Change is in the air and it's a good one. It's taking place in Florida -- well known for the hanging chad ballots and their totally out of whack justice system. This time it's a remarkable turnaround in the education system.
Florida’s Broward County Public Schools system is the sixth-largest district in the country. Like many other large education systems, it was suffering from a racial gap when it came to graduation. Broward had an incomprehensibly low diploma rate of only 61 percent for black students compared to 81 percent for white students. To find out why, Robert Runcie, the superintendant of schools who once headed a management-consulting firm, went to the data. His goal was to close the racial achievement gap.
From The American Prospect:
“One of the first things I saw was a huge differential in minority students, black male students in particular, in terms of suspensions and arrests,” he says. Black students made up two-thirds of all suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year despite comprising only 40 percent of the student body. And while there were 15,000 serious incidents like assaults and drug possession reported that year, 85 percent of all 82,000 suspensions were for minor incidents—use of profanity, disruptions of class—and 71 percent of all 1,000-plus arrests were for misdemeanors. The last statistic, says Runcie, “was a huge red flag.”
So Runcie and the others on the school board decided to work with the teachers, the police and the campus security to reverse the schoolhouse to jailhouse routine and promote a more tolerant and discretionary system. Officers were given an opportunity to judge the severity of the infractions and in some cases, turn the case over to the school instead of the police and local justice systems.
In most non-violent cases, such as drug use, truancy, spray painting graffiti, a school was just as well equipped to mete out punishment as the expensive and drawn out process of criminal justice.
Broward’s Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline was announced in early November. Instead of suspensions, students can now be referred to the PROMISE program, where they receive counseling for several days and then return to school. A host of non-violent misdemeanors no longer require an arrest, though officers can sometimes override that if they feel it is necessary. The school district’s Office of Minority Male Achievement reviews data to ensure that punishments for minor infractions and racial disparities are on the decline.
Since eliminating the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse program in Broward the program seems to be working. By providing alternatives like counseling, suspensions fell by 33 percent and the anticipated graduation rate increased by 25 percent. This is the kind of program that other schools and other cities should be using as a model, especially urban school districts where dropout rates are exceedingly high - as much as 50%.
The purpose of schools is to prepare kids for a better life -- not one behind bars and in low paying, unskilled jobs.
Finally, something other than good oranges and a great basketball team to report from The Sunshine State.
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