Houston ISD should decrease its alternative school contract to a private company by $3 million and invest at least $1 million of that money in de-escalation training for teachers and support for children so more kids can stay in their own school – rather than be sent away as punishment.
That’s the next step that the group of educators, parents and community leaders calling itself ONE Houston (Organizing Network for Houston) want to see in the evolution of HISD’s discipline policy. They see it as an essential ingredient for breaking up the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, where children are taken out of schools and moved to alternative facilities or into the criminal justice system. It is a system, they say, that specifically targets some of the most vulnerable kids and that several say is racist in nature.
In HISD, while African American students in kindergarten through second grade made up 25 percent of the student body, they accounted for 70 percent of the suspensions. While special ed students make up only 9 percent of the district’s student body, they constitute 22 percent of the expulsions, parent Jennie Carr said.
Meeting Tuesday night at the United Way building on Waugh, the group took time to celebrate its successful work toward the passage in January of the no-suspension rule for pre-K through second-grade kids in the Houston ISD, but made it clear it is not content to wait on the school board for the next bright idea.
Presenting a mix of testimonials and statistics, as well as trying to pin down trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones (the only school board member to attend the meeting) for a guarantee on discipline changes (Skillern-Jones said she supports the funds switch but is only one person on the school board), the organizers built their case for change.
In 2012, Camelot Education, known for operating alternative schools in several areas, bought out the highly controversial Community Education Partners and took over its Beechnut facility. As with CEP, the district pays a set amount to Camelot – this year $11.9 million – for what’s supposed to be a certain number of students, but often the school’s student body numbers come in much lower than that. As it has been in the past, critics call the expense unjustifiable in a cash-strapped district and HISD is facing a $107 million shortfall in the next budget year. They also, as many others have, question the effectiveness of these alternative schools, charging that what often results is that kids going there develop even more problems.
Recently departed superintendent Terry Grier made more than one run at getting rid of CEP as other districts (Dallas ISD in 2002) have done, but while he succeeded in lowering contract amounts from time to time, he was never able to persuade school trustees to discontinue the district's association with the Nashville-based firm entirely. CEP decided on its own to withdraw its business in 2012.
One problem with the immediate elimination of the alternative contract, Skillern-Jones pointed out, is that the district’s schools don’t yet have the resources to accept back all the students sent to the alternative schools. “We’re not prepared to take all those children.” She said she hopes the alternative school contract can be reduced each year to where it is no longer attractive enough for Camelot to maintain.
Several people with ONE Houston said they also hope to push for more counselors at the schools who could help students bounced for bad behavior make the transition back into their home schools as well as talk to kids who are acting out in class before they are suspended.
“We want to move from punitive to preventative measures,” said ONE Houston member Belinda Mojica, who teaches fourth grade on the east side of Houston.
Another teacher, Natalie Pimblet, told of a very tough first year this year in her first-grade class. Some of her students would fight each other, smashing each other’s heads against the wall, she said. She herself had her clothes and hair cut by students, and one of the kids stabbed her with scissors. However, by taking various courses on empathy training and understanding that some of her students have seen a lot of trauma in their lives already, she says, she was able to reach the point where this semester she has not had to send any student out of the room. If she could do this as a first-year teacher, she said, challenging the room, surely this is something all teachers with training could achieve. “I believe prevention is possible.”
Sherene Fleming, a former HISD teacher who is now a social worker, said she spent a long time working with one kid who was constantly in trouble at school, starting with his throwing a hole puncher at his teacher. At the same time, some of his teachers got along fine with this student, saying he was cooperative and respectful, she said. In trying to understand his changeable nature, Fleming discovered the boy had discovered his father’s body at a very young age and saw himself as a “bad kid.” Kids in these circumstances carry often untold hurts and see dangers that perhaps the adults around them don’t see, she said.
"We are punishing children repeatedly through suspensions and expulsions for biological and social-emotional responses to tragic events," she said. "Do students make the best decisions while trying to cope? No. Is there an opportunity to intervene at school? Yes." She added that with the help of the school counselor and teacher, that child's behavior has improved.
“When we punish them through school removal, we tell them their story doesn’t matter, their pain doesn’t matter. We tell them through these actions that we don't care. It's a hard lesson. And as a community, is this the lesson we want to be teaching?"
Mark Smith, chief student support officer for HISD, told of his own moment of epiphany, delivered shortly after he returned from an education conference last year where the high rate of suspensions for minority students was discussed. This wasn’t happening in HISD, he assured himself, until he got home and ran his own set of numbers and found out, yes, it was.
At that point, he said, he went to Skillern-Jones, who was then board president, and said this was something they were going to have to do something about. It took three months of voting and a new board before the measure on non-suspension of the youngest kids passed.
He said the administration is already looking at summer classes for teachers and administrators and is creating a new department of Social and Emotional Support.
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