(Updated at 9 p.m., 3/10/15)
St. Louis Public Schools is reconsidering its discipline policy following a report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA that found the district suspended roughly 29 percent of African-American grade school students at least once during the 2011-12 school year.
This school year, about 18 percent of disciplinary incidents in the district – which has a predominantly African-American student body – fell under the category of “insubordination/disrespect.” During Tuesday night’s meeting of the district’s Special Administrative Board (SAB), Superintendent Kelvin Adams highlighted the category as problematic because it’s so subject to interpretation by schools' staff.
“If a fight occurs, it’s obvious, everybody knows a fight occurred,” Adams said. “But disrespect, you could turn your face away from me and I’m saying that’s disrespectful and I’m giving you a suspension for that. And that’s not necessary.”
To ensure African-American students are treated fairly, he said administrators want to better define what constitutes disrespectful behavior.
Suspensions in the district have declined over the previous two school years but remain high. Out-of-school suspensions for all students, for instance, dropped from 8,445 during the 2011-12 school year to 3.989 last school year. However, suspensions continue to disproportionately affect African American students. A little more than 82 percent of the district’s more than 27,000 students last school year were African America, yet African American students accounted for 94 percent of out of school suspensions.
As St. Louis Public Radio reported shortly after the UCLA study was released, the district plans to put in a number of measures aimed at closing what has been called a “discipline gap” between white and black students. The UCLA report also found that African American elementary school students in Missouri were suspended at a higher rate than any other state in the country during the 2011-12 school year.
School improvement plan
The SAB approved moving forward with changes to the district’s roadmap for improving classroom performance, or “Transformation Plan 2.0.”
“Overall, what this really does is refocus the district to look at reading, looking at the notion that high school students are prepared for college…and also, this is really about creating leadership teams schools, such that there are more people responsible for the direction of what happens in a school,” Adams said.
The SAB decided to move forward with the initial "Transformation Plan" last spring, which included an option for the district to hire a nonprofit operator to take over a school that failed to show academic progress. The idea drew harsh criticism during public forums.
The new plan, however, does not mention contract schools.
Adams said the district wasn’t thrilled with the bids it received from outside school operators. Now the district is looking to develop an in-house office that could bring together former principals and teachers who specialize in turning around low-performing schools, Adams said. While the plan would keep the option of an outside operator on the table, Adams said the focus would shift.
New vision for Vashon
The long-struggling Vashon High School is no stranger to turn-around efforts, yet it earned only 28 percent on its state report card for the 2013-14 school year. Last September, about 100 students walked out, demanding better textbooks and more full-time teachers. Under the plan, the school will have enrollment requirements and shift its academic focus toward international finance and coding.
Current students would stay at the school through graduation under its “comprehensive” model. But existing freshmen might have to meet new criteria, including attendance and grades. Adams said the staff started informing the students at the school about the change in October.
Adams also said administrators are reaching out to Wells Fargo Advisors, which currently has a relationship with the school, to help them retool Vashon’s curriculum. At a public forum at the school last weekend, Adams said the district would also need to revamp its staffing formula for the school to fit the new focus. The proposed change to Vashon dovetails with the districts continued efforts to expand a system of choice.
More schools get close attention from the central office
Under the initial plan, the lowest performing 18 schools are grouped together in the so-called “superintendent zone.” About $6.4 million is being funneled into these schools to pay for academic supports, ranging from school counselors to added teacher training. Under the revised plan, the “superintendent zone” would be a subset of a larger group called “Support Schools.” The new group would consist of 27 schools that are falling short of school performance measures. Only “superintendent zone” schools would receive extra staffing and money, but central office staff would give all of the schools in the larger group extra attention.
Score card for staff
The plan would develop a score card to evaluate how well district staff -- classroom teachers, principals and central office administrators -- are doing meeting the plan’s goals for improving academic performance. Adams said details for the score card are still in development and that the district is looking to hire a project manager to monitor the score card system.