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If a school has strong academic results, but high suspension rates, is that a problem? We think so. That, however, is not a view that is universally shared. 

Each year, our organization publishes a list of the top public schools in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, including both district and charter schools, to highlight how well schools are preparing low-income black and Latino students to succeed in college.

This annual report gives us an opportunity to put a stake in the ground about how we define school quality and lift up schools that are truly leading with equity for black and Latino students. We look at English and math results, graduation and college preparation rates (A-G). (See our full methodology.)

Matt Hammer

We also disqualify schools with high suspension rates on the California School Dashboard for their black and Latino students.

Recently, Chester E. Finn Jr., President Emeritus of the Fordham Institute, criticized that decision, arguing that rigorous behavioral standards and little to no tolerance for students who don’t meet them is key to creating a joyful, safe learning environment which supports strong academic outcomes and which draws families to choose the school.

He also argues that schools of choice must accept all students, but are not obliged to retain those who don’t abide by school standards.

We take seriously the integrity of our research, so we welcome thoughtful critiques of our approach. In fact, our Top Public Schools report often sparks lively conversations among passionate educators about what matters most for students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, and what an excellent school looks like. 

Here is why we stand by our decision to disqualify schools with high academic results, but also disproportionately high suspension rates.

Alicia Gallegos-Fambrini

Truly excellent schools support the whole child. They not only produce strong academic results, but also cultivate a positive school culture that values each and every student.

Public schools should serve all children — even schools of choice. But for far too long, many black and Latino students have not experienced school as a safe place — physically, socially, or emotionally. And far too many have been pushed out of the classroom, receiving harsher punishments than white children for the same behavior, getting suspended and missing out on learning (source).

High suspension rates are an important and meaningful indicator of school culture. When students are removed from class, they are more likely to fall behind in academics and drop out of school. With each new suspension, a student’s chance of going to college decreases and their chance of going to prison increases.

We also know that black students, male students and students with disabilities are impacted by exclusionary disciplinary practices at significantly higher rates than other groups of students. In California, black male students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than the average student (source). Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as the average student in California (source). 

Schools that we highlight in our annual report should serve as beacons of equity showing that it’s possible to design systems in ways that serve all students. Because suspensions have been shown to carry a racial bias, we believe it is important to consider a school’s suspension rate before declaring it a Top Public School for Underserved Students.

We believe that all students are capable of learning at high levels and it is the responsibility of schools to build safe, joyful and inclusive classrooms where all students can thrive. We reject the notion that some students want to learn and some students don’t. We do not equate high expectations for behavior with high suspension rates.

To earn our prestigious distinction as a Top Public School, we set the bar high and we are thrilled to see 51 schools in the Bay Area and 279 schools in Los Angeles County meet our high academic standards — without excessively excluding already marginalized students. 

We have seen that our annual report serves to push California teachers, leaders and policy-makers to examine their own practices, grapple with nuanced issues and keep educational equity at the center of their mission. 

One of those schools is Impact Academy in Hayward, a high-performing charter high school that is part of the Envision network. The school had qualified for our list in previous years, but was disqualified in 2018 due to its high suspension rates.

According to Envision CEO, Gia Truong, “We were disappointed that we were excluded last year, but our team has worked hard to address the adverse impact of suspensions on students of color by implementing strong restorative justice practices.”

This year, Impact returned to our Top Public Schools list as one of only eight Bay Area high schools that met our rigorous criteria. “We’ve learned what it takes to provide stronger interventions, supports and alternatives to suspensions to meet the social-emotional needs of our students and to ensure that students are not denied opportunities to learn.”

The reality is that the “top” is not a fixed point. The potential of children is not limited, nor is the potential of the schools that serve them. The schools we highlight in our report are incredibly diverse in the communities they serve and their programs, but one characteristic that they all share in common is that they never stop trying to do even better. We hope that our report inspires all schools to step up in serving the most underserved students and that every year we have more top schools to celebrate.

•••

Matt Hammer is the CEO of Innovate Public Schools and Alicia Gallegos-Fambrini is Chair of the Board of Directors. Innovate Public Schools is a nonprofit organization working to ensure that low-income students and students of color receive an excellent public education by building the capacity of parents and educators to innovate and act together and the publication of school quality data and research that highlights both problems and solutions.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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