Atlanta Forum Set on Alternatives to Alternative Schools

A year-long research and reporting project on equity in education in Georgia schools will frame an upcoming public discussion for professionals and families in Atlanta.

“Research has found children of color, poor children and children with learning disabilities tend to be disciplined more harshly in public schools,” said Chandra Thomas Whitfield, host of the forum. That’s one of her findings at the end of a year of her work as a Soros Justice Fellow.

The panelists -- most of whom she has interviewed in her years of work as a journalist -- will discuss this harsher punishment of certain children, then what happens when students are put into so-called alternative schools. She defines those as schools where children have been put out of a traditional setting for a discipline or academic problem. She points out that Georgia lacks mandated specialized criteria for those schools.

“One school actually met in a mall food court in the morning,” she related, “afterwards they were given ‘community service,’ which was cleaning offices.”

Clayton County, Ga., decided to close alternative schooling and send troublesome children home with a laptop, assignments and instructions to Skype a teacher with questions, to be supplemented with meetings about once a week.

“The reality is, a lot of schools that these kids are being sent to,” said Whitfield, “are dropout factories. They are low-performing and the students are not necessarily being challenged or having their needs addressed.”

African-American students were consistently more than three times more likely to receive an OSS [out-of-school suspension] than students of other racial classifications, according to a 2011 report from the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which drew on seven years of Georgia Department of Education data. “OSS rates and graduation rates are negatively correlated,” it adds. That is, the higher a school’s OSS rate, the fewer kids graduate.

“In this 21st century, a young person who does not obtain at least a quality high school education will have enormous difficulties in becoming gainfully employed and potentially may be more susceptible to engaging in unlawful behavior,” the report argued.

As for alternative ideas, “several of the people that I interviewed pointed to what is called restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions and supports.” The first involves having offenders repair and apologize for the harm they’ve caused to victims. The second, PBIS, is a way of setting an atmosphere in a school that expects and rewards students’ responsibility to and respect for each other.

Whitfield plans her event as a “forum for people in the [education] industry to talk about their issues and concerns but also be a resource for the community and for parents, to know what they should do, what they need to know if their child is sent to alternative school.”

Panelists include Marlyn Tillman, founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline; Bryan Murray of Georgia State University’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence; Dale Hamby, assistant principal at the Floyd County Education Center and Neil Shorthouse from Communities in Schools, a dropout-prevention nonprofit.

The Oct. 6 forum, called Equity in Education: A Conversation on Race, Class, Disabilities and Alternative Schools, runs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Auburn Avenue Research Library Auditorium, 101 Auburn Avenue NE Atlanta GA 30303-2503, (404) 730-4001.

Photo by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice

Georgia Schools Not Making the Grade With Discipline Practices, New Report Finds

The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is pushing for some major changes in how discipline is doled out in Georgia’s public schools. The recommendations come on the heels of the Atlanta-based non-profit organization’s release last month of its final student discipline report titled Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class. The first phase of the report featured an analysis of discipline reports from a cross-section of school districts. The final report features a more in-depth data analysis and interviews with representatives from the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) district and school personnel and other stakeholders. Surveys were also distributed to parents, students and teachers at Parent Teacher Associations and other community organizations statewide.

An interim first phase of the report released in June 2010 found that students of color, poor students and students with learning disabilities were given out-of-school suspensions (OSS) at a higher rate than other students. The latest findings suggest that there is great room for improvement.’s Chandra R. Thomas spoke to Rob Rhodes, the organization’s director of legal affairs who is overseeing the study, for more insight into the results.


JJIE: Let’s start from the beginning. How was this analysis executed?


RHODES: Phase one of the report began in January 2010 and included the submission of a public records request to the Georgia DOE. We initially got the data in a limited way. They gave it to us in redacted form, but we couldn’t go back to a student identifier. That kept us from making some analysis so we reached out to them again and said that we would like to do a more sophisticated analysis. To do that, we needed to be able to go back to information on each student. They gave us the data but we had to sign a confidentiality agreement that includes measures to assure that individual student information is not disclosed. We are not allowed to share what school districts were included in our analysis. We were able to analyze seven years worth of data from the 2003-2004 school years to the 2009-2010 school years. We hope to get the 2010-2011 school year information soon. The Atlanta office of a national accounting firm, that wishes to remain anonymous, provided for us pro bono the data management system that we used. They managed and analyzed the data in response to our request for specific analysis.


JJIE: What’s is your ultimate goal for the report’s findings?

RHODES: We’re committed to not having one of those studies that are released and have a short 15 minutes of fame and then they go on the shelf and collect dust. We are committed to this study having a long-term impact. In an ideal world, we hope to create a searchable database that would make this information accessible to district and school personnel, parents, students and other community stakeholders. We want our database to become an ongoing community resource. We hope to keep it up to date and accessible.


JJIE: What do you want to come of the results?

RHODES: We collaborated with a lot of folks on this effort. We are proposing a few legislative changes. We want this to be a catalyst for change. One priority is amending the school disruption statute.  This law prohibits disruptive behavior on school grounds or on school buses etc.  We believe the law was intended to protect children from the acts of outsiders, but now the law is often used against students who act out as a basis for referring them to juvenile court. There’s a lot of criminalization of student behavior in our schools now.

We want the law modified so that it does not apply to student behavior because it allows far too many kids to be brought into juvenile court for matters that can and should be handled by the schools.  We would like to work with the Georgia DOE about some policy changes regarding the reporting process for disciplinary actions taken on students. We found that a large number of incidents are not specifically identified in reports. Many are checked off as “other” in report forms filed. The lack of specificity in classifying the incidents for which students are disciplined or placed in in-school or out-of-school suspension is problematic.

It allows different parties to draw a broad number of conclusions about what actually happened in that incident. We are pushing for more specific incident codes that will allow for more of an opportunity to figure out the specific nature of the incidents that occur. Basic fairness requires that the actions that trigger potential discipline should be well defined so that students can modify their behavior. We found in our analysis that a lot of students are disciplined for minor incidents. Many prohibited acts are subjective and based largely on the perspective of the administrator.


JJIE: So is OSS a bad disciplinary practice?

RHODES: We’re not into the one-size fits all approach to discipline. There needs to be different sizes, if you will. You can’t apply the same solution to all problems. Our view is that the use of OSS or other exclusionary disciplinary practices should be a last resort after other methods are tried. Our basic thrust is that we believe that there should be more options than OSS for dealing with disciplinary issues in schools. We also think that school-wide climate programs dealing with behavioral problems will go a long way with stopping problems before they happen.


JJIE: What is “school climate” and why is it important?

RHODES: We support the Positive Behavioral and Intervention and Support model (PBIS). Essentially it entails from the principal down to the food service worker being committed to setting a school wide climate.  It’s an overall approach and attitude that includes pride in the school, self-respect and positive reinforcement. Implementing this model requires that detailed discipline and other data be collected and analyzed on an ongoing basis.  A lot of data has to be collected beforehand about what’s already happening in the school. The only way to identify problems going on in the school is to look at what patterns that the data shows. There are about 250 schools in the state implementing this model now. The preliminary data suggests that there’s been a positive response to it.


JJIE: What are some of the findings you discovered early on?

RHODES: The more kids get excluded from class it has an impact on their ability to graduate. The report showed that school districts with higher than average OSS rates tended to have graduation rates that are consistently lower than the state average and significantly lower than the graduation rates of school districts with low OSS rates in the seven-year period studied. It’s important to note that the fact that there’s a correlation doesn’t mean its causation. We’re not saying that if you reduced OSS it automatically would improve graduation rates, but it certainly is a factor.  One recommendation that we make is that schools be required to provide OSS and expulsion records broken down by race and other identifying factors. We want students and parents to be able to have access to that information.  That involves self-collaboration to make changes. How does your organization seek to achieve the changes that are suggested?

RHODES: We intend to reach out to the Georgia DOE to make recommendations for change. We want to talk with them and have some dialogue. We are a fact-driven organization that seeks to affect policy and legislative change. Our goal is collaborative advocacy. There are about three or four things that we are recommending that require legislative action in addition to the amendment of the disruption statute. One is transparent disclosure of student discipline data [that protects student identities] by all school districts. Now they are reported internally, but that information is not easily accessible to the public in most school districts. We want this information reported much in the same ways that AYP status (Annual Yearly Progress) and CRCT test scores are reported.


JJIE: What are some other changes that your report pushes for?

RHODES: When a student is placed in OSS for 10 days or longer they have a hearing, which is sometimes called a tribunal. Sometimes the student wants witnesses to speak on his or her behalf at this hearing. The school board issues a subpoena to those witnesses, but it’s not enforceable by law. So basically that person can ignore the subpoena. We want that changed so that it is enforceable. We’re also calling for sufficient funds to be given to schools across the state to implement school climate programs. This would be money available for schools that want to implement this. It would give them the funds to do it.


JJIE: You say you don’t want this report to sit on a shelf and collect dust. What is your organization doing to get the word out about this?

RHODES: I’m prepared to be a road warrior! I am committed over the next year to meeting with community leaders and other stakeholders regarding the results of this study. My personal goal is to have 3,000 “touches” over the next 12 months. I have a PowerPoint presentation and a charming demeanor and I’m ready to travel!

In-School Paddling and Spanking Still Legal in 20 States

Kids are still being paddled in public schools in 20 states, including Georgia and African American students and children with disabilities are twice as likely to get a spanking.

That’s according to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) who brought the nationwide “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” before Congress last year. Elementary school children are also more likely to get paddled than high school kids.

New attention on the issue comes from Texas. Last month an advocacy group called The Hitting Stops Here rallied against corporal punishment in Texas public schools, according to KETK-TV. Click here to check out what people are saying during a call-in segment on KETK-TV in Austin.

States allowing corporal punishment include Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi and a full list can be found here.

As reported last summer, more than 28, 500 students were spanked as a form of discipline in Georgia public schools in 2008. According to reports from the Georgia Department of Education, corporal punishment was mostly used in rural counties and counties in the southern parts of the state.

Here’s what the report shows:

  • Laurens County led the state with more than 2,400 getting paddled.
  • Randolph County came in second with almost 1,600 students paddled.
  • In counties surrounding Atlanta, including Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton, spanking was non-existent.

School Boards Dispute Federal Bullying Policies

School boards across the country are protesting federal bullying policy. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is challenging the U.S. Department of Education on the federal interpretation of bullying as a civil rights violation.

As JJIE reported in October, the Department sent a 10-page letter warning schools to comply with federal rules to prevent bullying and harassment. It also said student bullying may violate anti-discrimination laws.

The letter sent to schools nationwide said: “When…harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, it violates the civil rights laws that [the Office for Civil Rights] enforces.”

NSBA sent a letter Tuesday to Charlie Rose, General Counsel for the Department of Education, urging the Department to clarify it’s definition of bullying and harassment as a civil rights violation.

“…Our fear is that absent clarification, the Department’s expansive reading of the law as stated in the [letter] will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial climates that distract schools from their educational mission,” NSBA’s letter says.

In Georgia, new bullying polices must be in place by next school year. Each local board of education must adopt a new bullying policy by August 1, 2011 that does the following:

  • Prohibits student-to-student bullying in the code of conduct.
  • Requires third time bullying offenders to be assigned to an alternative school.
  • Establishes a plan to notify parents or guardians of kids who bully or are the victim of bullying.
  • Ensures that students and parents are notified about the new policy.

Georgia’s Department of Education has a bullying policy posted on its website to help local school systems create their new policies.

Neighborhood Summit Cries Out for Change: Community Gets Blunt About Teen Crime & School Problems

Low graduation rates and a teen crime spree in Atlanta brought more than 100 community leaders and concerned citizens together for the Strengthening Families and Communities Summit Thursday.

“We need to give love and support to these kids and educate them that anything is possible,” said Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, Mayor of Riverdale, Ga. She was part of a town hall meeting and her words became a theme for the day.

Pamela Perkins, ICM Coordinator of the Interfaith Children’s Movement, led the School Dropout Prevention workshop, where she and other attendees got candid about the problems.

“This has to start with community support,” Perkins said. “We have got to come together and make a cohesive effort to help these children succeed in school and graduate.”

The Georgia Department of Education reports the state graduation rate at 75.4 percent. Perkins maintains a more accurate picture comes from tracking 9th graders and looking at how many of them actually graduate. That number is much lower: 57.8 percent.

Emotions ran high as people talked about why they think kids are dropping out. Their observations differ from what you might hear from official sources:

  • Families need to get more involved.
  • Educators need more training to understand the neighborhoods that kids come from and the challenges they may be dealing with.
  • The community needs to be more aware of how bad the problem is.
  • Parents need support so they can help their kids with schoolwork.

“Kids come to the schools with problems,” said Tanya Lee Culbreth, parent liaison of B.E.S.T. Academy. “Teachers and administrators need to do more to learn about what’s going on in these kids’ lives because once those issues are put aside, a child can succeed.” Some said that when kids quit school they get into more trouble on the street.

Perkins wants to see policy changes that focus on helping younger children. “It’s been proven that by the age of three, 90 percent of a child’s brain function has been developed,” Perkins said. She advocates pre-kindergarten programs for 3-year-olds as well as after-school programs to boost student achievement.

The School Dropout Prevention Committee of Strengthening Families and Communities plans to propose new legislation and is looking for government support on two fronts: improving zero tolerance laws to further protect children and reforming federal and state funding programs to increase the number of quality after school curriculums.

The summit also looked at teen pregnancy prevention, youth violence prevention and financial literacy/economic development and how to get families more involved in helping children to be successful.

Rural GA schools still spanking

More than 28,500 students were spanked as a form of discipline in Georgia public schools last year.

The latest annual report is out from the Georgia Department of Education called Counts of Discipline Actions. It reveals that corporal punishment was more prevalent in rural counties and in the southern parts of the state.

Laurens County led the state with more than 2,400 students who got paddled. Randolph County was second, with almost 1600 students getting corporal punishment in 2009.

In counties surrounding the city of Atlanta, including Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton, spanking was non-existent. Georgia law has allowed the use of corporal punishment since the 1960s, according to a report by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

A bill is pending in Congress that would outlaw spanking as a form of punishment in schools nationwide, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY).