Tennessee preschool selected as national model for fixing racial discipline gap

A Nashville preschool will serve as a national model for how to address discriminatory school discipline practices.

Cambridge Early Learning Center, a pre-kindergarten program operated by Metro Nashville Public Schools, is one of two schools nationwide selected for $1 million grants from the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the U.S. Department of Education announced last week.

The preschool will partner with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development to help pre-K teachers develop skills to support their students emotionally and prevent behavioral problems down the road. The other model early learning center is in Clifton, N.J.

The grant comes as education leaders in Memphis and Nashville try to figure out pre-K’s role in creating equal education opportunities for low-income kids of color. Shelby County Schools added nearly 300 pre-K seats this fall, but it’s not clear how effective its pre-K programs are at helping kids succeed in later grades.

Statewide, Tennessee is grappling with equity issues related to school discipline. The state has the largest discipline gap in the South, meaning that students of color, especially African-American students, are disproportionately suspended or expelled, beginning when students are as young as 4. The discipline gap contributes to achievement gaps because the more class time missed, the worse that kids do academically. It’s also key to the school-to-prison pipeline, which results in many black students ending up in the criminal justice system rather than in school.

The problem isn’t unique to Tennessee. Through My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative, President Barack Obama has asked all states to take a hard look at discipline practices and seek ways to eliminate suspensions and expulsions in preschool.