This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Facing a wave of criticism over high rates of suspension among kindergartners and other young students, School District officials say they have taken steps to focus the attention of District staff on prevention and intervention strategies that will provide help to young children who are acting out.
A recent Public School Notebook issue uncovered a high and growing rate of suspensions of Philadelphia students in the early grades, including 33 kindergartners suspended in the first quarter of the school year.
At a December School Reform Commission meeting, a series of speakers criticized the District for using out-of-school suspensions to punish its youngest students. Speakers questioned whether the students and families involved were getting the help they needed to deal with behavioral and emotional issues.
One sign of the District’s new approach is a change in the language it uses in describing disciplinary actions involving kindergarten students. Another sign is a series of half-day training sessions held for all elementary school principals on age-appropriate measures for young children with behavior issues.
"For kindergartners, what were classified as suspensions will now be classified as ‘interventions,’" explained Cecilia Cummings, director of communications for the School District, in a March 7 interview.
"We are moving the language to more appropriately convey the focus of our approach here," she stated.
"We are stressing intervention," Cummings added. "We are saying for the District’s youngest children, a variety of steps must be taken before you even consider exclusion as an appropriate intervention."
She said excluding a kindergartner from school should be seen as "an absolute last-case scenario" — only to be used "in extremely severe circumstances."
"The new classification also alleviates the concern that a suspension on the record would stigmatize a student for something that occurred when they were five," Cummings added, acknowledging that District officials were directly responding to community feedback about stigmatizing kindergartners.
The District will continue to track data on kindergarten interventions, including how many students are excluded from school and for how long. Whether the change in classification might be applied to other young children in grades 1 to 4 is still not decided, Cummings said.
The School District’s Code of Student Conduct will be redesigned for next school year to spell out the interventions and corrective actions that are recommended for children in grades K-4, explained Gwen Morris, director of the District’s Office of Transition and Alternative Education.
Morris pointed to other steps being taken by the District to address behavior issues with young students, including:
- Providing District staff with a "single point of contact" within the city’s behavioral health system — to make it clear both whom schools should contact to obtain social services and who is responsible within the city for addressing students’ needs in a timely manner.
- In partnership with the city’s Department of Human Services, placing a "Consultation and Education Specialist" (C&E) in each elementary school to help connect families with behavioral health and other social services.
- Consulting with staff in other school districts about appropriate discretion and "gray areas" in enforcing zero tolerance policies and laws like Act 26 (banning weapons in schools) when cases involve young children.