Popsicle sticks instead of suspensions in DC

Posted by Diane Kooser

Jul 24, 2014 2:47:39 PM

If it weren't in the Washington Post, you might not believe it. For the school year (SY) 2012-2013, 180 DC students in pre-kindergarten were suspended. Pre-kindergarten, kids aged 30 months to 5 years. And what could they possibly have done to merit being kicked out of class? Try tantrums, vulgarity and yes, bathroom accidents.

An Independent council member in the District of Columbia, David Grosso wants to put an end to this "ridiculous policy" and has introduced legislation to ban the suspension and expulsion of pre-kindergarten children in the District of Columbia. In addition to legislation, here's a better way to manage children in the classroom.

My youngest nephew, Dylan, started kindergarten in SY 2013-2014. After his first few days of school, he told my husband Bill and me about kindergarten and explained some of the classroom behavior management strategies. “If you do something good, you get a Popsicle stick. After you get 10 Popsicle sticks, you can trade them in for a prize.  Guess what one of the prizes is? You can take off your shoes in the classroom!” When Bill asked, “Is that what you’re saving your sticks for?” Dylan answered with a “Yes!” that was pure enthusiasm. 

I was impressed with his teacher’s approach. I recognized sound behavior-management concepts. She was immediately reinforcing the desired behavior with a Popsicle stick and then offering a larger reward for several instances of positive conduct. Having them accumulate 10 sticks would require ongoing good behavior and begin to teach them to delay gratification for the larger payout. 

Dylan told us a little about the other potential rewards, and the majority were free or very low cost, requiring just a little teacher effort. I was impressed and interested to see how the school year would play out. 

For a myriad of reasons, Dylan didn’t attend pre-school in SY 2012-2013. If he’d have attended pre-school in a District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) Dylan would have been more likely to be suspended than a female peer according to a report filed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE.) The pre-school class for SY 2012-2013 was 54% male, yet 79% of preschool children suspended once and 82% of preschool children suspended multiple times were male. 

The report outlines other disparities in the pre-school discipline data.

  • African-American children represented 18 percent of the total pre-school enrollment, but 48 percent of the children received at least one out-of-school suspension.  
  • Across all grade levels, it was found that students eligible for free or reduced lunch, but not certified were 1.3 times more likely to be suspended. Students eligible for free or reduced lunch and certified were 1.5 times more likely to be disciplined. 
  • Homeless students fared even worse. They were 1.7 times more likely to be suspended. 
  • Kids from better neighborhoods were less likely to be punished. Go up $10,000 in median census-tract income and the likelihood of a discipline action decreased by 4.5 percent.

The OSSE report also reported on some troubling national trends. 

Ten states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia reported higher gaps than the nation between the suspension rates of African-American students and white students for both boys and girls. Disparities also exist for students with disabilities. 

When we throw students out of school for incidents that could be managed in the classroom or for which their parents could discipline them, we are putting them on what is commonly referred to as “the school to prison pipeline.” Continued school infractions are treated more and more harshly with many schools using their School Resource Officer (SRO), a school-based police officer, to address classroom disruptions. Those disruptions become legal citations and law violations, and a student quickly becomes a criminal. The NAACP outlined the problem in their report, “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline.”  Suspending pre-kindergarteners are starting them on the school-to-prison pipeline when they are still learning basic classroom behaviors and social skills. 

Getting back to Rep David Grosso. He recognized the lunacy of suspending pre-schoolers in DC and introduced legislation to ban their suspension or expulsion. After reading the OSSE report and watching Rep. Grosso’s appearance on MSNBC, I followed up with Dylan on exactly how he’d spent his Popsicle sticks this year. 

“Well, the first thing I did was take my stuffed animal to school. I did that twice. I took my Pillow Pet the first time and Kermit the second. I had lunch with a friend twice, too. I took JR both times.” Dylan went on recounting all the other rewards, and I was surprised that the one he’d seemed the most excited about, “take off your shoes in the classroom,” was one he’d never done. He clearly thought taking a friend to lunch with the teacher was the top reward because, not only did he and JR eat in the classroom with the teacher, they also got a lollipop after lunch. I asked Dylan for his perspective on suspending pre-K children for things like bathroom accidents. Dylan’s response was exasperated, “That’s rude!”

Councilman Grosso is to be commended for his efforts to bring common sense to the District of Columbia’s public and charter schools. Perhaps he should send them some Popsicle sticks with his new legislation. 

Topics: MST Success Stories