Black students and students with disabilities remained over-represented among those suspended during the first semester of the 2019-20 Madison Metropolitan School District year, according to data presented to School Board members Monday.
The new plan’s goals are to increase the number of students and families who feel a sense of belonging and safe at their school, improve fundamental behavioral practices and reduce the disproportionality in suspension data for black students and students with disabilities.
There’s work to do on those goals, based on the data presented Monday. That’s especially true for suspension disproportionality, where a large gap remains when looking at the district’s demographics and the students who receive suspensions.
“Our data shows painfully slow progress in the right direction, but it will take us years at this rate to close that gap,” said Jay Affeldt, director of student and staff support.
Board member Savion Castro said the data is "evidence of racism in our schools" that needs to be looked at "through a lens of public health." Other board members said it shows a need for a frank and direct conversation about race in the district.
“We have invested a lot of money,” said board member Ananda Mirilli. “If we continue to have the sort of dismal progress and nothing else changes, it’s going to take us about 15 to 18 years to get to proportionality. That’s absurd.”
The plan, which replaced the Student Code of Conduct, has been controversial. Some critics have said it has contributed to a chaotic school environment, while others have questioned the district’s implementation and teacher training tied to the initiatives involved.
Sara Knueve, who worked as a Positive Behavioral Systems coach at Glendale Elementary School and district-wide as a teacher leader in student and staff support, said the district needs to do a better job of looking at successful classrooms and schools around the district that are seeing fewer disparities.
“We do have schools where the data doesn’t look like this, and I think we need to be so much more curious about those schools and those classrooms and study what it is students are feeling in those spaces,” she said. “We spend so much time admiring and being not pleased with the outcomes, and I do know there’s pockets of success. How can we lift that?”
Spending on the plan has increased since 2016, but dropped from last year to this year, according to the presentation. The fiscal year 2020 budget includes $5.2 million in BEP resources, $4.8 million of which is dedicated to personnel through 64.44 full-time equivalent staff positions. The non-personnel allocations increased to $421,647.75 from $337,267.16 in fiscal year 2019.
The so-called foundational practices include four main areas: Culturally Responsive Teaching, Restorative Justice, Social Emotional Learning and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports.
“We believe that those four things are sort of unique and worthy of individual attention within a school community,” Affeldt said. “But they also overlap.”
Suspensions remain disproportionate
The first semester data presented Monday showed out-of-school suspensions increased for a fifth straight year, to 1,524 from 910 in the first semester of the 2015-16 school year.
The BEP aims to avoid punitive measures like out-of-school suspensions that keep students out of the classroom. In-school suspensions are at their lowest level over the past five years this year at 1,055.
Both types of suspensions are given to black students and students with disabilities at a rate at least three times more than their representation within the overall student population.
Among the district’s overall student body, 18% are black. Yet 57% of those who received out-of-school suspensions this year and 54% of those with in-school suspensions this year are black. Similarly, students with disabilities make up 15% of the district’s student body but 52% and 46% of out-of-school and in-school suspensions, respectively.
Those percentages are slightly better than two years ago — when 57% of students receiving an out-of-school suspension were students with disabilities and 62% were black, for example.
White students, meanwhile, made up 11% of out-of-school suspensions and 13% of in-school suspensions while being 42% of the student population.
Board member Ali Muldrow said the data showed more about school staff than about students’ behavior, and made it seem like, “We are really excited to discipline black students and seem far less compelled to discipline or suspend or expel white students.”
“I have argued over and over again that we don’t have any behavior data, we have discipline data. What we have here is not about how students behave, it’s how we behave,” Muldrow said. “It’s a somewhat disheartening representation of where we are at, though I think it’s an accurate representation of where we are at.”
Climate survey data not improving
Over the past three years, neither the sense of belonging or feeling safe at school has moved in the direction officials would have hoped, while black students and families remain less likely to respond positively on those questions than their white counterparts.
The “feelings of safety” question for students, for example, dropped from 67% in the 2016-17 school year agreeing or strongly agreeing they felt safe to 62% in the 2018-19 school year. The drop has happened at all three school levels, with elementary going from 72% to 70%, middle from 64% to 60% and high from 64% to 55%.
Board member Cris Carusi said any percentage of students who don’t feel safe at school is a problem, and asked staff to ensure they understood what “safety” meant to students answering the question, whether physical or social emotional.
“Until we get that number (feeling unsafe) close to zero, I’m concerned,” Carusi said.
In 2018-19, 62% of students responded they agreed or strongly agreed they felt a “sense of belonging at their school,” down from 69% two years earlier. Again, the drop existed at each level, from 72% to 70% at elementary, 64% to 57% at middle and 69% to 58% for high school.
Knueve said when diving further into the data by asking follow-up questions of kids, especially at the elementary level, they found “belonging” was often tied to academic engagement.
“When our elementary black students reported their highest sense of belonging was when they felt most connected to the academic content,” she said. “The closer we were getting (to) the mark about internalizing that identity as scholar, scientist and reader, the higher the belonging.”
Affeldt said improving all of the outcomes involves staff having the right mindset as they work with students.
“I can’t help but come back to relationships, there’s just no substitute for it,” Affeldt said.
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