Alternative schools may be the answer

May 23, 2014 by

he New York City Department of Education recently released student suspension data. Don’t read too much into it. Your child’s school is not necessarily better or worse for the numbers. Even if its stats show a dramatic drop, don’t pop the champagne cork. And if it reflects a dramatic rise, lose no more than a quarter-wink of sleep.

A school whose suspension rate has gone up may actually be improving. A school where it has gone down may in fact be declining in quality.What really matters is whether violent or other major incidents are honestly reported. Sometimes these events are suppressed, re-classified or ignored. In those cases it’s as though they never happened.

Some principals feel they have a vested interest in enforcing a “what happens in this school stays in this school” policy. More than their ego and the prospect of a bonus may hinge on the student suspension numbers, because these figures are factored into the performance evaluations of both the principal and the school.

There are incentives for principals to forgive or be blind to mayhem.

The majority of principals are protective of their power, but the risks of its abuse are cushioned by their generally honorable nature.They put the safety of their students, schools and the learning environment first. If that means losing out in the numbers game, so be it.

But a small percentage of other principals may signal to their staffs to back off any action that could adversely impact their school’s reputation.

It’s not in the form of a memo because memos leave paper trails. The admonition to remain silent may become not only part of the school’s culture but central to it. A career-minded teacher had better not lift up the rug under which a school’s dirty secrets are swept because he realizes that the Executive Broom of the school cannot neutralize a scandal without also neutralizing the source that uncovered it.

It’s debatable whether the devil can quote scripture. But it’s a sure thing that principals can quote chancellor’s regulations, especially when they’re looking for cover.

Every school must abide by the Department of Education’s Discipline Code, which spells out the penalties that correspond to classifications and descriptions of different kinds of student violations. This may sound eminently objective. But with its industrial- strength elasticity replete with deliberate vagueness and loopholes,the Code can be a remarkably adaptable handbook for accountability avoidance.

If a given school’s plummeting suspension rate is due to a refusal to recognize or failure to take corrective action against gross misconduct, that fact may be perfumed by a claim that the drop is due to improved counseling, intervention, oversight and sensitivity training.

This kind of hanky-panky is not typical but neither is it extinct, although staff and supervisors are less afraid of being up-front, now that the Bloomberg era has expired.

The controversy continues as to when a student should be suspended for misconduct and what form that suspension should take. For many years it was common to ban a child from school for 5 days. That meant that the child was out of sight and out of mind, which was often a relief all around.

But around 7 years ago, the DOE established Alternate Learning Centers in all the boroughs.The emphasis at these ALCs is on continuity of instruction and supportive services, rather than mere unfathomable punishment. Students thrive there and fit right in with Chancellor Farina’s timely call for “restorative justice” as an enlightened option to castigation and exile.

Because statistics have many faces, don’t accept them at face-value.

According to Tyler Vigen, by his claim a doctoral student at Harvard Law School who just

” loves to wonder how variables work together”, the per capita consumption of cheese in the US correlates with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. He calls that a “spurious correlation.”Nothing could be more spurious than the reliability of suspension rates.

Ron Isaac

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