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Pinellas moves to keep suspended students from sliding academically

Amid public backlash for disproportionately disciplining minority students, Pinellas County school officials say they have created an alternative to out-of-school suspensions.

Officials this week unveiled a plan that will give parents of middle and high school students the option of sending their children to an alternative district school to serve an out-of-school suspension rather than having them spend that time elsewhere and miss schoolwork.

The new strategy, first discussed at Tuesday's School Board workshop, aims to lower the risk of suspended students falling behind and dropping out of school, district administrators said.

Students, beginning in August, could serve their suspensions at sites that already offer supervision and guidance counselors for academic and counseling services. These could include the district's Title I center, Clearwater Intermediate, Pinellas Secondary School, Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and Bayside High. Students would be allowed to work on classwork packets provided by their teachers in all core subjects.

Area superintendent Bob Poth said students using this option would report to a room separate from the regular student body at the alternative schools and would be assigned their own teachers.

"It's not just a place that's going to keep them off the streets," he said. "It's a place that's going to keep them with an academic purpose."

While the list of locations has not been finalized, Poth said the district would ensure there would be enough space in each facility for the suspended students. He added that, like other districts, Pinellas also is seeking community partnerships to place students in locations such recreational centers. And parents — not the school district — would be responsible for getting them there.

Florida districts with such programs include Duval County, where officials told the Tampa Bay Times last year that about 60 percent of suspended students opt for the alternative suspension program, which is hosted at four sites.

The Pinellas plan, as it stands, would be typical of others across the state in that it is voluntary and parents would have to provide transportation.

Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, which has repeatedly called for ending out-of-school suspensions altogether, said transportation could prove to be a major roadblock for disadvantaged parents. He also said he hoped the district will research districts with similar programs and measure their effectiveness.

"I don't know whether it will work or not," Davis said. "I just know that I'm sensitive to the issue of parents coming from underserved or challenging neighborhoods having the ability to take advantage of all the opportunities we expect them to take advantage of."

Poth said the district's area superintendents reviewed alternative out-of-school suspension models in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties.

Ashley Green, a member of the Miami advocacy group Dream Defenders, said that while Pinellas' proposal sounds similar to Hillsborough's program, she would like more information about the structure of the school day and how the program would play out.

"They're still not getting what they need out of a classroom environment," she said. "My ideal alternative is that kids wouldn't be getting suspended, and that any kind of suspension would be taking place at the school."

Poth said that, while the district's goal is to diminish out-of-school suspensions, eliminating that disciplinary option is not realistic.

"We are not in a state now where we can eliminate all suspensions," he said. "There are measures that schools have to take. … Suspension is still one of those measures."

Area superintendents in Pinellas already have launched initiatives to soften the district's stance on discipline. They've begun limiting in-school and out-of-school suspensions to no longer than three days and banning out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

On Tuesday, the School Board approved policy changes that would allow suspended students to make up missed work without having their grades affected.

"I see something that looks promising," said board member Rene Flowers.

Times staff writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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