Eighteen months ago, when Rochester school data revealed sky-high suspension rates, then-Superintendent Bolgen Vargas publicly promised his administration would tackle the issue. The results of their hard work are finally available for the public to see, but they may not be what Rochester residents want to see.
Since Rochester’s alarming suspension rates were revealed, multiple changes have been made. A new code of conduct has been established, comprehensive anti-racism training has been put in place, and additional funds in the school budget have been put towards emotional counseling for students. As a result, some schools have seen tremendous results. At East High School, suspensions actually plummeted from 2,541 in 2014-15 to 909 last year.
However, the results haven’t been the same in every school. While there has been an overall decrease in suspension rates, many districts have seen increases as a result of the changes. Leadership Academy for Young Men, for example, saw suspensions increase from 77 to 415.
Principal Wakili Moore said that the suspensions were isolated to a group of about 40 students, and were the result of a necessary installing of expectations.
“The main reason is that we took a stance on certain [types of behavior],” he said. “What people aren’t seeing is that you’re trying to protect instruction and the kids who are actually seeking out learning.”
While the results in Rochester have been mixed, it’s only a small area that a new bill taking effect this week will have on states’ abilities to tailor their educational programs to their students’ needs.
A new era of school accountability is finally here under the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
While No Child Left Behind installed a one-dimensional accountability system, the new act will create a build-it-yourself model that allows each state to choose how to best measure their education systems.
To be fair, most states have been attempting to do just that for the past two years. Waivers issued by the Education Department have exempted states from major provisions of No Child Left Behind.
“It was largely an exercise in becoming transparent, that’s how I would explain the No Child Left behind era,” said executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers Chris Minnich on the old legislation. “I think the promise of ESSA is to go beyond transparency, to go into the idea that it’s not enough just to tell a school they’re not getting it done for kids, but we have to actually help that school get better.”
However, discipline isn’t the only area where schools are being asked to step up. Chronic absenteeism is an issue that plagues schools across the country, and one that school officials are realizing needs to be addressed. Students also lose more than 51 million school hours collectively each year due to dental issues alone, and while medical issues are valid reasons for absence, the issue is larger than that.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the rate of absenteeism is higher for students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.
Combating this issue is in part the responsibility of educators, who need to be as informed as possible of their students’ situations, but ESSA and new school accountability procedures could play a large role as well.
Deputy Superintendent Christiana Otuwa said she doesn’t believe the Rochester school data is evidence of a trend, but rather, the results of principal turnover.
“People are learning together to gain a better understanding of what works,” she said. “I’m very encouraged and hopeful about what is going on.”