Pinellas looking for ways to avoid out-of-school suspensions in elementary schools

Published Sept. 20, 2016

LARGO — The Pinellas County school system will be trying a range of strategies to further reduce out-of-school suspensions for elementary school students— from detentions and student work details, to Saturday classes and having parents shadow their children at school.

School Board members, meeting Tuesday in a workshop, said they liked the ideas but suggested some additions.

Board member Terry Krassner asked if support specialists and additional interventions could be provided for students with repeated misconduct. Board member Linda Lerner seconded that, suggesting specialists who rotate through schools to work with those children from elementary to high school.

Area superintendents and Superintendent Mike Grego said they could look into one-on-one time between specialists and students, at all grade levels, to get to the root cause of the student's behavior.

Barbara Hires, an area superintendent, said not all suspensions are avoidable for children who do "egregious" things, such as fighting, battery on an adult or a major disruption of the campus.

She also said many of the proposed ideas are not new, but highlighted one that was: a requirement that principals notify an area superintendent before giving an out-of-school suspension to any student in kindergarten through second grade.

Board member Carol Cook asked if that idea could be expanded to include third, fourth and fifth grades. Administrators said it would be.

Board member Janet Clark said she wanted to make sure training was available for teachers who deal with disruptive children. Hires reassured her that training opportunities are available.

Among the other proposed alternatives to out-of-school suspensions:

• Keeping students after school to complete assignments.

• Parent conferences with administrators, teachers and other staff.

• Home visits by administrators.

• Assembling teams of counselors, social workers and other staffers to work with students on their behavior.

• More in-school suspensions, where students serve all or part of the day in the office with a school staffer.

The area superintendents also outlined a list of suggested guidelines for alternative placement or in-school suspensions, including a "thinking sheet" for students to reflect on their actions and write about them.

Pinellas' elementary school suspension rate — suspensions as a percentage of total school enrollment — was 5.2 percent in the 2015-16 school year, down from 8.6 percent from the previous year.

Tuesday's presentation did not specifically deal with the disparity in out-of-school suspensions between black and non-black students. Black students, who make up 20 percent of the school district's elementary enrollment, receive 60 percent of suspensions in elementary schools.

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District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said information about how to curb the disparities was covered at an earlier workshop.

Also Tuesday, board members learned that the recent failures of four charter schools have prompted the district to hire dozens more teachers as Pinellas' regular schools absorb displaced charter students.

Paula Texel, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the new hires will work as co-teachers to help staff classes that exceed Florida's class size limits. She said 110 of them are needed to meet the state requirements, and 61 already have been hired.

Texel said about 25 to 30 classrooms are just one student over the limit. Grego said the state will give Pinellas time to make arrangements to meet the requirement, especially after a fourth charter school, Newpoint Pinellas Academy, will close its doors for good on Friday. That school will displace 45 students, with 18 of them zoned for Oak Grove Middle in Clearwater.

"We've taken in four charter schools at the last minute," Grego said, "and we have to be careful we're not disrupting the educational process of everyone else there."