Education

Despite progress, African Americans more likely to be expelled, less likely to excel

Modesto Teen Helped By Community Mentors For African American Youth

Downey High freshman Jaimare Limbrick struggled in junior high until joining a group dedicated to helping African American youth succeed. Advocates for Justice helped him get on track, planning for a bright future. The group will be speaking at th
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Downey High freshman Jaimare Limbrick struggled in junior high until joining a group dedicated to helping African American youth succeed. Advocates for Justice helped him get on track, planning for a bright future. The group will be speaking at th

Modesto City Schools has slashed its numbers of suspensions and expulsions, adding proactive programs and in-school options. But African Americans, especially boys, are still far more likely to be kicked off campus than people of other ethnicities.

“Back in (2011-12) we stuck out like a sore thumb because of the expulsions. Now the numbers are way down, so something’s working,” said Ed Miller, the district’s head of discipline and truancy. But not working well enough, he adds, for African Americans.

“We need to figure out this one last piece,” he said.

The disparity has attracted state notice, requiring the district to spend around $850,000 each of the last four years to improve the odds of success for African Americans and other groups. The state sanctions were on behalf of special education students, “but we knew that we had to address it districtwide. We were globally suspending way too many kids,” said Ginger Johnson, associate superintendent of educational services.

Using a mix of interventions and targeted help, the district slashed the numbers of children being sent home, from nearly 1 in 8 students being suspended in 2009-10 to fewer than 1 in 16 in 2014-15. The same is true of expulsions, which have dropped to zero so far this year, Miller said.

In 2011-12 there were 45 students expelled. Last year there were four, and Miller remembers every case. In each instance the severity of the incident tied his hands, he said.

“We’re only really expelling for serious offenses: weapons, injured students, assault and repetitive violence, drug sales,” he said, with others getting extra help or in-school solutions. Restorative justice and other progressive programs are being rolled out at Modesto campuses.

“Five years ago, the thought of having a kid get counseling when they start having trouble just wasn’t there. That didn’t exist five years ago. Now it’s one of the first things we do,” Miller said.

The groundwork will keep going, but we want to go further. We’re always talking about this.

Ed Miller, Modesto City Schools

A yet-to-be-released report will show the district has met state expectations in lower discipline numbers for all groups in its elementary schools and junior highs, but still needs to reduce discipline rates for African American students in its high schools, Johnson said.

The state sanctions are based on tiny numbers, just a couple of suspended special education students too many. But that disparity appears across the general population, as well, a distinction that remains year after year.

There are other disparities as well for African American students. Fewer take the PSAT test that prompts counselors to suggest taking Advanced Placement courses, noted Johnson. At one high school, African American students made up 2 percent of the pre-college test-takers, though they make up 5 percent of the student body.

“This kind of data forwards conversations on how a student’s demographics increases, or decreases, their success in school. Conversations become more powerful when data is used,” Johnson said. Conversations about race are especially sensitive, she said, making data often the best way to approach the issue.

“A lot of the referrals (for suspensions) are coming from inside classrooms,” Johnson said the data show. But cultural trainings that might help lower those numbers had to wait while the district focused on the shift to Common Core educational standards. “Now we might be looking at that,” she said.

In Modesto’s Class of 2014, 73 percent of African Americans graduated, compared with 88 percent of white students.

While the district has laid out explicit guidelines for discipline, African American families tell of a familiar pattern. Their children do well in school for several years, then have trouble with a particular teacher. One year of being sent to the office repeatedly becomes a reputation that follows them for years.

For 14-year-old Jaimaré Limbrick, a tall teen with a deeply resonant voice, that year came in elementary school. In junior high, he did well in every class but one.

“It was the same thing – singling him out, sending him to the office,” said his mother, Tameka Runner. “The teacher told me, ‘Well, he does the same in every class,’ but I told her, ‘Actually, no, he doesn’t. I’ve talked to all his other teachers.’ 

Asked if he felt he was being singled out because of his race, Limbrick thought a moment before answering. Yes for one, but the other teacher had always taught kindergarten or first grade and seemed overwhelmed by all her older students, he said. Now a Downey High School freshman, Limbrick says his grades are good, his record clean, and his focus is on college and a career as a defense attorney.

“I just try to get my work done, be more responsible,” he said. He credits his turnaround on joining Advocates for Justice, a mentoring group for African American students. The group takes field trips, teaches history of African Americans and has practical sessions on how to get through school without problems.

“They taught us to try not to stick out. Don’t get noticed,” Limbrick said. “It makes school easier.”

Black students and in particular black males continue to receive the worst end of the whipping rod by the district.

Jacque Wilson, Advocates for Justice

The group was started by twin Modesto-grown attorneys practicing in the Bay Area, Jacq and Jacque Wilson.

“We want to show them there’s a greater world out there, just to give them hope. You get caught up in the situation, living on the West Side, and you think that’s all there is,” said Jacq Wilson.

Jacque Wilson said when he speaks to the kids, he speaks from experience.

“I would have been suspended and expelled. But for a father who fought the school district and community members who fought the school district, I would not be where I am today,” he said.

The Wilsons and their father have been among community members speaking on the topic during several public-comment sessions at Modesto City Schools board meetings. One common complaint has been the lack of role models among teachers and administrators in the district.

In 2014-15, approximately 75 percent of the Modesto district’s teachers were white, compared with 65 percent of teachers across California, by state figures. One percent of Modesto teachers were African American, compared with 4 percent statewide. Among Modesto administrators, 81 percent were white, with one African American, in 2014-15.

The introductory statewide analysis shows that, in California, low district suspension rates are correlated with higher district achievement.

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The issue of disproportionate discipline will come before the board at Tuesday’s meeting. The Wilsons, with the Advocates for Justice and NAACP, will speak in an agenda item placed by public request. Reached by phone, the brothers said they want to keep African American kids from heading down what is being called “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“We know there is a strong correlation if you’re suspended or expelled. If you’re kicked out of school, you’re more likely to end up in the criminal justice system,” said Jacque Wilson, a public defender. “We commend them for getting the numbers down.”

But, his brother added, “We want them to go from good to great. It’s still grossly disproportionate.”

They are bringing this before the board, he said, in hopes of moving the needle forward.

“I’m tired of talking about the problem. I want to talk about solutions,” Jacq Wilson said.

A study released in October suggests solutions need to start early. “Black Minds Matter,” by The Education Trust – West, documents what it calls a tragic opportunity and achievement gap from cradle to grave.

The study found higher numbers of suspensions and expulsions across the board, with African American girls suspended six times as often as their white counterparts by national averages. The report calls out teachers as part of the problem, saying, “Researchers find that teacher bias and discrimination at least partly explain these disciplinary disparities.”

We have found cases where African American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.

U.S. Department of Education

Besides a statewide disparity in discipline, the study chronicles higher absenteeism, with 20 percent of African American elementary students missing 10 percent or more of school days compared with 8 percent of white students.

In part that is due to students being afraid to go to school. African American students are twice as likely as their white classmates to feel unsafe on campus, researchers found.

Among the report’s recommendations are more quality preschool spots, early family engagement and adding magnet schools to promote integration, especially where high-minority areas result in highly segregated schools.

“The typical Black student attends a school where nearly 70 percent of his peers are Black or Latino, and just over 65 percent are poor,” notes the report. That standard, however, encompasses all but five Modesto City Schools elementary campuses. In fact, at 10 of Modesto’s elementary schools and two junior highs, more than 97 percent of students are low-income and at least 90 percent are minorities, mostly Latino.

The highest percentage of African American students at any school site is 8 percent, at Elliott Alternative Education Center, the district’s continuation high school.

The lowest percentage of African American students is at Lakewood Elementary School, the district’s wealthiest school, serving a large number of gifted students. Only one African American student attended Lakewood in 2014-15.

The Modesto City Schools board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, in the district staff development center, 425 Locust St. Find the agenda or watch a live stream of the meeting at www.mcs4kids.com.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

Black history

February is Black History Month, with a presentation on African Americans as part of American history brought to Modesto by the Stanislaus County Office of Education and Modesto City Schools.

WHAT: An Evening of Legacy With Bernard & Shirley Kinsey

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2

WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St.

INFO: Tickets are $5-$10, on sale at the Gallo Center or online at www.galloarts.org.

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