Schools telling too many kids to get out

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Joel McNally
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We talk so much about the value of education and the need to do something to reduce dropouts that it might surprise some people that nearly half of all freshmen in Milwaukee Public Schools have been ordered not to come to school.

In fact, beginning in the sixth grade, more than a third of every grade level until senior year is suspended and told to stay away from school for up to three days at a time. Many are repeatedly told not to attend school.

The good news is that Milwaukee Superintendent William Andrekopoulos, after 5 1/2 years on the job, has finally noticed the destructive practice he has been presiding over and decided to do something about it.

Andrekopoulos says Milwaukee might have the highest suspension rates in the country. He has asked outside educational experts, the Council on Great City Schools, to examine Milwaukee’s suspension policies and recommend ways to keep more kids in school.

We don’t need any outside experts to tell us why suspension rates are so high. It is based on the popular educational theory that we could have really terrific schools if it just weren’t for the damn kids.

Of course, no one puts it exactly that way. What they say is that disruptive kids who do not want to learn should not be allowed to interfere with the education of children who do want to learn. That is absolutely true. Children who disrupt the learning of others need to be disciplined and, in incorrigible cases, removed from regular classrooms. No teacher should have his or her personal safety threatened by a student.

But it does not follow that those children should be tossed out into the streets. Schools are legally required to educate children until age 16.

Some children, perhaps even many children coming out of desperate circumstances, might need special attention. In the most extreme cases, it might even approach one-on-one supervision. But when suspensions become so commonplace that half of all freshmen and more than 40 percent of 7th- and 8th-graders are routinely thrown into the streets, public schools are no longer even pretending to live up to their responsibility to educate all of our children.

Public schools are now following the pattern of many private and religious schools, also funded with tax dollars in Wisconsin, of educating only those shining children with their hands folded and tossing everybody else out. A substitute teacher in an inner-city high school was surprised to see a long line of young, black males winding down the hall every morning. She naively assumed they must be lined up for tickets to some athletic event. No, she was told, it was just the day’s suspensions.

Suspending children can be a terribly destructive act. These days, when every parent has to work, there’s unlikely to be supervision at home. Schools are sending children into the streets for whatever they can get into on their own.

Not attending school can become habit-forming. What children find out there can change their lives permanently. Some of those things can even end their lives.

Before a child can achieve educational success, he or she must connect with school. Art and music help do that. For others, it’s athletics. Many of us remember one particular teacher or coach who made that connection for us.

One thing that breaks all connections between child and school is to be told to go away. The definition of educational success under President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law actually encourages schools to leave behind as many non-achievers as possible. A school’s test scores go up when students with educational difficulties drop out.

It should be obvious that children who disrupt classes need more educational attention, not less. There have to be alternatives within a school that can provide more intensive supervision for those students who are telling us they need it.

Absolutely the very last thing children ever need to hear from school is “Scat.”

Last updated: 2:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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