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Asbury Park Public Schools district is in the news again: this time for a money-saving initiative by superintendent Rashawn Adams called the “Asbury Park Academic Bridge 45- Day Program,” an “alternative school” for students grades 6-12 who violate discipline rules so severely that the usual ten-day suspension isn’t harsh enough.
In New Jersey, when students are suspended for more than ten days the district is required to place them in out-of-district programs, which can be expensive. Adams and his administrators are “gathering information to determine whether resurrecting the alternate school on campus would produce meaningful savings as well as lasting changes in behavioral problems.” In this alternative school (where the 45 days could be extended indefinitely), students would sit in a classroom using New Jersey Virtual School courses, the theory being this isolation would be a deterrent to bad behavior while students keep up with coursework They would also receive “ongoing social and emotional learning support.”
In a surprise development, Asbury Park board members are not rubber-stamping Adams’ plan.
Joe Grillo, a board member since 2017, is concerned about where exactly this alternative school would be located, especially given parents’ distress when the district combined the middle and high schools, due to falling enrollment, and 6th graders were thrown in with seniors. (Next year grades will be reconfigured so 6th-8th graders will go to the Upper Elementary School.)
Tracy Rogers, elected last November, asked to see financial information to see how much money the district spends on out-of-district placements to ascertain whether there would indeed be savings. “I would like to see those numbers before I vote,” Rogers said, according to the Coaster.
There are a few other issues the Board may want to address. Sources say some of the students with severe behavioral problems are classified as eligible for special education services, which means the district can’t unilaterally change their placements: this has to be done through meetings with parents and Child Study Team members. Also, the district would be required to conduct Functional Behavior Assessments for each classified student: according to the law, they can’t be disciplined if their behavior is a result of their disability.
I’ve also been told that Asbury Park used to have an alternative school where students learned virtually. [Correction: the alternative school used live teachers, not virtual instruction.] It was located in facilities belonging to the Salvation Army but the district was “thrown out” after students caused much damage. It didn’t work very well.
Most importantly, the research on behavioral problems among teenagers—especially after the social-emotional damage caused by long school closures and remote instruction—points to disproportionate tolls for low-income students of color and poorer student outcomes.
Ben Court, a K-12 researcher, notes “significant equity concerns” associated with “punitive and exclusionary” forms of discipline, as well as lower academic achievement.
” When we look at in-school suspensions or classrooms with high rates of exclusionary discipline, there’s some interesting studies to show that not only is it worse for the student who is the recipient of that discipline, it’s also worse for other students in the classroom.”
The American Institutes for Research recently released a study that shows in-school and out-of-school suspensions are ineffective methods for dealing with student misbehavior in middle and high schools.
“The goal should be to get to the root of the problem and get kids back in class as soon as possible. What’s counterproductive is if kids are sent to sit in a room with someone who’s just there to babysit and they’re not getting any support,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which analyzes racial inequities in public education. “That could just trigger further problems…If you’re just replacing one with the other, in-school suspensions can be as bad or worse as out-of-school suspensions.”
And let’s note that a primary feature of the school-to-prison pipeline is “exclusionary punishments like suspensions and expulsions.”
Certainly, the cost of out-of-district placements is high. According to the state database Asbury Park currently spends $3.2 million on out-of-district tuition for students who, most likely, are placed in private special education schools or other public districts. (This doesn’t include tuition for charters, which are a separate line item of $11 million.)
Yet all this skirts the real problem: why are Asbury Park students acting out to this degree and what is the remedy? According to the DOE, 22% of Asbury High School students had in-school or out-of-school suspensions last year, three times as high a percentage as the notoriously violent Trenton Central High School. What’s going on? And is isolating and confining them to laptop screens the right answer? Perhaps Asbury Park families would be better served by a thoughtful, enlightened strategy to address severe behavior rather than locking misbehaving students in a room and telling them to man up.