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No Suspension Left Behind

Were they the good old days or the bad old days? Back then, if a kid wanted to hang in the street, flop at home, or binge in some way, all he had to do was break a school rule to get suspended from the building for five days, maybe more. It was an “out of sight, out of mind” deal in which teacher and student got a hiatus from each other, equivalent to (though lacking moral equivalency) a vacation.

Then came the Alternate Learning Centers (ALCs). Suddenly, educational deprivation was no longer a viable tool for attitudinal correction. And the notion of building kids’ characters by temporarily starving them of communal learning opportunity began to go the way of Twinkies.

There are almost 40 ALCs citywide, located in all boroughs. They are longer or shorter-term suspension sites, depending on the cause of their suspension. These sites serve students who are on superintendent suspensions, not principal suspensions.

Superintendent suspensions for 2011-2012 declined by 12 percent from the previous year to 13,258. That represents just under one-fourth the number of principal suspensions for the same year.

Some ALCs have their own location; others share a school building, though their student populations don’t mingle. All of them are serious places for teaching and learning. Expectations are enforced with kindness and firmness. The atmosphere is not punitive, though no unreasonable excuses or “getting over” on authority are tolerated.

The students have been suspended but there is no suspension of the continuity of instruction. ALCs are not warehouses or receptacles for so-called “problem kids.” Regardless of a student’s length of stay and his age or academic level, he’s got a variety of curriculum-based material to study. Why not? After all, these kids are just as much legitimate students as any other kids!

There’s one enviable problem that the ALCs proudly face: many kids and their parents would rather the students stay in the nurturing ALC than return to the school from which they were suspended.

Not only has the old-fashioned suspension route been discredited, but so has the eroded but over-subscribed “self-fulfilling prophecy,” which holds that if the worst is expected from a kid, that kid will meet that dire expectation. The new faith is not guaranteed to always work, but giving up on any kids is never an option.

The ratio of staff to students in each ALC is high. That may not be cost-effective in bottom-line Republican-esque terms, but it is a vital investment in our shared future.

The ALC program lends itself to being idealized. There is minimal, if any, controversy over their philosophy or outcomes. And certainly their staffs are among the most motivated and dedicated anywhere. That includes the supervisors, far more often than not.

But being part of the DOE, they cannot operate in a vacuum. They must conform to some of the rules and regulations that many critics consider silly or worse. And as is true in most schools, points of contention may arise between supervisors and staff. Most differences of opinion are resolved amicably and professionally. Collaboration and shared decision-making is robust in some regular schools and is close to extinct in others. The same is true of the ALCs, though I believe that staffs feel more appreciated and enfranchised there than is typical elsewhere.

And there is a UFT chapter leader in every borough to monitor contractual enforcement and deliver other services to the ALC members!

Many questions remain surrounding suspensions, touching on the equity of the discipline code, its enforcement, even the politics of managing these challenges. But one thing is beyond any argument: that the ALCs have proven, ever since they were established years ago, to be an educationally valid and humanitarian exercise of behavioral improvement concepts.

With the number of thorny controversies that sometimes divide educators and their regulators these days, it’s a joy to recognize one particular part of the school system that deserves unequivocal celebration.

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