Less than a month into office, new Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley is taking on the challenge of reducing the number of suspensions by half. Crawley identified the issue as one of his goals the night School Board members hired him to lead the division. Now, a month into office, the city's new superintendent is already putting together a strategy to reduce the overall number of suspensions and find a way to address the disproportionate number of black male students who find themselves caught up in the disciplinary system.
"A lot of our suspensions are multiple suspensions of the same students," said Crawley. "So the question becomes how do we disrupt that to make sure that students are engaged in school and learning and they are not out of school."
In the next six months, School Board members plan to lay out a plan for how the division will address the issue as part of their strategic plan. Chairwoman Karen Graf says she wants to align programs and efforts aimed at reducing suspensions with the goal of reducing the disproportionate number of black male students who are suspended. By fall, she said, School Board members will have an idea of when they might be able to accomplish the goal of reducing the number of suspensions by half.
"It's about teaching them skills for success, and not only for academics but also social and emotional," said Graf. "We are addressing a population that might be struggling and need that reinforcement in order to be successful."
STATISTICS COMPILED by school officials show black male students are suspended at disproportionate rates in a variety of settings. For example, a black male high school student is 24 percent more likely to be suspended than other students. And that the disproportionality grows larger in the younger grades. A black male elementary school student is 30 percent more likely to be suspended. That's a disparity that has become alarming to many parents in recent years.
"I think we're going to have to look at what's happening in the elementary schools," said School Board member Bill Campbell. "That's where you want to first establish firm expectations and have consistencies in disciplinary measures."
Disproportionally is not the only problem. The raw number of suspensions has also increased in recent years. At George Washington Middle School 2, for example, the number of out-of-school suspensions almost doubled in the last year. And a school level formative discipline plan for the school shows that a third of those students had been suspended multiple times, an indication that the system of discipline was often hitting certain children over and over again.
"I would like to see suspensions go down overall," said School Board member Pat Hennig. "Interruption of education should only be done on very serious offenses."
THE SUPERINTENDENT has laid out a four-part strategy to accomplish the goal. The first plan of attack is to strengthen positive behavioral intervention supports, essentially a way of encouraging a positive environment in the classroom. This approach focuses on teaching conflict-resolution skills and decision-skills. So when students are learning about citizenship, which is one of the 83 behaviors in the curriculum, they may be given a ticket for demonstrating citizenship that they can use to purchase a reward at the end of the week.
"There would be assemblies where you would focus on responsible behaviors or respectful behaviors," said Crawley. "And then the follow-up is that teachers would have discussions with students in classrooms about these behaviors."
Another strategy is to look at alternatives to suspensions. For example, should a student be disciplined with in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension? Crawley says he wants to make sure that administrators are providing more alternatives to suspension, concentrating efforts on making sure that students continue to be educated when while they are being disciplined.
"We need to make sure there's a strong counseling component," said Crawley. "So that the students don't continue to make the same mistakes that are getting them in trouble."
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS will also play a key role in the superintendent's strategy. Crawley plans to identify specific schools to examine what kind of interventions they have in place, a process that will start next week. The elementary schools that will be under the microscope are Patrick Henry Elementary School, Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology and Jefferson-Houston School. The middle schools that will be examined are Hammond 1, Hammond 2 and George Washington 2.
"We're going to look at their trend data on suspensions and look at their current interventions," said Crawley. "And then there will be a brainstorming session to present new ideas on how they can better address issues that are put on the table related to suspensions."
Crawley also wants the concept of "restorative justice" to play a role in addressing the number of suspensions in the school system. That's a strategy that was created in the juvenile justice system that's taking a growing role in school systems across the county. This approach puts less of an emphasis on disciplinary consequences and instead puts attention toward making sure students understand the consequences of their actions.
"The last week of the month, we are going to have a team of staff from our high schools as well as the central office and we're going through a three-day training to learn about restorative justice and how we can implement it in the school division," said Crawley.