Suspending Preschoolers?! Disparity Starts Early

by Judy Warner

With the pure joy of a child, a friend’s daughter told me recently that she’s learning all about colors at preschool.

That same week, when I read the U.S. Department of Education’s new Civil Rights Data Collection Report (CRDC), I too learned something new about color. But there was no joy.

On March 21, the department released the first comprehensive report of every public school district in almost 15 years. And the reported disparities for students of color are shocking to the core.

One such disparity relates to suspended preschoolers. Read that again. Incredibly, children in public preschools can be suspended and expelled. As in high school, preschool children of color are disproportionately represented in suspension rates.   

Black children, who represent about 18 percent of children in preschool, make up almost half (42 percent) of students suspended once and 48 percent of preschoolers suspended more than once, according to the CRDC report.

As children of color move on to elementary school and high school, large percentages of them stay on the treacherous road of inequality paved in their early years.

Early Warning!, an Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Special Report, emphasizes the importance of being able to read by the third grade. The 2010 report noted that “disparities in reading achievement persist across racial and ethnic groups” and “the share of low-income Black, Hispanic and Native American students who score below proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is catastrophically high.” This trend has continued, according to the foundation’s 2013 update,   Early Warning Confirmed.

The story worsens. In addition to suspension and expulsion rates, the CRDC report reveals many other serious disparities, including a “lack of access to advanced courses” for most minority students.

Although 81 percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered, less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school. Black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), students with disabilities (63 percent), and English language learner students (65 percent) also have less access to the full range of courses.

Specific causes of these many disparities are not given in the CRDC report, nor are the reasons for the suspensions and expulsions. The need for change, however, is crystal clear.

These disparities cut off opportunities for all kids to achieve success and realize their potential. For some kids, suspensions and expulsions can be the beginning of a long and expensive journey that ends in prison.

We lead the world in locking our own kids and adults in costly institutions. We accept school systems that persist in putting some students at a disadvantage. It is no shock that the racial disparities that exist in our education systems are the exact same disparities that fill our juvenile and adult prisons with black and brown people.

Demanding change, and making it happen, requires serious exploration of viable solutions for the schools, students, families and communities that face formidable challenges. High quality community-based programming — that occurs within the school, home and community—should be at the top of the list.

In-home and community-based services can effectively address underlying causes of behavioral and other challenges for young children and youth; strengthen ties to community; and involve families in solutions-based interventions. In partnership with schools, community-based programs have also proven effective in addressing chronic truancy and violence.

By working directly with families, community-based programs can identify and address specific family issues–from basic needs such as lack of food to parenting skills to mental health services–that so often hinder student success from preschool to high school.

This kind of community-based programming tends to land a youth on a path to success instead of a path to prison.

Racial and ethnic disparities are teaching the worst possible lessons to public school students and to all of us. We who care about America’s future must have zero tolerance for policies that lead to school dropouts, an ill-prepared work force, and incarceration. We must also insist that our tax dollars be invested in effective community programs that support students and their families. In the long run, such change will benefit us all.

Judy Warner is communications coordinator at Youth Advocate Programs.

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