Madeleine Meran lost her temper in school and wound up getting suspended from North Miami Beach Senior High School.
Her punishment: 10 days at a Success Center – a site set up by the Miami-Dade County school system to give kids a place to go when they misbehave instead of simply kicking them out of school.
Meran, a senior at the time, went for one day. When her school work didn’t show up there, she didn’t see the point of going back.
“It was just ridiculous,” she said. “For the nine days remaining, I just stayed home.”
That’s the very scenario Miami-Dade school leaders were trying to avoid.
Just weeks before the 2015-2016 school year began, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho made a bold announcement: Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth-largest system in the country, would eliminate the practice of out-of-school suspensions.
The school year wrapped up
“It has been very transformational and positive for students,” Carvalho said. “We kept kids from being out in the street in significant numbers.”
But community activists say not much has changed.
“They’re still pushing students away,” said Ruth Jeannoel, lead organizer for the advocacy group Power U Center for Social Change. “The district still needs to find a way to shift the culture.”
Just one suspension can start students on the school-to-prison pipeline, a term that advocates use to describe policies and practices that steer students away from classrooms and into jail cells.
Students who get suspended are twice as likely to drop out of high school and half as likely to enroll in college according to a study by Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile – it increases the chances a young person will be arrested, according to researchers at the universities of Pittsburgh and California.
Across the country, black students are disproportionately punished from the time they enter preschool. In Miami-Dade, black students represent 22 percent of the student body but 35 percent of all suspensions.
“We needed to end a terrible policy that hurts kids,” Carvalho said.
Instead of kicking kids out of school, Miami-Dade set up Success Centers across the district. There, certified teachers are supposed to make sure students continue learning. Counselors are supposed to help children and families figure out the root causes of behavior problems, and provide referrals to community services.
Miami-Dade County schools issued 15,000 off-campus suspensions in the 2014 - 2015 school year, according to state data. For the most recent year, the district’s suspension statistics were up to date only through March, with more than two months left in the school year. At that point, 3,000 students had been sent to Success Centers.
That’s a dramatic drop of 80 percent.
District leaders say it’s a result of in-class interventions that focus on the most at-risk students, changing the progression of discipline for certain infractions and training for school principals to rethink their approach.
“It’s not, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ anymore,” said Deputy Superintendent Valtena Brown. “It’s not just about putting kids out.”
But what happens when students can’t – or simply won’t – show up at Success Centers?
The school district does not provide transportation to Success Centers and requires parents to sign students in. After-care is not provided. Those things can make it impossible for working parents who may not have access to a car in a transportation-challenged county.
Other parents and students simply don’t see the value of the Success Centers. A big barrier: Students' school work rarely shows up, leaving them to fall behind in classes.
Laylanny Webster says she never got suspended from school until she started sixth grade at Brownsville Middle School. Now, the 12-year old has lost count of how many times she’s been sent off-campus because of her behavior.
At the 500 Role Models Success Center in Liberty City, Laylanny said she was forced to write and rewrite a set of rules. Sarly Fernandez, Laylanny’s mom, said her daughter wasn’t learning anything there. The last time Laylanny got in trouble, Fernandez opted to keep her home with a family member.
“She’s not learning,” Fernandez worries. “What future is she going to have? She’s supposed to go to school to learn and be somebody.”
The same thing happened in the case of Meran, the North Miami Beach student.
At the center, she was assigned some worksheets with what-if scenarios. They were supposed to make her think about the best way to act in situations that could lead to trouble. The answers were more “common sense” than instructive, she thought.
For the rest of her suspension, Meran asked a friend to collect her school work and she did much of it at home, but still fell behind in some classes.
“Most of the teachers weren’t able to give me the work because it’s classwork that needs to be explained,” she said. “By the time I went back to school it was like, ‘Sorry honey, the grade book is closed.’”
School district leaders acknowledge there is work to be done.
Deputy Superintendent Brown said schools have flexibility to work with families that can’t make it to an off-site program. At the same time, the district is also considering penalties for parents who don’t bring their children to Success Centers.
“We may not have everything figured out, but by simply doing this, it is far better than what historically has happened across the country,” Carvalho said.
Ultimately, practices that keep kids in their own classrooms will be key to ending discipline policies that push kids out of school, said Jeannoel, the organizer at Power U. She’d rather see Success Centers closed and the money spent on them redirected to in-school interventions.
Restorative justice programs are one way to do that, she said.
Restorative justice practices bring together students, teachers and whoever else may have been involved in a conflict. In a supportive environment, they try to figure out what happened – and most importantly, why – and come up with a form of reconciliation instead of punishment.
The district had planned to implement restorative justice in two schools, but hasn’t been able to find an organization to carry out the work. School board members are expected to finally approve a contract at their next meeting in June.
“There’s value in relationships and anytime you’re sending someone away then you’re not dealing with the problem,” Jeannoel said.
Christina Veiga covers education for the Miami Herald.