ERIE, Pa. — Through the development of its strategic plan, the Erie School District is trying to address an achievement gap, in which black students typically are less proficient in math and language arts than their white counterparts.
The district is also trying to address its discipline gap.
In 2016-17, black students in the Erie School District were disciplined about 2.3 times more often than their white counterparts — 889 black students compared with 394 white students.
Also in 2016-17, according to district figures, black students comprised 57.2 percent of the district’s disciplinary referrals — suspensions, expulsions and other sanctions — though black students make up 25.3 percent of the district’s 11,500 students.
White students were subject to 25.4 percent of the referrals while making up 52.5 percent of the student population.
“This has always been an underlying issue in the district,” Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito said. “This is something we need to call out in our plan.”
In some ways, the district already has.
One of the goals in the draft of the strategic plan, and a goal expected to be in the final plan, due in May, is to ensure all district students receive “proportional treatment.”
Reaching that goal means achieving a “50 percent year-to-year reduction in behavior incidents by African-American students,” according to documents the district has made public, along with the disciplinary figures, at the meetings on the plan it has held since January. The district is developing the strategic plan as it undertakes its financial recovery, built around its receipt of $14 million in additional state funding.
The effort to fix the discipline gap will be filled with challenges. One is how to make student discipline more proportional while adhering to clear standards to keep the Erie School District’s 15 schools safe and free of disruptions.
“This isn’t about overlooking incidents,” Polito said. “It is about changing student and staff mindsets and looking at different ways to address the issues.”
He said the district wants to discipline students when appropriate but also address their underlying behavioral issues. And he said the district wants to emphasize that students are expected to act responsibly.
The district — which Polito said intends to examine its disciplinary data for patterns — will have guidance. Racial disparities in school discipline have become a nationwide concern.
Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education in January 2014 introduced policies to ensure that school districts “meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color or national origin.” Also in 2014, the Department of Education released data that showed black students are expelled or disciplined at three times the rate of white students nationwide.
The administration of President Donald Trump is considering rolling back the Obama administration’s regulations on discipline.
“There is a parallel debate going on in Washington,” said Jon Valant, a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy think tank that has studied the discipline gap nationwide.
One way school districts are trying to reduce the gap, Valant said, is by focusing on two basic types of behaviors. Valant called them “severe behaviors,” such as assaults, which warrant stern punishment, and “non-severe behaviors,” such as dress-code violations, tardiness and profanity.
By imposing measures other than suspensions and similar punishments for non-severe behaviors, “there is a belief that we could close that gap,” Valant said.
He said school districts are also introducing programs to help teachers and staff recognize “implicit biases” in how they discipline students, and he said districts are exploring how to find out what is fueling a student’s misbehavior “to get at the root of what caused the problem.”
The Erie School District is working to improve teachers’ understanding of the challenges facing black students and other students in the district, where 74.3 percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The program, School Wide Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, known as SWPBIS, also includes programs to address students’ mental health issues and other underlying concerns and to help students improve their behavior.
The programs are meant to help teachers and staff see situations “from the students’ perspectives, to get a better awareness of students’ cultural background and our own biases that we bring in as adults,” said Ken Nickson, who runs SWPBIS as the Erie School District’s coordinator of educational diversity, equity and inclusion, a position Polito created.
Nickson is also leading an initiative to hire more minority teachers in the Erie School District, whose 817-member teaching staff is about 97 percent white.
More staff diversity is key to eliminating the discipline gap, said Gary Horton, president of the Erie branch of the NAACP. Horton is on the core community committee for the Erie School District’s strategic plan.
“I don’t think the school district is very culturally responsive to the students they serve,” Horton said. “Having more people who look like the students they are serving would bridge a lot of gaps.”
He said the discipline gap represents “a significant problem with no one solution” and that the gap contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline” — juveniles entering the justice system because of disciplinary problems at school.
Horton said the Erie School District is moving forward in dealing with the discipline gap.
“The fact that the school district recognizes it and seems to have an energy to address it is progress,” he said.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com