(pictured above: Lamaya Williams with her sons Ira III, 6 and Issa, almost 2.)
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has reduced the number of dropouts, reportable acts of crime and violence, short- and long-term suspensions and expulsions, according to a recent N.C. Department of Public Instruction report.
Reported crimes decreased by nearly 50 percent from the 2010-11 to the 2012-13 school year. Suspensions – both long- and short-term – and expulsions also declined significantly during that time period, while graduation rates experienced an uptick to 82.1 percent, according the the report.
“The decrease is the result of the efforts of our students, their families, and our teachers and staff as we work to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2018,” Superintendent Beverly Emory said. “We want every student to graduate, and this shows that our work is paying off.”
The numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Reports from across the nation have revealed a pattern of students of color – boys in particular – being disciplined more harshly than white students, contributing to a phenomenon known as the School to Prison Pipeline, which the American Civil Liberties Union describes as “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
Local statistics also show disparities. All of those in the county who received long term suspensions (those that last through the end of the school year) at the high school level in 2012-13 were students of color. R.J. Reynolds suspended one student – a male of multiracial descent – while Carver, the only other high school where the punishment was dolled out that year, suspended five African Americans, one multiracial female and two Native or Pacific Islander students. Kernersville, Paisley IB, Philo-Hill and Wiley middle schools suspended one student each in 2012-13. Kernersville suspended a white female, Paisley suspended an African American female, Philo-Hill suspended a multiracial male and Wiley suspended a white male. Old Town Elementary, the only elementary school that enacted the punishment, suspended two African American students.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools officials readily admit that the district has experienced racial disparities in long term suspensions and expulsions.
“It is a big concern,” said Carol Montague-Davis, assistant superintendent of Middle and High School Administration. “…We need to educate (all students) and we need to know that if they’re not in school, they can’t learn, but at the same time, we can’t have kids in place that are disrupting the learning environment for all. You have to have a balance.”
Dr. Gwendolyn Johnson-Green, director of Alternative Education, said solving the problem is anything but simple.
“That’s an ongoing issue in education,” she said. “…There are so many variables all over the county that influence those reports in that there’s no one thing (to blame).”
Lamaya Williams, a marketing consultant for Communities in Schools, says she believes the services offered through CIS and other agencies that provide mentoring and academic support are contributing to the decline in long term suspensions and expulsions.
“What they were doing was one-on-one mentoring to help those kids stay in school,” the mother of three said of CIS. “…I was really impressed with that and the fact that they were able to have such success in such a short period of time.”
Montague-Davis agreed that relationships are an important piece of the puzzle.
“To me, the most important things that make a difference in a kid’s behavior is the kid building a relationship with someone,” she said. “If they feel they have a relationship with someone in that building, you will see a difference in that child … because they feel they have an advocate, they have a voice.”
Johnson-Green said the data bears out a trend the school system has been cultivating for years, through a variety of individualized programs that are designed to meet the unique needs of each student. Alternative learning programs are now available at every middle and high school in the county, offering opportunities for students to continue their academics in an in-house learning environment after having been removed from the traditional classroom setting due to behavioral issues.
“It is not punitive,” said Johnson-Green, who also serves as president of the NC Association of Alternative Educators (NCAAE) Board of Directors. “…We support behavior modification while we continue the academics.”
Howard Venable, the founder of Silver Lining Youth Services and a longtime advocate of at-risk youth, says he has seen some changes in the schools he visits and is cautiously optimistic about trends being touted by the district.
“Now, you have individuals taking a more direct approach and talking to kids, trying to figure out what makes them tick,” he said. “Prior to that, they were taking a more hands-off approach. Now they’re becoming more hands on.”
As a mother of African American children in the school district, Williams said she has been concerned about the disparities in suspension and expulsion rates for some time, and she is heartened to learn that the local officials are taking action on the issue.
“I definitely think it’s a good sign,” she said of the decline in suspension and expulsion rates systemwide. “I definitely think the more you can keep a kid in school, the better.”