Jane Sundius and Shawn Dove

School reform math in Baltimore: Fewer suspensions equal better results

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Jane Sundius and Shawn Dove
Sunday, January 2, 2011

At a time when the underachievement of black boys in this country can only be described as a national crisis, there is finally some good news. This fall, Baltimore City Schools chief executive Andrés Alonso proudly reported that black male teens in his district are staying in school and graduating in higher numbers. The announcement made headlines, and for good reason: It proves that there are successful strategies in approaching this seemingly intractable problem. We urge other cities across the country to learn from Baltimore's creative approach.

So how did they do it? School systems, local philanthropies, not-for-profit groups, government officials and others worked together with the singular goal of improving the academic lives of those who need it most.

With help from community partners such as Open Society Institute-Baltimore, the city's schools adopted a graduated system of consequences and interventions for student misconduct that takes into account the student's age, the type of misbehavior and other factors. It makes suspension a consequence of last resort. Increased funding from the state of Maryland also played an important role, along with the closure of big, failing middle schools and a concerted effort by school leaders to woo dropouts back to the classroom.

We have long known that excessive use of suspension and expulsion results in higher rates of school absence, academic failure and, eventually, quitting school altogether. Evidence also points to suspensions leading to higher incidence of arrests and juvenile detention. Once the commitment was made to address disruptive behavior in school, suspensions in the district were cut in half.

Consider: In the 2003-04 school year, fewer than one out of two black male students graduated. Baltimore schools handed out nearly 26,000 suspensions to a student body of just over 88,000 kids. Two-thirds were to boys and, reflecting the city's population, nearly all were to black students.

Fast forward to the 2009-10 school year: Two out of three black male students graduated, while the District handed out fewer than 10,000 suspensions. Importantly, far fewer were longer than five days. You would be hard pressed to find other urban districts with that kind of progress.

Research has shown that out-of-school suspensions hurt academic progress; are a major factor in students' dropping out; and because they don't teach new behaviors, fail to improve school climates. These findings don't mean that schools should ignore bad behavior. And dangerous behavior by students shouldn't be tolerated. But the data show that most incidents do not fall into that "dangerous" category and that alternatives such as in-school suspension and mediation are much more effective.

Keeping more young people in school means more time for learning. When more learning happens, more students graduate. Black males are no exception to this simple fact.

Jane Sundius is director of the education and youth development program at Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Shawn Dove is campaign manager for the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement.


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