Monday, December 07, 2009

Keep Pennsylvania Kids in School

Last week, the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) released its National Resolution for Ending School Pushouts. What is "school pushout," and why is it a national problem? Many students are pushed out of schools by harsh disciplinary practices that favor exclusionary strategies like the over-use of suspension and expulsion, and create unwelcoming environments for students. When young people — often those who need the most support — are pushed out of school, they essentially lose their right to an education.

The resolution is a call to action for our school systems. It is an attempt to reframe the debate about school climate and discipline from one that favors the punishment and exclusion of children to one based on human rights.

I don't normally get too excited by bold statements about social problems. This one feels different, though. The National Resolution for Ending School Pushout is not an empty statement, but a call for a real change in our schools. The resolution goes beyond decrying the trend toward pushout to propose positive steps that can be taken to help make it possible for young people to remain on track to complete their education.

For those of us deeply engaged in work in Pennsylvania's schools, the resolution could not be released at a more critical moment. In October of 2008, the school district of Philadelphia adopted a "zero tolerance" policy under which expulsions have escalated dramatically.

Across the state, approximately 30,000 students are placed in more than 600 "alternative education for disruptive youth" programs each year. Relatively little is known about these individual programs and the experiences of the students in them.

In Philadelphia, many students are transferred to alternative schools without an opportunity to contest the charges against them. Many wait for up to six months for a decision to be made about their future. Some are ultimately exonerated, but by that time, they have been out of their regular schools for so long that catching up is difficult if not impossible. In the 2008-09 school year, 193 expulsion hearings were held, up from zero in the previous year; 166 students were ultimately expelled by the School Reform Commission (our school board). The current school year began with 90 students in limbo awaiting hearings from last school year.

The resolution calls for a different approach to creating peaceful and respectful environment in schools. It urges schools to adopt proven alternative disciplinary approaches such as positive behavior supports and restorative practices. Furthermore, it urges that the rights of students, parents and guardians be treated with respect in all school processes.

Finally, the resolution calls on public officials and school administrators to provide teachers and school staff with the support needed to bring about these changes.

One thing is certain: keeping young people engaged with school is the best thing we as a society can do.

Harold in Philadelphia

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