Should preschool suspensions and expulsions be banned?

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Eric Gorski on May 25, 2016

When you hear about suspensions and expulsions, high school may immediately come to mind. But as a number of recent stories and reports have pointed out, preschoolers are far more likely to be kicked out of school than students in any other setting.

Dig a little deeper, and other disturbing patterns emerge. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that minorities and boys are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

Against the backdrop of early childhood suspensions and expulsions attracting greater attention, Chalkbeat staged an event Tuesday featuring early childhood experts who have seen the issue play out in policy and practice.

About 100 people filled a room at the headquarters of Mile High United Way in Denver to hear from four speakers:

  • Rosemarie Allen, who formerly served as director of the state’s Division of Child Care and is now a professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. (Read an earlier Q and A with Allen here).
  • Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
  • Cassandra Johnson, president of the Denver affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute.
  • Rhonda Williams, executive director of the Colorado School Counselor Association.

Here are three takeaways from the event, which was moderated by Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke and sponsored by the Denver Preschool Program and Qualistar, which rates preschools.

What does race have to do with it? Everything.

Those are Allen’s words. She was suspended herself a number of times as a young girl — once for digging a big, deep hole on the playground and another time for ducking into the boy’s restroom to check it out. In her keynote address, Allen challenged the audience to talk honestly about race, the first step in breaking a cycle that leads to racial disparities.

Allen made clear she does not believe “our teachers are coming to school with racial ideologies and imposing that on children.” Rather, she points to “implicit bias,” an unconscious mental process resulting in feelings and attitudes about people based on race, age and appearance. Those biases, in turn, lead to stereotypes, discrimination and teachers who get so tired of the behavior of children, they suspend or expel them before they even reach kindergarten.

Allen urged the audience not to shy from talking about race out of fear of offending. “Saying, ‘We’re all the same,’ or ‘I don’t see color’ fails to acknowledge differences others experience,” she said. “ … See me. See that I’m black. To not notice means you don’t notice me.”

Whether to ban preschool suspension and expulsion is an emotional, divisive issue.

The starkest contrasts among the speakers emerged over the question of whether suspension and expulsion has any place in early childhood settings. Johnson, of the National Black Child Development Association, was strongly in favor of banning the practice. “We like to use the word ‘safety’ and put that issue on the child, versus the climate of the classroom that child is in,” she said.

But Williams, of the Colorado School Counselor Association, was wary of such a bright line. She said suspension and expulsion is “never a good thing. It’s a last resort.” But she also warned against taking away what could be a legitimate option and “tying an educator’s hands.”

The Children’s Campaign’s Jaeger also offered words of caution, saying “a blanket solution that says, ‘No, never, ever’ across all settings is perhaps not reflective of the diversity of early care and learning.” Behavior is the No. 1 reason children are disciplined in early grades — what could be a genuine concern, he noted. The No. 2 reason? “Willful defiance.” That, Jaeger suggested, is in the eye of the beholder.

There is not one path forward but many … and a little money wouldn’t hurt.

So what to do? Several ideas were put on the table aimed at helping reduce early childhood suspensions and expulsions, and tackle racial disparities.

Allen and others promoted “culturally responsive practices” that place the child at the center of all teaching and learning. Allen cited as an example worth emulating a practice promoted by Denver Public Schools teacher Kyle Schwartz (follow her on Twitter here). The third-grade teacher sent her kids home with a piece of paper bearing the words, “I wish my teacher knew …” and asked them to fill in the blanks. The answers were heartbreaking and illuminating: “I didn’t have a friend to play with me.” “Sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom is not around a lot.” “I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”

A desire for stronger public funding of education was another theme. Colorado generally shows up near the bottom of state rankings on funding. In 2016, Colorado was ranked 42nd in per-pupil funding by Education Week, a national news organization covering education policy. Ballot measures to loosen the grip of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and district bond and mill levy ballot questions could provide relief.

Jaeger noted: “We are asking people to devote their lives to supporting young children at the most important and critical time, and we don’t compensate them particularly well or invest significant resources in that setting.”

One area of need is being addressed by increased state funding. The number of early childhood mental health consultant positions funded through Colorado’s general fund will soon double thanks to a $1.4 million infusion from the state’s child care block grant approved by the legislature, as we noted in a recent story.

“The Discipline Debate” was broadcast on Facebook Live. You can watch it here in two parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo credit: Nicholas Garce/Chalkbeat

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