Pre-K could be the achievement boost black DISD students need

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One of the vexing problems Dallas ISD continues to struggle with is African-American students lagging behind their white counterparts.

The achievement gap for these students has been persistent, as high as a 30-point deficit in reading and math for fifth- and eighth-graders on the 2016 STAAR tests.

That’s unacceptable.

The district needs to put some extra effort toward shrinking this gulf — and it can start by getting more of these kids in pre-K so they don’t start school behind in the first place.

Structured early-childhood learning is key, given that an estimated 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5.

Kids in quality pre-K programs boost their chances of being ready for kindergarten, and they have more potential for success throughout their academic careers. And though DISD topped the 11,000 pre-K enrollment mark this year, hundreds of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds are not being served.

Black students make up about a quarter of the district’s pre-K program, but half of the total who attend classes outside DISD buildings, through partnerships with child care centers.

That has sent a signal to Derek Little, DISD’s assistant superintendent for early learning: The district has to do a better job of selling more African-American parents on the value of pre-K.

He’s found that many are more comfortable keeping their young children in informal home day care environments. Too often, they don’t see a place for their children in the district’s program, feeling as if they are geared more heavily toward Hispanics, which make up the majority of DISD students.

That has to change. These kids start school at a disadvantage if they’re not in a high-quality program. And they need more experienced teachers to keep them on track.

The district is doing a lot of things right. It’ll start its pre-K outreach tour on March 24, when educators take to the streets, knocking on doors. They’ll focus on southern Dallas neighborhoods with high numbers of eligible students and plenty of open seats.

What’s more, it’ll make its annual weeklong enrollment push with surrounding counties April 3-7. New this year: The district smartly decided to have families sign up at their familiar school campuses instead of the central office.

And there’s hope that the district’s new policy banning suspensions for minor offenses for young students will attract more black parents. Reports showed that minority children — African-American boys, in particular — are suspended at significantly higher rates than other students.

We urge trustees and council members who represent many of the city’s black residents to help rally support for pre-K. Trustees Lew Blackburn, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall and council members Erik Wilson, Casey Thomas, Tiffinni Young and Carolyn King Arnold: Let’s hear you sing the program’s praises in your community meetings.

Your youngest citizens deserve their best chance possible to compete.

This story originally appeared 3/9/2017 in The Dallas Morning News.

Texas Organizing Project parent leaders & their allies are victorious: Dallas ISD passes policy change to replace suspensions with solutions

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The following statement was made by Chastity Masters, a parent leader with Texas Organizing Project’s education campaign and a Dallas ISD mother, in response to Dallas ISD trustees passing policy that will replace suspensions with research-based solutions to student discipline for children in pre-k through the second grade:

“Last night, Dallas ISD school board trustees rightfully stood on the side of justice and equity by passing policy to replace suspensions with real solutions to keep our youngest students in the classroom learning, rather than pushing them out of school, marking a significant win for families like mine.

“I’ll never forget when my four-year-old daughter Aaniyah was suspended from her elementary school in South Dallas nine years ago. She was only in pre-k when she received out-of-school suspension after a misunderstanding with one of her classmates. I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to correct her behavior than throwing her out of the classroom, keeping her from learning and being with her classmates. This never seemed right to me, so a few years later I joined other parents with the Texas Organizing Project to change the way our schools do student discipline.

“After taking a look at districtwide data, I was alarmed to find that in a district of 228 schools, out of school suspensions are on the rise for young students like Aaniyah, and about 54 percent of those went to Black boys, a disproportionate burden.

“That’s why I thank Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis for introducing this proposal that will equip teachers with the skills needed to correct behavior and teach students healthy ways of dealing with the root causes of their acting out, instead of just doling out school suspensions for our youngest kids. TOP parent leaders and our partners, including Texas Appleseed, the ACLU, Faith in Texas, CitySquare, the NAACP, and LULAC have been pushing for a change like this for years. This victory was a long time coming, and we look forward to building off of it to further curb the district’s pipeline to prison that keeps too many students from excelling in life.”

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The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a membership-based organization, works to build power through community organizing and civic engagement. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.

Stop suspending young kids, parents urge Dallas ISD trustees

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Jean Lamberty’s granddaughter was suspended eight times in the first six weeks of school in 2015.

She was in the second grade.

“Rather than provide the support that she needed for her autistic behavior, they considered it a disciplinary issue,” Lamberty, a former Dallas ISD teacher, told trustees Thursday. “It is humiliating. It’s emotionally abusive. And it’s a horrible thing to do to a child, especially a second grader or younger child.”

Lamberty was one of several people who urged trustees to step away from harsh punishments of their youngest students.

A task force recommended Thursday that the district limit suspensions of pre-kindergarten through second grade students to only the most severe cases while also boosting teacher training on appropriate discipline. The board is expected to vote on the recommendations later this month.

While trustees agree that they want to curb suspensions for those students, some worried changing the district’s policy could put others at risk.

“We still have to protect all students in this process and teachers,” trustee Bernadette Nutall said.

The discipline task force— which included educators, parents and advocates — recommended requiring elementary schools to develop behavior management plans and limiting suspensions to serious offenses only for students in prekindergarten through second grade.

The goal would be to eliminate discretionary suspensions for the young students completely by the 2022-23 school year.

Houston and El Paso have taken similar steps to limit suspensions of their youngest students. And one Dallas lawmaker has filed a bill that would ban suspending children younger than 6 in most cases.

The Dallas ISD task force recommended that students could be suspended for only one day if they commit the same offense at least three times and other interventions have not worked.

Nutall worried waiting that long could escalate problems, and that some offenses — such as hitting — could be considered a low-level offense to some. She shared a story of a pregnant teacher getting punched by a young student.

Administrators noted that severe hitting is considered an assault and would result in removal of the student from school.

Some teacher groups have expressed concern about changing district policy, saying it could limit their ability to maintain safety and help students.

Trustee Miguel Solis, who first proposed a ban on suspending the district’s youngest students, said a focus on relationship-building will make a difference. For example, keeping a student in school even after hitting a classmate could help both students, he said.

“At face value, that might sound crazy until you see what we’re going to do in that school,” Solis said. Teachers and counselors would be trained on how to help students address the conflict.

Research repeatedly shows that black males and special education students are disproportionately suspended from schools and such discipline rarely fixes behavior problems. Instead it leads to even more issues and puts kids on the path toward dropping out and even run-ins with the law. Social justice advocates say limiting suspensions are key to addressing the school to prison pipeline.

A handful of parents and other social justice advocates urged the board to not only adopt the recommendations but to do more to curb suspensions across all elementary grades. Suggestions included hiring more school counselors to work with kids.

Parent Ralph Jenkins said his daughter has been suspended at least 30 times in elementary school. The fourth grader struggles with ADHD, he said. But instead of having teachers who are trained to deal with behavior issues from students like her, they keep kicking her out of school and labeling her a problem.

“Since that initial suspension, I’ve seen my daughter’s desire to attend school waver,” he said. “My daughter has issues, I know that, but the teachers I’ve dealt with, their issues are worse than the kids’.”

Trustee Joyce Foreman, who is hesitant to change the current policy, worried that the district doesn’t have enough time to do the training needed in order to implement changes next school year. She urged administrators to stop sending the most inexperienced teachers to areas of the district that have the most discipline issues.

Other recommendations from the task force include requiring schools to post their discipline data on campus websites and requiring executive directors to approve principals’ move to suspend a young student.

This story originally appeared 1/12/2017 in The Dallas Morning News.