07/10/2008

New SPLC Publication Promotes Blueprint for Reducing Alabama's School Dropout Rate

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today released a blueprint for reducing Alabama's alarming student and teacher dropout rates as part of an ongoing effort to improve the climate in the state's schools.

"Alabama's high school graduation rate has ranked among the bottom five to 10 states for the last 20 years," said Marion Chartoff, director of the SPLC's Alabama Education Reform Project, an effort to reduce the flow of students from schools into the criminal justice system. "It's a devastating trend that robs our students and our state of a brighter future."

The SPLC's recommendations are included in a new report, Effective Discipline for Student Success: Reducing Student and Teacher Dropout Rates in Alabama, which promotes a research-based approach to school discipline that also improves academic performance and overall school climates. It will be distributed to state school board members, superintendents, principals and others across the state.

Despite commendable academic progress, Alabama's high school graduation rate is just 61 percent, ranking the state 43rd in the nation, according to Education Week. Twenty-nine students — a classroom's worth — drop out of high school every school day in Alabama. Overall, the state ranks 47th in the nation for child well-being, according to the annual KIDS COUNT survey.

A recent report by the Southern Education Foundation found that Alabama’s economic future is directly tied to its high school graduation rate. In fact, the state’s low level of academic achievement is the major reason that per capita income in the state lags far behind the nation as a whole.

Research has shown that school discipline practices are a major factor in pushing vulnerable children out of school and, often, into the juvenile justice system, a path known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Dissatisfaction with school discipline is also a reason many teachers in Alabama leave the profession. Each year, Alabama gains approximately 4,000 new teachers, but 50 percent of them will leave the profession by their fifth year, a problem Gov. Bob Riley noted in his 2007 State of the State address.

The report recommends that a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) be implemented in every Alabama public school.

PBIS fundamentally transforms the school into an environment where good behavior is taught and modeled by everyone from the principal to the custodian. Students are rewarded and praised for the good behavior while discipline problems are addressed in a smarter way. Principals and teachers work together to determine the causes of problem behavior and develop school-wide and, when necessary, individualized plans to improve behavior. Office referrals are tracked and that information is used to determine when, where and why discipline problems are occurring. The end result is a reduction in suspensions, expulsions and dropout rates.

PBIS has been successfully implemented in both urban and rural school districts as well as districts with high and low concentrations of poverty. It has been used in more than 7,000 schools across the country, including a number in Alabama.

At University Place Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, PBIS has cut office referrals by more than 50 percent, said Deron Cameron, the school's principal. Faculty and staffers work together to teach students the school's three core values of being respectful, resourceful and responsible.

"We all appreciate being recognized for a 'job well-done' in our occupation and PBIS allows us to do the same for our students," Cameron said. "By employing PBIS at University Place Elementary, our students' self-esteem and confidence escalate and, subsequently, academic achievement soars."

The faculty and staff at Florence Middle School are also teaching the new three R's — respectful, responsible and resourceful — as part of a PBIS program. "It's something we reinforce daily, and we do it as a whole staff," said Bill Griffin, the school's principal. "If we didn't, we would never meet our academic goals. You need the new three R's to make sure that all children learn the old three R's."

Almost 300 schools in Alabama have worked with the PBIS program on some level, but the proven success of this program spurred the SPLC to launch this effort to bring it into every Alabama public school.

"We must turn around Alabama's dropout crisis," Chartoff said. "Raising awareness and building support for PBIS is an important step toward transforming our schools and the state for the better."