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Kicked Out Before Kindergarten

By Rachel Gottlieb, Courant Staff Writer
May 17, 2005

A national study being released today finds that Connecticut ranks seventh in the nation in expelling pre-kindergartners and that more than 5,100 pre-kindergartners were expelled nationwide last year.

Out of every 1,000 pre-kindergart-ners enrolled in the state, 12.3 are expelled , with 16 percent of teachers reporting that they expelled at least one pre-kindergartner over the past year.

Nationally, 10.4 percent of teachers reported expelling such young students in the same period, for an expulsion rate of 6.7 for every 1,000 students, according to the Yale University study titled "Pre-kindergartners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Pre-kindergarten Systems.'' State officials reacted passionately to the findings.

"This is another urgent wake-up call for the extraordinary need to help children and their families as soon as possible,'' said state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein. "We have to intervene in the lives of these children and their families as early as possible.''

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg called the statistics "sobering and a reason for our concern.''

The study's author was passionate, too. "Three- and 4-year-olds are barely out of diapers. No one wants to think of these children being pushed out of school,'' said author Walter S. Gilliam, a child psychiatrist with the Edward Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy at Yale. "Some children are bounced from one program to the next and parents come to view their children as education failures before kindergarten.''

The study also found that youngsters in pre-kindergarten programs are being expelled at triple the rate of their peers enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, and that expulsion rates are the lowest in programs in public schools and Head Start programs and highest in private and faith-based programs. The statistics for K-12 expulsions were collected in the 2000-01 school year and the findings on pre-kindergarten expulsions are for the 2003-04 school year, though Gilliam said he doesn't have any reason to believe the ratios would shift much from year to year.

Gilliam did not catalog the reasons for the expulsions, so it is unclear how serious or disruptive the misbehavior of the expelled students was.

Karen Hill-Scott, a pre-kindergarten consultant in California who recently designed a master preschool plan for Los Angeles, said that because preschool is optional -- unlike kindergarten through Grade 12, which are mandated by law -- students can be expelled more easily without legal challenges or having to supplement the child's education with tutors.

"There is a mandate for public education that is not there for preschool,'' Hill-Scott said during a teleconference with reporters. "K to 12 has institutional protections -- children have a right to be in those programs no matter what.''

The study also concluded that 4-year-olds were expelled at a rate of about 50 percent greater than 3-year-olds; boys were expelled at a rate more than 4.5 times that of girls, and African Americans attending state-funded programs were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian American children.

Gilliam said more 4-year-olds may get expelled from school if they misbehave in classes that include 3-year-olds because "it increases concerns that older children will hurt a younger child.''

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Connecticut General Assembly's education committee, was startled to hear of the study's findings, particularly the state's ranking in the nation. Connecticut was ranked 7th among 40 states that have state-funded pre-kindergarten programs.

"I have no reason to believe that small children in Connecticut are any less well behaved than small children around the country,'' he said. "So the excessively high rate of pre-kindergarten students being expelled clearly reflects inadequacies in the training we offer to pre-K instructors.''

Gilliam agrees. In his study, he lists recommendations to reverse the trend, including: prohibiting expulsions of children from state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and increasing teacher training in addressing children's behavioral problems. He also recommends that programs develop clear policies for helping children with behavioral problems, including providing individual classroom aides and alternative programs that offer small group sizes with highly trained teachers.

In his study, Gilliam states that when teachers have access to behavioral consultants, "the likelihood of expulsion was lower.'' In the best scenario, he wrote, teachers have direct access to a behavioral specialist, such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist, who is in their building or who makes regular visits to the classroom.

The recommendations make sense, Sternberg said. "Within the preschool setting, people are not well trained generally and they're certainly not trained to understand mental health issues and how to deal with them in the classroom,'' she said. "There does need to be more support and training for teachers.''

Fleischmann said he will direct the Office of Legislative Research to gather information for legislators to study, including successful models in other states. He stopped short of saying he would seek to ban expulsions of pre-kindergartners altogether, but did say that the extreme punishment doesn't make sense as a solution for dealing with children who have trouble controlling their behavior.

"It makes the child feel like a failure and it eliminates the opportunity for them to learn and sets them farther behind socially,'' Fleischmann said. "It most likely exacerbates the problems that the children have in kindergarten and it makes a bigger problem for the kindergarten teachers.''

Sternberg said she wouldn't necessarily favor an outright ban on expulsions, either. "I'm never behind zero tolerance in any of its forms. Within preschool, you do have to ask what could be so horrendous you'd have to expel a preschooler,'' she said. But if the programs are funded by the state, she said, then the state should provide guidelines. "There should be more direct oversight.''

The study comes out just two weeks after it was revealed that hundreds of pre-kindergartners, kindergartners and first-graders in Connecticut were suspended during the 2003-04 school year.


* Ban expulsion of pre-kindergartners from state-funded programs.

* Provide alternate programs for troubled young children.

* Improve teacher training, particularly in how to teach children from diverse cultural backgrounds.

* Study why boys and African Americans are at greater risk for expulsion.

* Intervene early to help vulnerable children

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.


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