The discipline divide

Suspended countless times as a child, this professor is tackling racial disparities in preschool discipline

Rosemarie Allen knows that black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from preschool and the K-12 system.

As the former director of the state’s Division of Child Care and now as a professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, she’s worked to address the issue for years. But she also experienced the phenomenon firsthand while growing up in California.

She talked with Chalkbeat about her own experience with school discipline, how unconscious prejudice impacts teachers and what can be done to address suspensions and expulsions in early childhood settings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in the topic of suspensions and expulsions?

I was suspended from school from the time I started kindergarten…at least five to seven times a year. I was expelled from three schools. It was the strangest thing because I knew instinctively I wasn’t bad and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting in trouble.

I was really curious…Digging a big giant hole in the middle of the playground because the teacher said China was at the other end. Taking off all the baby dolls’ heads to see how the eyes worked.

After years of getting in trouble, what was the dynamic between you and your teachers?

After awhile I didn’t try anymore. I knew what they expected and we all resented each other. One time, we were having a math test and the teacher gave me the lecture: “If you get out of your seat just one time for any reason, you are going to get a big fat F. Do you understand?”

I took the test and finished really fast and I don’t know if I dropped my pencil or I threw my pencil, (but) I got up and got it. She came over and she put a big fat F on my paper. I was about 10.

By this time we were already in a power struggle. So, I said, “That’s OK. You know I got an A and I know I got an A.” So I took the F and (turned it) into an A and that infuriated her. She said, “If it goes in my grade book, it’s an F.” And with a red marker (she) put an F in the grade book. Me, being the kid I was, took the grade book and threw it out the window.

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Given your history of suspensions and expulsions as a kid, how did you overcome that negative trajectory?

I had the most amazing, supportive extended family. Even when I was in trouble they always made me know I was smart. Now, when I did something wrong, when I got home I was grounded, but it didn’t define me.

How did your perceptions of your early struggles with discipline change when you started your doctorate program?

I realized it was not me at all. It was a sign of the times. I was the first generation after Brown vs. Board of Education where I had white teachers who did not have experience dealing with African-American children.

What do young children, especially young black children, typically get suspended and expelled for today?

What we’re seeing is young black boys are engaged in either the same behaviors or even lesser offenses than young white boys, but the implicit bias of teachers doesn’t allow them to see it. They’re saying they’re disruptive, defiant, too active. Even if you go through 12th grade those are the reasons.

In my research, we see teachers judge black children based on stereotypes. When you believe a stereotype you see what you expect. So, you have a cultural disconnect, implicit bias and teachers not knowing how to handle what they call challenging behaviors.

My favorite saying is “behavior is defined by the person most annoyed by it.” If you already have this unconscious bias that we all have, then that behavior from that child annoys you even more.

You once observed a kindergarten class where a black boy was singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. What happened?

She was trying to get the children to sit criss-cross applesauce and they’re not. And the little guy I’m observing…he runs over and sits criss-cross applesauce.

The little white boy sitting right next to the teacher pulls his shirt over his head. He’s flipping. He’s turning. My little guy has been sitting and trying to get (the teacher’s) attention forever and he’s not getting it, so he unfolds his legs and he sticks them out and she has to reach over (the white boy and a white girl) to tell him to put his legs back. And you wonder does she see the kids next to her? Does she see the little girl twirling? For every four times she corrects (the black student) she says maybe one thing to the other two.

Did you have a chance to show the teacher the video you took of that incident?

Neither she nor the principal would look at the video. It was heartbreaking. The mom (of the black student) ended up taking him out. She was being called three or four times a week to pick him up.

This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even though we’re seeing these amazing numbers of suspensions, what we’re not able to capture is what we call the “soft suspensions” — forcing them out; asking them to leave; saying, “This isn’t a good fit.”

What do you think caused the teacher you observed to focus so much on the black student’s behavior?

The biggest problem is the teacher didn’t know what to do. She had very little experience working with young children.

There are studies that talk about implicit bias and how it’s triggered most often with the automatic responses that are made under stress…So, she’s under stress. Here I am observing her room, (there are) 22 children who will not sit criss-cross applesauce and she tried to make them do it for 25 minutes. That’s where the implicit bias comes in: “Who are my troublemakers?”

What are the consequences for children who are suspended or expelled?

By the time they get to kindergarten and they’ve been kicked out of about two or three facilities, now they’re already disengaged from the learning process. And the greatest indicator of being suspended is having been suspended before.

Academic outcomes are definitely lowered. They’re disenfranchised even from other kids because now they’re labeled “bad.” So, not only are they in an “out” group because of race or gender, they’re in an “out” group because they’ve been identified as “bad.”

These kids have a lot of trouble…having positive relationships with teachers and with other children and sometimes at home.

How early do suspensions or expulsions start?

My research shows it starts about 17 months and usually it’s for biting or aggressive behaviors. Even that young there’s disproportionality. We’re seeing all the children are biting, but black boys are being suspended or kicked out.

How do you facilitate cultural competency in your classes at MSU Denver?

Ninety-five percent of my students are white women. Most of them, by self report, have had very little interaction with people of color. We take them on these field trips (to a black church, a Buddhist temple, Denver’s Five Points neighborhood etc.) where they are now engaging with people from backgrounds they’ve never had exposure to.

You once visited a family child care home run by a man who offered unusual opportunities for movement and physical activity. How did that shape your thoughts on the mostly female early childhood workforce?

I began to see how careful we are: “Don’t jump! Don’t run!” How much we stifle the natural activity of boys. I began to see that as women, we want boys to act like girls because then we can be in a lot more control.

You’ve said that everyone has implicit bias, including you.

As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’d say at least two or three times a week my biases pop up.

My classroom was observed when I was a young teacher and the observer said I was biased against little girls — one of the most devastating events of my career. She didn’t say, ‘You’re biased.’ She said, “Rosemarie, do you like little girls?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do, I love all my children.’ She goes, ‘Well, little girls tend to get in trouble a lot with you, more so than little boys.’

My daughter said this was my PTSD because … when I was in trouble (as a child), it was always the little girls who tattled on me, so I had this built-in bias.

How does public policy need to change on early childhood suspensions and expulsions?

I believe as long as we have suspension in our tool box, we’ll use it. You’ve heard the saying, “If the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” And we want to get rid of the hammer, but we can’t do that if teachers don’t have the support they need.

The last thing we want is for a child who’s perceived as a problem to be forced to stay in an environment where they’re not wanted, because then I would fear abuse, no matter how subtle that is.

So, I think the first thing we need to do is make sure teachers have the tools they need. They need training on implicit bias. They need professional development on how to handle some of these behaviors.

My contention is in order to reduce disproportionality we have to be aware of the biases, the culture and the expectations that we bring into every situation. And it’s just there for all of us, whether it’s the gender gap, the racial gap, class gap.

What is the next thing Colorado should do?

It’s two pronged: Create the policy that says if suspension is ever used it will be used as a last resort and it will be determined by a third party. And teachers get the supports they need.

The key is that we recognize that people are in this field because they truly want to make a positive difference and impact outcomes for children. No one is coming in saying I want to suspend little black kids or little brown kids. They are doing the best they can with what they have. I think that’s the first thing we need to recognize. But then say, “But here’s the data and we know why that’s happening.”

I think providers are afraid they’re going to be perceived as really bad people. We don’t want that. We know that there are tools out there that can help: Pyramid Model practices, early childhood mental health consultants and teacher prep programs. The Denver Preschool Program has a four-part training series on addressing disproportionality in discipline.

Nearing the finish line

New preschool compromise plan would add 15 counties, expand voucher access

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

Lawmakers have arrived at a tentative compromise for how to expand Indiana’s preschool program, and it includes controversial proposals to expand vouchers and online learning.

Under the compromise plan, 15 additional counties would be included in the state’s preschool program — up to 20 from the current five. The cost of the expansion will likely be unclear until early Friday, but House Speaker Brian Bosma said it will be closer to the $10 million per year increase called for by the House than to the $4 million increase proposed by the Senate.

This year’s debate over preschool has been heated. Bosma and other Republican leaders, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, have come out strongly for expansion, while others, notably Senate Appropriations chairman Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville, have been more skeptical of spending money on a program still being studied by the state.

For many Democrats, the two Republican plans don’t add nearly enough money for early education. Preschool advocates, who have lobbied for spending $50 million per year, tend to agree.

None of the counties in the existing preschool program — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh — would receive less funding than they did last year unless the number of students or preschool providers have decreased significantly. But going forward, rural counties would be prioritized, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author.

To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four still couldn’t earn more than $30,861. But in the original five counties only, families of four making up to $44,863 could apply if all the lower-income families who were interested already received grants and there was funding left over.

Controversial language allowing a new voucher “pathway” remains in the bill, but in a more limited fashion, Behning said. If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at that same school. Behning said about 171 kids now attend 24 voucher-accepting schools with preschool programs, and of those, just six kids would be eligible to continue with a voucher for kindergarten.

The plan also includes specific requirements for parents receiving vouchers, including how often their children will attend preschool and that they will read to their children every week. It’s not clear how such measures would be enforced, but parents would have to agree before they could get a preschool scholarship.

The compromise plan would also allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. The state would agree to study these online programs, and priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers.

The compromise proposal still must receive final approval from the House and the Senate, which is expected later this week.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.