Suspensions are so high in Milwaukee middle schools that the number of suspensions exceeds the number of students in middle school. The figures for high schools aren’t much better.
Suspensions in the Milwaukee Public Schools have risen almost 30% in the last four years to more than 50,000 in 1996-97, or roughly one suspension for every two MPS students, according to a report by the advocacy group Milwaukee Catalyst. The overwhelming majority of suspensions occur in the 6th through 9th grades, with the highest number in seventh grade (11,859.) Overall, there were some 24,000 suspensions in MPS middle schools, even thought there were only 17,350 middle school students.
The information on suspensions is part of a broader report by Milwaukee Catalyst, a new citywide coalition of parents, students, community activists and teachers that is focusing on MPS reform. The group hopes to combine research and advocacy and its first report, “Act on the Facts,” was released this July. The report also looked at MPS drop-out rates, reading scores, and attendance, and presented models of success in urban schools throughout the country, including Garden Homes Elementary School in Milwaukee.
SUSPENSIONS OUT OF CONTROL
Overall, 45% of middle school students and 32% of high school students were suspended at least once in 1996-97.
Only a small portion of the suspensions are due to violent and criminal offenses such as weapons and drugs possession, according to the report. “The mast majority of middle school and high school suspensions in Milwaukee are directly related to the management of the learning environment, and relationship between students and their peers and between students and teachers,” the report notes. The report also notes that suspension is often the discipline measure of first resort. Alternatives — such as warnings, keeping students after school, in-school suspension, or not allowing a student to attend a school function or take part in extracurricular activities — are used only sporadically.
Information on suspensions was gathered using MPS data and in conjunction with a survey of students conducted by another advocacy group in Milwaukee, People Organized Working for Educational Revolution (POWER). According to POWER’s survey, most of the middle school suspensions were due to poor relations between peers involving issues of race, personal bias and appearance. At the high school level, students report twice as many problems with teachers, principals and staff as with their peers.
“These serious problems cannot be ignored,” the Catalyst report said. “However, they are best dealt with through principal leadership to change the school’s culture and learning program; through involving staff, parents, community and students in making needed basic changes; and through staff re-education.”
The report noted racial disparities in suspensions. In middle school, some 55% of African-American students were suspended at least once in 1996-97, compared to 46% of Native Americans, 36% of Latinos, and 24% of whites and Asians.
In high school, 40% of Latinos and 38% of African Americans were suspended at least once, compared to 35% of Native Americans, 20% of whites, and 11% of Asians.
At South Division High School, 81% of African-American students were suspended in 1996-97, compared with 57% of the Latino students, 61% of the white students
Milwaukee Catalyst was founded with support from the Chicago-based group Designs for Change. “What unites us is a campaign for social justice and high-achieving successful public schools for all of Milwaukee’s children,” according to the group’s literature. Betty Smith, director of Catalyst, told Rethinking Schools that the group plans “to get people involved with reform on a number of different levels, beginning with parents and community people working in the local schools. Our goal is to come up with a community plan for systemwide changes. We watch superintendents come and go and directions change. We believe if there is a solid community reform effort, it will be able to provide some stability.”
Smith said the group will focus strictly on MPS — “where the majority of our kids will continue to be educated” — and is not involved in issues around charter and voucher schools.