school, and their absence is likely to set them up for more serious problems in later grades. In nearly all cases it's preferable to keep them in school where educators can continue to engage them than to simply send them home — particularly since dysfunction at home may well be the root of the misbehavior in the first place.

Realistically, there's very little that 4- and 5-year-olds can do that poses a genuine threat to the safety of their teachers or classmates. Mr. Thornton acknowledged that students who bring weapons to school are an exception and should be dealt with accordingly, but very few pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students fall into that category. In all other cases, Mr. Thornton says, it's the responsibility of principals and teachers to find out what's causing the unwanted behavior and address those problems rather than suspend the student.

That's in line with a broader Maryland Department of Education policy to encourage school districts across the state to reduce the use of out-of-school suspensions as a means of disciplining children. Students who are suspended not only are more likely to continue having difficulty adjusting when they return, they are also more likely to fall behind in their classes, have to repeat a grade, drop out of school altogether or get into trouble with the law.

The state board of education is also rightly concerned by the demographic disparities in out-of-school suspension policies, which disproportionately affect low-income, minority and special education students. Black and Latino children are suspended at far higher rates than their middle-class white peers, and the difference is reflected in the academic achievement gap along racial and class lines. Reducing such disparities is crucial to raising achievement levels for all Maryland students, and it needs to start in the earliest grades.

Nothing in what Mr. Thornton is proposing would force teachers to suffer indefinitely under unsafe or extremely disruptive conditions, or for other children to be held captive to a troubled student who monopolizes the teacher's attention. There are a range of other ways educators can deal with unruly children, including in-school suspension, after-school detention or out-of-school classes that children are still required to attend. Mr. Thornton needs to ensure that the district is providing teachers with the kind of support they need to take advantage of such alternatives. But the general rule should be that in all but the most egregious cases sending very young children home because of a behavioral problem is inappropriate.

By issuing this new policy directive at the very beginning of his tenure, Mr. Thornton has shown that he understands how much is at stake for Baltimore's children and that he is committed to building on the reforms put in place by former schools CEO Andrés Alonso. In his effort to boost student achievement levels, Mr. Alonso made it a priority to keep as many children as possible in school, where educators can continue to work with them. That policy is reflected in the significant gains city students made in recent years. Mr. Thornton's decision to focus now on the school system's youngest children is a logical extension of that strategy, and it will benefit them throughout their school careers.

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