Atlanta Forum Set on Alternatives to Alternative Schools

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A year-long research and reporting project on equity in education in Georgia schools will frame an upcoming public discussion for professionals and families in Atlanta.

“Research has found children of color, poor children and children with learning disabilities tend to be disciplined more harshly in public schools,” said Chandra Thomas Whitfield, host of the forum. That’s one of her findings at the end of a year of her work as a Soros Justice Fellow.

The panelists — most of whom she has interviewed in her years of work as a journalist — will discuss this harsher punishment of certain children, then what happens when students are put into so-called alternative schools. She defines those as schools where children have been put out of a traditional setting for a discipline or academic problem. She points out that Georgia lacks mandated specialized criteria for those schools.

“One school actually met in a mall food court in the morning,” she related, “afterwards they were given ‘community service,’ which was cleaning offices.”

Clayton County, Ga., decided to close alternative schooling and send troublesome children home with a laptop, assignments and instructions to Skype a teacher with questions, to be supplemented with meetings about once a week.

“The reality is, a lot of schools that these kids are being sent to,” said Whitfield, “are dropout factories. They are low-performing and the students are not necessarily being challenged or having their needs addressed.”

African-American students were consistently more than three times more likely to receive an OSS [out-of-school suspension] than students of other racial classifications, according to a 2011 report from the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which drew on seven years of Georgia Department of Education data. “OSS rates and graduation rates are negatively correlated,” it adds. That is, the higher a school’s OSS rate, the fewer kids graduate.

“In this 21st century, a young person who does not obtain at least a quality high school education will have enormous difficulties in becoming gainfully employed and potentially may be more susceptible to engaging in unlawful behavior,” the report argued.

As for alternative ideas, “several of the people that I interviewed pointed to what is called restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions and supports.” The first involves having offenders repair and apologize for the harm they’ve caused to victims. The second, PBIS, is a way of setting an atmosphere in a school that expects and rewards students’ responsibility to and respect for each other.

Whitfield plans her event as a “forum for people in the [education] industry to talk about their issues and concerns but also be a resource for the community and for parents, to know what they should do, what they need to know if their child is sent to alternative school.”

Panelists include Marlyn Tillman, founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline; Bryan Murray of Georgia State University’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence; Dale Hamby, assistant principal at the Floyd County Education Center and Neil Shorthouse from Communities in Schools, a dropout-prevention nonprofit.

The Oct. 6 forum, called Equity in Education: A Conversation on Race, Class, Disabilities and Alternative Schools, runs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Auburn Avenue Research Library Auditorium, 101 Auburn Avenue NE Atlanta GA 30303-2503, (404) 730-4001.

Photo by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice

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