Yale University recently announced that it would devote millions of dollars to help New Haven public high school graduates attend college. When the program is fully funded, qualifying students will get a free ride to the University of Connecticut or any school in the Connecticut State University System and significant assistance at the state's private universities. It is a tremendous opportunity. Sadly, it's one that many New Haven students won't be able to take advantage of.
The New Haven Promise program requires a 3.0 average, community service and a 90 percent attendance rate. All seem like reasonable requirements for such generous support. Unfortunately, many students in New Haven are prevented from achieving that attendance rate by the schools themselves.
In the 2008 to 2009 school year, 2,701 of the city's 19,847 students received out-of-school suspensions. More than 13 percent of students were told at some point during the school year that they were not welcome to attend. That's 13 percent of students who fell behind, or fell further behind, because adults decided the best way to get them to behave in school was to ban them from it.
New Haven is certainly not the only school district to rely heavily on suspension to discipline children. Connecticut children miss an incredible 250,000 school days a year because of suspension. A Connecticut Voices for Children study found that suspension rates ranged between 1 percent and 22 percent across our state's towns and cities. Two-thirds of those were for minor offenses, such as talking back. The second leading reason for suspension in Connecticut schools is truancy. That's right: The punishment for skipping school is a day off, or possibly several days off.
Out-of-school suspension is often used against children who are struggling academically, including those with special education needs. In other words — the kids who can least afford to miss classroom time. Suspension is a strong predictor of involvement with the juvenile justice system, as children find themselves unsupervised during the day.
In-school arrests are also becoming more common, despite an overall drop in juvenile crime. Last year, 270 New Haven students were arrested at school. Most school-based arrests are for minor rule infractions, playground scuffles and other problems that would have been handled without using police and court time a generation ago. A child who has a court appearance in high school is four times as likely to drop out as one who doesn't.
Schools have a right and an obligation to keep order in their classrooms. But most education experts are quick to point out that exclusionary tactics such as suspension and arrest do little to foster cooperation or even safety within schools. Every teacher needs access to the training and supports to manage behavior well while keeping students where they belong, in school.
There's a growing recognition that keeping kids engaged and in school is vital to any attempts at education reform. Recently formed Local Interagency Services Teams, groups of parents and providers concerned with juvenile justice are meeting across the state to decide what's most important for their communities and thereby influence state policy. New Haven's team decided to focus on truancy.
This is in no way meant to be a rant about "teachers getting it wrong." We all bear responsibility for what happens in our public schools. We need to make sure that teacher training includes classroom management, that schools have the resources to create better learning climates and that parents are involved early and often. We all need to be part of the solution and we need to start now, because as New Haven Promise makes clear, school days lost are opportunities lost.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance based in Bridgeport.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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