Addressing Race at AISD Disciplinary Schools
Ever since zero-tolerance policies in public schools became popular in the 1990s, the number of students sent to off-campus disciplinary programs has been going up. But mounting research is showing those children are disproportionately Hispanic, African-American and special education students. Now Austin ISD says it wants to reverse that trend in its schools. But finding a solution to the problem is proving to be a challenge.
In a small classroom in East Austin, a science lesson is just getting underway. Only in this science class, all the students are wearing white shirts and dark pants. They had to pass through a metal detector and get patted down before entering the school, and then walk single file with their hands behind their backs into the classroom. This is the Alternative Learning Center – or ALC – one of two disciplinary schools in Austin ISD.
“Discipline is an opportunity to teach. It is not supposed to be painful. It is educational. People who get it are successful in this business. If people don’t get it, then bad things happen,” said Dr. Hector Rodriguez, the principal of the ALC. On any given day, the ALC between 250 and 350 middle and high school students.
There are two ways you can wind up there. One is a mandatory removal from your home campus, required by state law, such as assaulting someone or bringing drugs to school. Then there are discretionary removals for students who commit a less serious offense more than once, such as gambling in the hallways or skipping school or discharging a fire extinguisher. And the reality is that minorities are disproportionately represented at Austin ISD’s disciplinary schools.
“It’s not surprising because I know it’s a pattern across public school systems across America, but I am hopeful that Austin is going to be different,” said Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. She says African-Americans alone are almost four times as likely to be placed in the ALC for a discretionary removal.
As an African-American woman who grew up in Selma, Alabama, Carstarphen sees it as a civil rights issue.
“Everybody’s in school together. We’re all living in neighborhoods together. We all go through the same front door. And somehow in our society, we’ve created another system to put kids back out,” she said.
In December, Carstarphen convinced the school board to adopt a policy that she said would change the disproportionate representation of minorities in the district’s disciplinary schools. She also said it would save the district more than $328,000 in the first year alone.
Here’s crux of the plan: Number one, keep almost all discretionary removal students at their home campuses instead of sending them to the disciplinary schools, but give those students in-school suspensions and provide them with programs that are supposed to improve their behavior.
Number two: merge the two disciplinary schools into one and outsource the operation to a third party. So far, none of that has happened. AISD chief financial officer Nicole Conley-Abram explained during a recent public meeting that they’re having a hard time finding a third party provider.
“We realized that we needed to have more time to vet and evaluate those potential providers, so we’re not going to be realize a lot of the savings we initially anticipated for that restructuring/redesign program,’ Conley-Abram said at a budget hearing at Bowie High School in April.
But some parents have reservations about keeping students who repeatedly misbehave at their home campuses. At that same public meeting, Carolyn Merritt said she was worried about the extra pressure on teachers.
“We can’t ask any more from them, we’re already asking way too much. That’s a big concern in the community is, when you change this model, you may not have enough teachers and you’re going to put the burden on the campuses, and I really hope that doesn’t happen,” Merritt said to Carstarphen and Conley-Abram.
But AISD officials say the new disciplinary model would actually bring some 20 additional teachers to help with disciplinary cases on campuses. And it would pour additional resources into schools for counseling and to teach kids about behavioral issues.
Meanwhile, organizations that deal with juvenile justice systems say keeping children at their home campus can help with their long term success. Kathryn Freeman is with Texas Appleseed – a group that deals with school to prison pipeline issues.
“Certainly we’re asking our teachers to do more and more with less and less resources,” Freeman said. “There have been huge budget cuts and we are sympathetic to that. But I think there are effective tools for addressing a disruption in a way that doesn’t distract from the learning environment for the other children but then also doesn’t harm the disruptive child’s long-term academic success.”
Here’s another challenge AISD will face if it tries to overhaul its disciplinary program: some parents of those minority students actually like it. Pamela Lewis is a single mother of four whose teenage son was sent to the ALC three times.
“He’s always been successful when he went there. His grades went up and he just knew that that wasn’t an environment he wanted to be in so it made him do better,” Lewis said. “I’m not going to say it did the total job, but I’m going to say that it assisted him. And it helped me as well because I knew where he was then.”
Antonia Duran, who speaks only Spanish, saw her fourth grade son attend AISD’s disciplinary school for elementary children called ACES.
“It benefited me by bettering him,” she said through a translator. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that is where they helped me, in my case. Since they punished him and he left the program, there have been many changes, but for the better. He became a different person, as though he told himself, ‘I don’t like this anymore.’”
AISD still hopes changes can begin in the next school year, but there won’t be any cost savings until the year after that. If the numbers are anything like they were in the 2010-11 school year, as many as 500 of the 1,900 students sent to disciplinary schools would stay at their home campuses.