Forum seeks to make pearls of troubled youth

by Amy Kingsley

If there was a single lesson veteran educator Elsie Leak wanted to impart to participants in a forum on school suspensions and expulsions held on June 2, it’s the one taught by a humble bivalve.

‘“Pearls come because a piece of sand comes in and irritates that oyster,’” said Leak, the associate superintendent of curriculum and school reform services of the NC Department of Public Instruction. ‘“Children who are at risk often become an irritant to teachers. What we need to do is cover them with something kind and precious so they won’t irritate us anymore.’”

For the past two years, students in nine North Carolina counties who have irritated school officials enough to earn long-term suspensions have had the opportunity to participate in a pilot program emphasizing service learning. The Community Service Project addresses problems associated with long-term suspensions, including lack of structure and supervision. Students banned from school often get involved in criminal activities in the community and are at higher risk of dropping out.

Minority students, especially males, get suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates, according to data provided by the NC Department of Public Instruction. Assigning students to community service instead of simply kicking them out of school can halt the cascade of consequences from suspension and successfully prepare students to reenter the classroom, according to evaluations of the program.

Marguerite Peebles, the section chief for school safety and climate for the NC Department of Public Instruction, asked those in the audience of 200 to raise their hands if they’d ever been suspended.

‘“The people who raised their hands don’t have horns sticking up out of their heads,’” she said. ‘“They look like you and me. So do the kids who are making poor decisions.’”

Participants met on the campus of NC A&T University to discuss model practices for a community service project in the morning and to transform lessons from the programs into strategies for reducing suspensions.

The project emerged two years ago out of the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community Act, a federal law that provided funds and parameters for the county programs. Local educational agencies in Beaufort, Caldwell, Carteret, Cumberland, Guilford, McDowell, Rutherford, Wake and Winston Salem-Forsyth County Schools partnered with historically minority colleges and universities to implement programs unique to each county.

Students were placed at work sites in non-profit agencies doing educational and youth development, poverty and economic development and health and human services. In addition to work, the students journaled their progress in a workbook designed by the NC Department of Public Instruction.

The federal grant money stipulated that the service learning could not contain an academic component, Leak said. Studies have shown that suspended students respond better to nonacademic community service, she added. Part of the goal is to convince the students, who have often suffered failures in the classroom, that they do have something positive to contribute to the community.

Although the program succeeded in returning students back to their home classrooms (97 percent of program participants returned compared to 31 percent of nonparticipants), forum organizers sought ways to extend its lessons to prevention.

‘“This program provides skills and training geared toward addressing the characteristics of chronic disciplinary problems,’” said Brenda Hall, an education professor at A&T.

Leak described the school as the second safety net. The family serves as the first and the community is the third.

In that spirit, the work group dedicated to brainstorming ideas on how to lower long-term suspension rates developed a number of ideas for how schools can better meet the needs of at-risk kids. The members of the workgroup gathered in three groups to brainstorm ideas onto butcher paper. In other rooms, similar workgroups tackled the subjects of school safety and dropout prevention.

The suspension group suggested abolishing ‘“zero tolerance’” policies that can cause first time offenders to lose a semester or more of classes. In addition, the group recommended mandatory poverty awareness training for teachers, the establishment of paid student advocates and more interaction with families.

At the end of the program, all three work groups gathered to present their ideas for what one participant described as ‘“revamping the school system as we know it.’”

‘“If oysters thought ‘I don’t want to waste my substance on this irritant’ we would never have any pearls,’” Leak said. ‘“That oyster instead would just be irritated.’”

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