Lawrence aims to substantially reduce suspensions

State grant program attacks attendance problems in school district


In the second year of a four-year $600,000 State Education Department grant, the Lawrence School District is looking to improve the My Brother’s Keeper Family and Community Engagement Program and raise the rate of student attendance, especially for boys of color at the high school.

By using what is called seminars in lieu of suspensions or SILOS, the school district has the student and a parent meeting with a teacher and discussing the inapprioate behavior. Applying a curriculum comprised of three major points — attendance, respect for person and property, and relationships — the district reduced its student suspension rate by 12 percent in the program’s first year. In a school year where 27 students took part in SILOS.

Under the guidance of William Moss, who is the district’s director for academic affairs and the program’s administrator, the program appears to be increasing communication between students and parents, parents and teachers and students and teachers, he said. The program is geared for helping young men of color, but Lawrence aims to aid all students.

“The feedback from the students is positive,” said Moss, who noted that one student, a young white man, who cheated on test, said he didn’t feel as embarrassed, when the issue was handled this way, and one African-American young woman finally had a “heart-to-heart conversation” with her mother.

Suspending students costs both the students and the district. The students lose time in the classroom, at least five hours, as the state only requires such students to be tutored for two hours. “Our commodity is instructional time and there is a measured loss of time,” Moss said. The district also has to pay for that tutor.

He stressed that students today receive suspensions for the same things students 30 years ago did. “Teenagers are teenagers, they are defiant and they push the envelope,” Moss said. They get suspended for cutting classes, fighting.”
By increasing student attendance and helping to ensure they are in school, district officials are hoping students will be more successful academically that could propel them to college or a career.

“There’s an expression in education, you can’t teach to an empty seat,” said Lawrence Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen. “The grant will enable us to focus on two barriers to success — attendance and suspension. Both of these fall under the category of avoidance (students behave in a way that leads to their suspension, and the driver of that behavior is really task avoidance).”

Dr. Anael Alston, the State Education Department assistant commissioner for the Office of Access, Equity and Community Engagement, said that SILOS “appears to be an innovative way to engage families and hold students accountable for their behavior.

“I heard first-hand student account accounts of bonding with parents as they discussed the circumstances that led to a poor decision and how sometimes parents struggled with the same issue in their younger years,” he said. “Having students create vision board with a caring teacher and their parent, and think about how their decision to get in SILO impacts that broader vision and appears to be a powerful learning.”

Moss, who said he is on a “mission to expel suspensions,” aims to increase the program to work with up to 30 students in each grade at Lawrence High. “I want to reduce the suspension rate by 50 percent,” he said.

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