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Schlichtman: Educational background, race, data

Paul Schlichtman, a candidate for reelection to the School Committee, provided this commentary. 

Paul Schlichtman, School Committee candidate, 2020 photoSchlichtman

Folks in Arlington see me as a School Committee member, a Town Meeting member and a political figure in town. They don’t usually see me in my role as an urban educator.

For the past 19 years, I have worked for the Lowell Public Schools. My job involves the analysis of the district's data. I have also served as principal of two elementary schools in Lowell. Before I worked in Lowell, I performed a similar function at Madison Park High School in Boston, and I was an elementary teacher at the Mason School in Roxbury and the Philbrick school in Roslindale.

One of my all-time favorite students was a first grader who reminded me of who I was when I was his age. I met him a few years ago when I served as principal of the Rogers Early Learning Center in Lowell. He was one of the largest boys in the first grade. He was brilliant, but often uninspired by schoolwork.

I will never forget how he bounced into school one day and said, “Mr. Schlichtman, my house is made of butter.” When I saw his mother that afternoon, we had a good laugh over that expression of his creativity, and I will never forget the joy of that moment.

Yet, I worry. This young black child is now a young black adolescent, who will be graduating from high school in the middle of the third decade of the 21st century. I can’t help but worry for how someone else will view him, someone else will respond to him, solely because of his size, gender and the color of his skin.

Folks say America has changed for the better, and in many ways it has. We elected and reelected an African American president, and my television screen regularly streams commercials with happy interracial couples selling everything from insurance to laundry detergent. None of this was imaginable when I started teaching 37 years ago.

Yet, in that context, worries for the safety and future of my African American students who walk across the stage with a diploma are entering a society as perilous for them as it was on my first day as a teacher back in 1983. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are tragic representations of the ills of our society in 2020. Healing our country is an urgent priority for the nation, and I hope the November election puts us on that path.

Student discipline data

In a dual role of a building principal and a district-level evaluator, I have two perspectives on the topic of student discipline and suspensions. I hate suspensions, and I view them as a symptom of a deeper failure somewhere in a child’s life. This is why my response to significant conduct issues was to ask a social worker to connect with the child and the family.

I wish my approach was universal. I worked in a district that reported that 5.5 percent of its 15,620 students had at least one out-of-school suspension. I worked in a district where about one-third (5,291) of the students were classified as Hispanic/Latino, but more than half of the students disciplined in 2019 (554 out of 1,107) were Hispanic/Latino. 8.6 percent of Lowell’s Hispanic/Latino students received at least one out-of-school suspension. Lowell’s rate for out-of-school suspensions exceeded the state average for all students (3.0 percent) and for Hispanic/Latino students (5.0 percent).

This data indicates a systemic problem, and an in-depth examination showed a large number of discretionary suspensions for infractions such as exhibiting defiant or disrespectful behavior and violation of cellphone rules. When I retired in March, the district was beginning to address the systemic issues pertaining to what is an extreme disparity in suspensions. The approach to reducing the extreme disparities is to curtail the option for discretionary suspensions, monitor suspensions at the district level, and to mandate appropriate antiracism, cultural-competency training for building-level administrators who have the authority to suspend students.

Arlington’s discipline data paints a different picture. In 2019, we reported 0.9 percent of our students who had at least one out-of-school suspension. There are certainly disparities across demographic groups, but our numbers compare favorably to the state. This is why we can look at the 93 students who were disciplined in 2019 as individual children and not as data points. The symptom of behavior that results in a suspension can be adequately addressed only when we meet the underlying needs of that child.

School Committee members do not receive individual data pertaining to student suspensions, and because the numbers are relatively small, an effort to disaggregate the data can jeopardize the privacy rights of individual students. This is why we can't see the intersection of race and income, or any two indicators, in the public data.

We can work off of the numbers we see to strive to further reduce the number of suspensions in the district. From my experience as a principal, my focus has been to increase the number of social workers to support children and families. While Arlington’s out-of-school suspensions for economically disadvantaged students (3.1 percent) is below the state average (5.4 percent), we know that financial stress in a family can be carried into the school. The symptom of behavior that results in a suspension cannot be addressing the underlying needs of the child.

This is why I have been an advocate for additional social workers in every budget cycle as the best way to reduce disparities and make our schools a better place for all students.My approach has been consistent with the efforts of the full School Committee, which has reviewed disparities and achievement gaps as a serious concern. We developed a multiyear plan, and the voters approved the 2019 override to support it. The additional funds are designated to address the impact of explosive enrollment growth of 27 percent since 2011; improve instruction; close the achievement gap for high needs students; ensure safe and supportive schools; and attract, retain, and develop talented staff.

Mr. Remy’s video

Last weekend, an Instagram video of Jean Mike Remy appeared and has generated considerable discussion in the community. A statement by Superintendent Bodie disputed the allegations. [See this news summary >>] Remy’s video described the district’s data as being in disarray. He talked of the need to probe data regarding detentions when he described his efforts to transmit district data for the purpose of state and federal reporting.

I cannot come to any conclusions pertaining to Remy’s complaint. I lack sufficient information to even approach an opinion. However, as the district officer in Lowell who had oversight over data collection and reporting, I have submitted the reports that Remy extracted from our data system, a submission that is made under the pain and penalty of perjury.In that context, I assume the data reported to the state and federal government is accurate. The federal reports ask for data pertaining to suspensions and exclusions, the state goes further to ask for data on conduct that fits into upper level categories that might not result in a suspension.

Because of the nature of the reported incidents, and the connection of suspensions to student attendance, the multiple entry points would lead to a reasonable conclusion that the reported suspension data is accurate.From both my roles in Lowell, I know there is a tension between data folks who want a complete picture of every disciplinary action, and principals who don’t want to electronically record low-level incidents that are not included in state reporting. I can only guess that this is a source of Remy’s frustrations, but it is merely a guess.

I would certainly like to have a conversation with Remy in order to get a clear picture of his experience from five years ago, with an eye toward establishing policies and procedures that will improve our ability to understand what is happening in our schools.

This commentary was published Thursday, June 4, 2020.

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