As students return to schools across Chatham County this week, it marks the culmination of two things: months of back-to-school sale advertising and an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of disciplinary policies in place at the Savannah Chatham County Public School System.
The question that's been discussed by school administrators, city officials and concerned citizens is whether the rate of out of school suspensions (OSS) has grown to a point where it is impeding the ability of many students, particularly African Americans, to receive the education to which every student is entitled.
At the August 5 School Board meeting, Dr. Quentina Miller-Fields made a presentation outlining two of the biggest issues with students, truancy and discipline, and discussing the actions being taken by the Board of Education. The BOE's goal is "to reduce the number of infractions that give rise to referrals for suspension and expulsion," according to the Dr. Miller-Fields report.
The BOE wants to proactively reduce the students' truancy rate - the number of students with more than five unexcused absences - from 14%, the level during school year 07-08, to less than 10.2% by 2012, and to reduce the number of disciplinary infractions almost 30%, from a total of 18,892 in SY 07-08 to less than 13,000 by 2012.
To help achieve their goal, the school system has installed a variety of new programs, including Response to Intervention (RTI), Positive Behavior Support (PBS), and new counseling programs, including a partnership with Gateway Behavioral Health to better evaluate issues students may be facing, whether it's a learning disability or personal problems.
"If there is something going on with the student, maybe it would be diagnosed that the child has ADD or that there are some things that have recently occurred in the home," says Miller-Fields. "Any of these things could be contributing to the child acting out at school."
Although no metric data is captured to measure the success of these programs, or understand how many students have received assistance, Miller-Fields is confident that they are having the desired effect.
"We base it on previous year's suspensions and expulsions," she says. "And I can tell you we had a very positive report that we had over 100 less OSS this year than last year. So something is working."
While the total number of high school suspensions was down last school year, the rate of suspensions is still at it's second highest rate in the last five years.
Critics of the school system's efforts argue that because no data is kept on them, they are essentially a red herring in the debate over whether students with behavioral problems are being disciplined or simply punished.
"What they do is a good job of punishing," says Alethea Raynor, a member of the African American Male Achievement Group. "They don't do a good job of discipline, which would actually teach kids, this is the wrong way, but you're gonna learn how to adjust your behavior and your actions."
The AMA is a community group of concerned citizens who have taken it upon themselves to look deeper into the discipline problems facing local schools. Since 2006, they have met every other week to comb through SCCPSS data in search of answers to questions about whether the frequent use of out of school suspensions is contributing to the dramatic achievement gap evident between different groups of students.
Among their chief concerns about the BOE is that they do not utilize the data they collect to understand why certain problems persist year after year. They also question whether the school system has a zero-tolerance practice when it comes to discipline, even if they do not have a zero-tolerance policy.
A week after Dr. Miller-Fields school board presentation, the African American Male Achievement Group gave a short presentation at the City's quarterly town hall meeting that raised some questions about the disciplinary policies of the SCCPSS, particularly how out of school suspensions seem to be disproportionately affecting African American male students.
In SY 06-07 there were over 6,000 out of school suspensions given to students from Pre-K up through 12th grade, and 85% of those suspensions were African American males, 20% higher than their total rate of enrollment in the school system. Among black males in the ninth grade 43.5% received at least one day of out of school suspension that year, and 30.7% of sixth graders.
"When a child's not in school, how can they achieve?" asks AMA member Iris Holmes-McCraw at the group's meeting the week after the town hall presentation.
While none of the group's members question the need to enforce rules, particularly for safety, they site the fact that the number one reason for out of school suspensions is tardiness, not weapons, and the number two reason was dress code violations, not drugs.
In fact, the SCCPSS has made significant improvements in regard to safety. Last year there were almost 3500 fewer disciplinary infractions, about halfway toward the 2012 goal.
According to data from Dr. Miller-Fields report, schools have particularly improved their records for safety, and from SY 07-08 to SY 08-09, there were notable decreases in incidents involving fighting, drugs, weapons and bullying.
However, there were significant increases in tardiness, classroom disruptions, disorderly conduct and disrespecting school personnel.
The AMA argues that the high rate of suspensions has weeded out some troublemakers, pushing them out of schools rather than dealing with the problem.
According to the 2007 Community Profile created by the Youth Futures Authority, there was an increase in the total number of delinquent offenses seen across the city (outside of schools) for youth ages 8-17 during the 2006-07 school year. That corresponded with a dramatic increase in the total number of out of school suspensions the same school year.
"You have a district that sets out from the very beginning disenfranchising and discouraging," says Rossie Norris. "You automatically start throwing the book at them before they even get a foot in the door, before they even understand education and the value of it."