The Worst Behaved High Schools in RI

Monday, October 21, 2013


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Rhode Island public high school students were suspended nearly 25,000 times in the 2011-2012 academic year—a rate of almost one suspension for every other student at the secondary level, according to state data maintained by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Some schools had more suspensions than total number of students. Woonsocket High School had double the number of suspensions as did students that year. North Providence High had 1,122 students and 1,440 suspensions. In Providence, the Career and Technical Academy had 259 students and 419 suspensions, according to the data, which is self-reported to the state by individual districts.

Click here to see a ranking of all public high schools in the state.

Too many suspensions?

The high suspension rates have some educators worried that suspensions may be an over-utilized disciplinary tool.

“I am concerned about the large number student suspensions in our schools, and, in particular, I am concerned about the allegation of disparities by race regarding student suspensions and disciplinary actions. In fact, I am concerned about the entire issue of suspension from school, which in general is an unproductive way to deal with many discipline issues,” said Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, in a statement provided by spokesman Elliot Krieger.

At issue is not just a question of how effective suspensions are as a disciplinary measure. Some education advocates worry that suspensions—particularly out-of-school suspensions—only set back already-struggling students. Out of 24,845 total suspensions, 12,150 were out of school while 7,695 were in-school. The rest of the incidents were addressed through alternative disciplinary programs.

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“Obviously, when schools like Providence Career and Technical Academy have more suspensions than they do students, that means the very same students are being suspended again and again and again. Over-reliance on suspension means that the students who need the most help are being repeatedly sent away from school, multiplying those students’ academic challenges while still failing to substantively address underlying behavioral issues,” said Zack Mezera, an organizer with the Providence Student Union.

Most districts are working on alternatives to out-of-school suspension, said Frank Flynn, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. “We don’t want to put students out of school,” he said. “If possible, we want to find ways to impose discipline and keep kids in school.”

New ‘alternatives’ to traditional discipline

The number of suspensions also has a detrimental impact even on those students who are not facing discipline, according to Mezera. “For those students who don’t break the rules, but nevertheless witness high rates of suspensions in their school environment, we are sending them the false message that problems are solved by sweeping them under the rug,” he said.

Instead, he says schools should eye alternatives that emphasize “respectful dialogue” that deals with the “underlying causes.” Last year, he said the Providence Student Union explored just such an alternative at one of the city’s high schools, known as “restorative justice,” which he described as a “a dialogue-based discipline system”

“The idea is that rather than being suspended, students sit down with their student peers and a counselor to talk through and locate the root causes of discipline issues,” Mezera said. “I’m sure students would love to have regular discussions with district officials on how to bring student voice and restorative justice practices into schools across Providence, with the aim of reducing suspensions and fostering less punitive school environments for students citywide.”

State data shows that alternative disciplinary methods are gaining some ground. Out of the total number of “suspensions,” about a fifth, or 5,000 were actually incidents in which student misbehavior had been addressed in an alternative program. Such programs allow students to continue their studies in a different setting than their regular classroom. Those programs can also include counseling and therapeutic services for students, according to Krieger.

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Alternative discipline varies widely across the state. Some high schools don’t use alternative programs while some use them sparingly. But, for others, alternative discipline seems to be the go-to response to most disciplinary issues.

For example, the highest-ranking school on the list, the William E. Tolman Senior High School in Pawtucket, had 3,506 disciplinary incidents in the 2011-2012 school year. RIDE records describe all incidents as “suspensions,” but technically, the vast majority of those—3,060—involved alternative disciplinary programs. Of the remainder, there were 446 out-of-school suspensions and no in-school suspensions.

Such alternatives are being used to deal with comparatively minor offenses at Tolman. Out of 1,021 cases where a student was disciplined for cutting or skipping class, 898 cases involved an alternative program while 123 ended in out-of-school suspension. Likewise, of the 1,730 instances where a student cut or skipped detention, the punishment involved an alternative program in 1,716 cases, with barely more than a dozen resulting in an out-of-school suspension.

One school’s solution: pre-emptive action

For some schools, reform has turned out to be fairly straightforward.

In Woonsocket, the public high school had a student population of 1,277 with 3,506 students for the 2011 to 2012 school year. Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan, who took her post at the beginning of that school year, described those numbers as “unacceptable” in an interview last week.

Suspensions can be issued for any one of 39 distinct offenses, state records show. Those include offenses like arson, assault of teachers and students, sexual harassment, and larceny. But in Woonsocket as in Pawtucket, the bulk of the suspensions were for skipping class or school—a total of 1,274. Another 551 suspensions were for related-offenses like tardiness, truancy, and skipping detention.

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School officials took a look at those numbers and pinpointed the problem, Donoyan said: due to school budget cuts, the school day had been clipped down from seven to six periods. Those cuts, she said, had left unmonitored hallways, making it easy for students to skip out of class. “They would just roam the hallway, meet up with their friends, even leave the school,” Donoyan said.

The district responded by returning to seven-periods—a move which, without increasing staff size, gave teachers an additional seventh period in their days, according to Donoyan. While some teachers were assigned to academic support classes, others were assigned to monitor halls and man the main exit points of the school, she said.

The new school schedule took effect this fall. New figures on suspensions weren’t available, but Donoyan said that “anecdotally” she has heard the numbers have done down.

She says ramping up adult presence in the hallways has paid off, reducing opportunities for students to cut classes and thereby reducing the numbers of suspensions for those offenses.
“The mere fact that we have adult presence has changed the tenor,” Donoyan said. “The culture of the high school has changed dramatically.”

Statewide, Gist has said officials likewise are focusing on the link between suspension rates and attendance. “As part of our work with school districts toward turning around the lowest-achieving schools, we are examining issues of truancy and attendance and looking closely at information from the annual student and teacher surveys. I believe this information will help us improve school climate and lower the rate of suspensions,” she said in her statement.

Addressing the root of the problem

Socio-economic factors, perhaps, might explain some disciplinary issues, but they cannot account for all the differences between the high schools. The top of the list, for example, includes both urban and suburban districts.

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In Providence, the William B. Cooley Senior High School ranked sixth overall for the ratio of suspensions to students—430 to 376, respectively. The Cooley school certainly matches the profile of an urban school: nearly three quarters of the student population is in a free or reduced lunch program—a common indicator for the poverty level of the family—and a quarter of all students are taking English as a second language or in bilingual programs.

But the fifth ranking school on the list, North Providence High School, doesn’t: just a third of the students are in the free or reduced lunch program and only 2 percent are non-native English speakers. But in terms of discipline, North Providence edges out the Cooley school for fifth place, with 1,440 suspensions for a student body of 1,122.

Gist has suggested that a culture of achievement may be one of the best ways to address student misbehavior. “When our students are engaged with their schoolwork and when they believe in their ability to succeed in school and in society, discipline problems will abate,” she said.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of what Gist is talking about.

In Providence, the city’s academic magnate school—to which students must apply—had just 45 suspensions out of a student body of 1,033. Out of 52 high schools reviewed, Classical High School had the lowest ratio of suspensions to students in the state.

For Classical, it’s about more than just the make-up of incoming students. Principal Scott Barr told GoLocalProv that the school community is also proactive in addressing issues before they reach the suspension level. “It’s about creating a positive school climate and culture. Our teachers, parents and students are good at being proactive and working things out via mediation before an issue becomes a suspendable offense,” Barr said.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


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