For the past year, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has touted the success of an alternative-to-suspension program designed to provide counseling and academic support to students who act out, instead of suspending them from school altogether.
When the school district announced a move to eliminate traditional outdoor suspensions before the 2015-2016 school year, it also introduced “Student Success Centers,” (SSC) a network of 10 sites (the number has since grown to 11) staffed by teachers and school counselors where misbehaving students can go instead of being suspended and sent home.
But a new report evaluating the centers in their first year suggests there are important gaps in the program’s implementation, and raises questions about the integrity of school district’s data on suspensions.
The report analyzes a sample of 382 students, or about 10% of those referred to success centers in 2015-2016. When the authors examined past behavior for the same group of students, they found the students got more success center referrals than they had suspensions the year before. “This suggests worsening of student behavior or relatively greater use of SSC assignment as an alternative option compared to outdoor suspension for these students,” the draft report states.
If this small group is getting as more referrals than they did suspensions, you might expect a similar ratio for the whole district: the rules for getting sent to a success center are identical to rules for outdoor suspensions in the past.
That would close to 20,000 success center referrals—or one for each of the more than 20,000 outdoor suspensions students received in 2014-2015.
Instead, the district’s data show a nearly 80% disparity between the number of suspensions and the number of success center referrals from one year to the next.
“The centers are a viable and moral option to outdoor suspension,” wrote MDCPS Deputy Superintendent Valtena Brown in a Miami Herald op-ed last week. “More important, they are a concept that works: In 2014-15, more than 20,000 students were referred to outdoor suspensions. The following year in 2015-16, there were approximately 4,530 referrals to Student Success Centers and zero traditional school referrals to outdoor suspensions.”
The draft report suggests those numbers could be missing a big piece of the picture.
School districts are required to report school suspension data to the Department of Education annually to guard against the possibility of discrimination in the way school discipline is meted out.
By eliminating out-of-school suspensions, MDCPS can report zero school suspensions in district-operated schools to federal regulators even if more students are being referred to success centers than were suspended.
The report, commissioned by the school district at the end of the program’s first year, analyzed a sample of 400 students, or roughly 10 percent of those who were referred to success centers. According to the report, students were absent from success centers for one out of every three days they were referred to the program.
School officials have suggested those missed days could reflect the fact that students were sent back to school early, but declined to comment on the record until the report, still in draft form, has been finalized.
Sandra Williams, who led the evaluation by her firm, Q-Q Research Consultants, said, “There’s no way I’ll be able to know on my end that the students didn’t just stop attending the success centers” without data to support the district's explanation.
“I am concerned that the centers were not well attended by the students," wrote Dan Losen, an education law scholar who runs UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, in an email after reviewing the draft report.
Public schools in Miami-Dade no longer use the term outdoor suspension for students who are removed from school for bad behavior. But if students referred to a success center don't attend, it's not yet clear how that's different from a traditional suspension. District policy is that parents are free to choose whether their children attend success centers, though those students cannot return to school for the length of the referral and success centers may be significantly farther from home.
Losen wrote that the report also presents major “data quality” concerns with the potential to distort how many kids each school sends to success centers and how much time they spend there. The whole picture “could be radically different from the sample.”
Williams said that missing or erroneous student ID numbers made it too time-consuming to merge data from the success centers themselves with the sending schools in the scope of the $45,000 project.
Historically, black children in Miami-Dade and around the country have been suspended at disproportionate rates, a pattern often cited as a contributing factor to disparities in dropout and graduation rates, as well as juvenile arrests.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho cited the high rate of suspensions for African American students in announcing the plan to abolish outdoor suspensions in 2015, calling for a “redefinition of discipline that does not deprive the student of his fundamental right to an education.”
To that end, the draft report notes the program’s potential is clear: “Students who attend an SSC [student success center] have an opportunity to receive academic support and other wrap-around services in a structured, supervised environment.”
Some of Williams’ report’s findings align with improvements the district made at the start of the school year: administrators boosted staff at success centers and designated a point person at each school to streamline tasks like getting students their work while they’re away.
Even so, wrote UCLA's Dan Losen, “There are major concerns about lack of academic resources, communication and transportation. That doesn't mean the concept is bad…could be a case of very poor and underfunded implementation.”
The report’s qualitative analysis was based on interviews with six success center staff members and caregivers of three students. It included no feedback from students themselves, or from teachers and administrators at sending schools.