Suspensions, culture, and high fives

So there’s this neighborhood high school in Philadelphia. The Principal decides they are going to really stress “culture”. Notably, culture always means something authoritarian, never Shakespeare or wine tastings. The decision is made that that the two administrators directly under the Principal will stand at the door each day to make sure every student in the building is ready for school. No uniform? Go home. No backpack? Go home.

This principal is not alone, and the head honchos at the District get wind of this. They too want to promote a “culture”, which commands all the Spartan leanings so long as no one has to defend them to a newspaper or judge or social worker or anyone. It is so decreed (in an email, Friday at 3:30pm): Any child who sets foot on your property has to stay.

The next Monday, the two administrators are on opposite ends of the street meeting the kids. No uniform? Go home. No backpack? Go home.

I was reminded of this anecdote as the District announced, with great fanfare, that schools were no longer allowed to suspend children in Kindergarten. This decision was hailed as a great step. Ironically, the loudest revelers came from the charter schools who bragged that their school culture is built on the tears of kids suspended for the wrong color socks. Gritty.

For those of you not in the ed circles, yes there are a lot of Kindergarten suspensions. Yes, it’s insane. Yes, African American and Hispanic kids, especially females, are far more likely to be suspended when their white peers might receive a stern warning.

This is good. But don’t count me in the high-five parade.

Just like banning cell phones doesn’t teach a child how to focus on learning, banning a punishment doesn’t help faculty learn how to cope with a difficult child. I’m hopeful that schools will build towards discipline and away from punishment. But there’s that principal and the assistants, telling kids to go home. My hunch? More in school suspensions, more off-the-books suspensions, more “special rooms” with work-packets. More of the same.

Please don’t let teachers off the hook. Before education reform and charter schools, the online dialogue was discipline. Phrases like “home training” and “can’t save them all” were encouraged. Importing “broken windows” from police to school came from an educator (who now regrets his role in it).

But have some empathy for these educators. They have huge classes. They have a massive number of kids moving in and out of the system. They are under tremendous pressure. They very well may love the kids and they very well may hate suspensions, but they also know that when Debbie is out of the room every kid seems to do better.

This is the reality of schools. Changing the rule doesn’t change these facts. What needs to be done? First, authentic, long term training on alternative approaches. That’s a whole year, not one afternoon. Second, smaller classes with more help. Many of these kids need attention more than anything else, and can feel terribly unfair when the classroom is stuffed to the gills. Third, recruit more teachers from the neighborhood, and push cultural competency as a skill like reading instruction.

Declaring we are no longer suspending 5 year olds is fine. But declarations are just one step above a petition – cheap, risk-free, and practically meaningless.

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