05/12/2009

SPLC Releases Blueprint to Reduce Student, Teacher Dropouts in Louisiana

The SPLC today released a blueprint for reducing Louisiana's alarming student and teacher dropout rates as part of an ongoing effort to improve the state's schools. The state's high school dropout rate is among the worst in the country.

"Every day in Louisiana, 80 students drop out school. And every day, teachers frustrated by disorderly classrooms simply give up and leave the profession," said Ron Lospennato, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s School-to-Prison Reform Project. "This crisis has already had a devastating effect on Louisiana. We can address both the student and teacher dropout problems if we adopt a new approach to school discipline that improves the learning environment in schools."

The reportEffective Discipline for Student Success: Reducing Student and Teacher Dropout Rates in Louisiana — promotes a research-based approach to school discipline that also improves academic performance and overall school climates. It will be distributed to legislators, state school board members, superintendents, principals and others across the state.

The report is part of a larger effort to reform the state's discipline practices and improve academic performance in Louisiana schools.

Despite some academic progress, Louisiana's high school graduation rate is only 63.9 percent — well below the national average of 74.6 percent. In 2006, Louisiana ranked fifth in the nation in the percentage of high school dropouts, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The dropout crisis has had damaging consequences for the state. In 2005, Louisiana ranked 50th in the nation in per capita income. On average, each person in Louisiana had almost $10,000 less income than the average American, according to the Southern Education Foundation. More than 60 percent of this income gap can be attributed to Louisiana's poor educational results.

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 Louisiana say they leave the profession. About half of the state's new teachers are not teaching in Louisiana public school classrooms within five years of their graduation, a problem Gov. Bobby Jindal noted in his opening remarks of the Legislature's 2008 regular session.

The report recommends implementing an approach called Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) in every Louisiana public school.

PBS 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 good behavior while discipline problems are addressed in a smarter way than under zero-tolerance policies now used in many schools.

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.

More than 800 schools around the state already are implementing at least some elements of PBS. At least three school districts — Jefferson Parish, Calcasieu Parish and Caddo Parish — are already implementing PBS on a district-wide basis. In Jefferson Parish, where this approach has been implemented the longest, two years of district-wide PBS have already had a positive impact on school discipline:

  • The out-of-school suspension rate for special education students plunged 51 percent after two years of district-wide PBS.

  • Out-of-school suspensions dropped 24 percent for general education students after one year of PBS.

  • Special education students suspended from school for more than 10 cumulative days — an important indicator for later dropout — plunged by 90 percent after two years of PBS.

Nationally, PBS has been successfully implemented in both urban and rural school districts as well as districts with high and low concentrations of poverty. The proven success of this program spurred the coalition to launch this effort to bring it into every Louisiana public school.