Newspaper headlines routinely talk about the "achievement gap" in Wichita schools. The recent results from all those standardized tests you had to take last year show that minority students' test scores are far below those of white kids -- who themselves scored only a little higher than any random animal at the Wichita Zoo might.
So what's going on? As a generation, we certainly aren't any dumber than previous generations (look at the way they dress). To imply that recent test scores reflect a decline in intelligence would be false, and in light of the "achievement gap," straight-out racist. What we have here is not an example of us failing the school system.
The school system is failing us.
Sometimes I think it's the administrators themselves who need to be tested. It's not rocket science to understand that if students don't go to school, or aren't allowed to go because of unnecessary suspensions for days and weeks at a time, they won't learn and they won't do well on tests.
Yet school suspensions in Wichita have reached a crisis level. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: in the 2001-2002 school year, our district handed out 1,113 suspensions to children in grades kindergarten though third grade. Yes, there are always students with serious behavioral problems. But this many, and at this level? And shouldn't we also wonder if this is the best way to deal with even the worst behaving kids? Schools and teachers need to learn to deal with these students in a way that doesn't deny them their right to an education, especially at the elementary level when so many important fundamental skills are being learned. Don't suspend kids during the time they're supposed to be learning to read and be surprised later when they don't do well on standardized tests.
When you look at it this way, the achievement gap becomes simple to understand. In the 2001-2002 school year, minority students made up roughly 49% of the student population in Wichita schools, yet received 65% of the suspensions. To break it down further, black students account for only 23% of enrollment yet received almost half (46.6%) of the suspensions. Your average black student is 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than a white kid.
Who can look at the district's own statistics and wonder why there is an achievement gap? When you yank kids out of the classroom and dump them onto the streets, you do nothing to further their education or improve their behavior. You are saying to them, "We don't care if you learn or not. You are not wanted here. Get out of my class. Go away." And so many do go away, for good.
Hey, Administrators -- what do you think these kids are going to learn on the streets? It sure as hell ain't going to be Algebra. How many people are in jail because you couldn't deal with them in a more responsible manner? Suspensions as punishment is an outdated idea. In the 1950s, suspended students knew they would be disciplined severely by their parents at home. In a time when it takes most families two or even three incomes to survive, suspensions often become little more than vast expanses of empty time for a kid to fill as he or she wishes. In fact, most kids are unsupervised during their suspensions and more likely to get into criminal trouble.
Ti'Juana Hardwell is the editor of From The Streets.
Editor's update: On September 9th, Hope Street Youth Development hosted a community forum at which school officials, students, and parents could discuss and address the issue of school suspensions and low test scores in Wichita. Over 150 people (and some were turned away due to lack of standing room!) attended the discussion led by students Ti'Juana Hardwell, Kyle Ellison, Makayla Kayhill and Austin Green.
The meeting was a success and as a direct result, the school district has agreed to set up a task force to find alternatives to suspensions and will research the connection between suspensions and low test scores. In addition, Hope Street Youth Development leaders did over 25 press interviews in regards to the forum. Congratulations Ti'Juana, Kyle, Makayla, and Austin!
For Hope Street Youth Development's report on school suspensions and low test scores, go to www.hopestreet.com
For media coverage on the forum:
From the Streets