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DISPARATE DISCIPLINE: Black, Latino Youth 2-3 Times More Likely To Be Suspended From School

February 11, 2019 Leave a comment

DISPARATE DISCIPLINE

Black, Latino Youth Are 2-3 Times More Likely To Be Suspended From School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The harsh practice of early childhood centers and elementary schools meting out discipline to “difficult” children through suspension or expulsion is netting more attention. Even more disturbing is the higher rate at which African-Americans and Latinos face exclusionary discipline for behavioral reasons. Special-needs kids are also more frequently disciplined than the general student population. Punitive measures applied in special ed are higher yet for kids of color.

Black boys are consistently disciplined more than any other students across the educational spectrum.

These practices and trends happen nationwide in pre-K, elementary, middle and high school settings. Nebraska’s largest school district, the Omaha Public Schools, incurred a $1.85 million penalty from the Nebraska Department of Education in 2015 for disproportionate suspension of special-ed students. A district report for the 2017-2018 academic year revealed blacks and Latinos suspended at two or three times the rate of whites within the general and special-ed populations.

In the wake of community concerns, district suspension data is slated to be discussed at the Feb. 20 OPS board meeting.

Despite studies-reports, strategies-initiatives on the issue, data show a persistent problem here and across the U.S. where there’s diverse student enrollment.

Yet some schools-centers manage misbehavior without resorting to exclusionary discipline as a matter of policy.

There’s consensus by educators, academics and parents that repeated, prolonged removals from the classroom negatively impact a child’s educational, social-emotional developmental progress. It also poses challenges to parents and families.

“There are very few parents in a position where suddenly having a child home for some amount of time is going to be easily managed. This can create significant challenges for families.” said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice at Voices for Children in Nebraska.

Jana Habrock, director of Early Childhood Mental Health at the Child Saving Institute (CSI), said, “Research and experts agree suspension-expulsion is harmful for young children. It has damaging effects on children and their relationship to school and the message it sends to them about their worth.”

“As a practical matter,” Summers said, “every time a student is suspended or expelled, learning time is lost. When the student returns to class, he or she will be a little bit behind, understand a little bit less of what the class is learning. The student may act out from boredom or lack of understanding, and the cycle repeats.

“This repeat cycle of behavioral choices, being excluded, feeling unwelcome, returning and feeling lost, can certainly foster negative perceptions about school, education and authority figures. Exclusionary discipline, particularly for young children, can have lasting impacts. If a child comes to believe he or she is unwelcome or unwanted in a classroom environment, one defense mechanism can be to decide he or she does not want to be there anyway and act out accordingly. Written or unwritten labels of ‘the bad kid’ can stick, not just with educators, but with children themselves.”

At Nelson Mandela School in North Omaha, principal Susan Toohey said, “We don’t believe in suspensions – we believe in timeouts.” Serving a suspension at home, she said, “is probably not going to be educationally fruitful and a kid gets the mindset that I’m bad.

“Doing restorative justice within the school setting – to change behavior to get the child back with peers – is much better.”

Sherwood Foundation-supported Educare centers do not use suspension-expulsion for the same reasons.

Path of least resistance

Exclusionary discipline is even more problematic when applied arbitrarily or as an expediency.

“At times, I think suspension-expulsion is used to send a message to the parent the behavior is serious,” said CSI’s Habrock, adding, “Sometimes the center or school does not know what else to do to improve the behavior.”

Resources are available to assist educators and parents.

At CSI, Habrock said, “we did not suspend or expel kids, but we also did not know what to do with kids coming in our doors that had been expelled from other programs and had significantly challenging behavior. So, we started a program, KidSquad, to support these kids and get them prepared for the behavior expectations of kindergarten and the school setting.”

Child care centers can become last resort “babysitting” options for expelled elementary school children. Age and developmental-needs differences pose problems.

“I think our program continues to exist and maintain a wait list for services because challenging behavior is hard, overwhelming and frustrating – and teachers and parents don’t know what to do,” Habrock said.

Another early childhood focused training program, Rooted in Relationships, works to prevent suspension by coaching childcare providers to use the Pyramid Model – a positive behavioral intervention and support framework – and providing information about the harm suspension practices cause.

Habrock concedes educators must “balance keeping all children safe.”

Studies and parent testimonies, however, suggest many children get thrown out of school for behaviors denoted as “disrespect,” “insubordination” and “verbal conflicts” that pose no safety risk. The severity of other behaviors resulting in suspension, such as fighting, are open to interpretation. Thus, there’s momentum around Too Young to Suspend legislation that limits suspension-expulsion to only clear threats of physical danger. Nebraska State Sen. Megan Hunt is sponsoring the Too Young to Suspend Act in LB 165. It’s been referred to the Unicameral’s Education Committee.

A mishmash of procedures in private child care centers makes standardized suspension-expulsion rules difficult. Public schools, however, have structures, policies and government funding in place that provide framework and leverage for system-wide uniformity.

“I think we have really great evidence that pushing a student out of school is not good for that individual student, and it’s not good for the rest of the students either,” said Voices’ Juliet Summers. “One of the best predictors of student achievement for a school is not necessarily the poverty or crime rate of a neighborhood but rather how strong the relationships are that parents, administrators, teachers and students describe.”

Lack of staff training and resources may explain why some kids get suspended or expelled.

“Even in classrooms where teachers have bachelor degrees in early childhood education,” Habrock said, “they often have very little hands-on experience in preventing behavior and implementing strategies to improve behavior. That is changing some in our colleges and universities, but there is still more to be done.”

As more children present Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), some disruptive behavior may be rooted in trauma requiring professional mental health intervention.

“More than one child in a classroom with these types of experiences can overwhelm the capacities of even the best teachers,” Habrock said.

Just don’t expect easy answers for “a multi-layered issue,” she and other experts say.

Adequate training and resources are only part of it.

“Making adjustments to meet the individual needs of each child is the gold standard in early childhood education,” Habrock said. “Programs in our community like Early Head Start, Head Start and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), accredited child care programs do this really well. Those programs often have additional resources like family support workers or lower teacher-child ratios to bridge home and school to learn the individual needs of each child. Programs without those resources have a more difficult time accommodating individual child needs.”

Early Buffett Childhood Institute founding Executive Director Sam Meisels said, “Almost always a situation that could lead to expulsion of a preschooler is an environmental problem. It’s a simple thing but a not-so-simple or unimportant thing. Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for preschoolers. To expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher. Mostly we can figure this thing out or get some help to figure it out.”

Said Habrock, “Nearly all early childhood experts agree play is how young children learn. But with the push for academics at earlier and earlier years, we see less and less time for things like center time and outdoor play.”

Making it personal

Educators believing they’ve failed a child is one thing. Parents having their child kicked out of school is another. Tunette Powell and her husband are well-educated, good-earning African-American parents of two young boys. The couple provide a safe, stable home, and yet their sons got suspended from a Bellevue preschool in 2014.

“If you looked at our situation you would say this would never happen – and here it happened. It was a shock and a wake-up call at the same time,” Powell said.

It evoked memories of her own elementary school suspension in her native San Antonio. The experience, she said, put her behind. Since her sons’ suspension, she gets triggered whenever their school calls.

Powell, a writer and public speaker, shared her family’s story in a blog that went viral. She instantly gained a national platform to address the issue. Today she’s Parent Engagement Coach at the UCLA Parent Project and a UCLA doctoral student in Urban Schooling. Her dissertation is based on interviews with black parents, including Omahans, who’ve had children suspended.

Powell was shocked again when she discovered how embedded racialized suspension is in early education.

“We always knew about K-12. For younger children the data is very new. However, we as a nation have been capturing data about this since the 1970s, so at this point we know there’s a problem. But I don’t think people expected the disparity would also be present for children as young as 3 and 4 years old.”

She traces the suspension epidemic and the disparity of its application to when integration introduced more black children to majority schools.

“It has its roots in desegregation and, if we want to go beyond that, we have to talk about the context in which black people were brought and put here in the first place. It’s always been about social control.”

Her thesis, she said, “looks at the damage done to the minds and spirits of black parents when they have a child suspended. They’re sharing some pretty              heartbreaking and emotional things about how this is impacting their lives. I call it collective trauma.”

She’s been there herself.

“It’s my life. It’s one thing to read statistics but it’s another to hear stories. And this is where black parents are especially important. We have to be sharing our stories. These parents hurt. They’re embarrassed. They’re made to feel that if my child is in trouble then they’re a problem and that means I must have given birth to a problem. That’s the way we frame right now.

“It’s not to say black kids don’t present behavior issues. But when we see the disparities we have to be honest and say it’s probably not the child that’s the problem.”

Powell echoes others that school disciplinary actions can haunt youth into adulthood.

Omaha business owner David Mitchell dealt with “the negative results of elementary school suspension” into high school, when, he said, he was finally “comfortable exploring my scholastic abilities.”

Bias

“We know it’s an embarrassment for the child,” Powell said. “We know it severs early ties with peers and teachers. It’s completely disrupting to everything about the child’s life. It stigmatizes young people. Your suspension history record follows you in school the same way incarceration does when you’re job-seeking. Teachers are likely to see you through one lens only.”

Nelson Mandela principal Susan Toohey agrees. “We all come to our work with the lens with which we were given, and some of us need to change our lens.”

“We still need a lot of work in breaking down bias and implicit bias,” Juliet Summers of Voices said. “Teachers and administrators have huge hearts for their students, but all of us walk around with implicit biases drilled into us through our culture. Educators are not exempt.”

“Implicit bias is something we see in our work,” Habrock said. “We have done some community training-professional development on cultural competence. We also address implicit bias in our consultation with teachers. This spring we will bring a national expert on this topic to provide training to the KidSquad team and others to improve our skills at addressing implicit bias and disproportionate discipline.”

In schools with diverse students but predominantly white educators, “it’s inevitable biases and prejudices will be a factor,” said Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru.The former OPS teacher seeks to “change the culture and climate of the public education tree that seems to drop many African-American students like bad apples.”

Summers believes bias is one piece of the situation.

“Another piece,” she said, “is that black students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools in a classroom where a teacher has more students to handle, sometimes more with higher, more various needs. In those environments teachers don’t have what they need to meet any behavioral challenges with the same level of patience and grace and welcoming arms.”

Buffett Early Childhood guru Sam Meisels said, “There are problems of identification with the authority figure who looks different and is different – some children coming from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure previously.”

Given bias is real, Gaines-Liwaru said, “Building diversity understanding and cultural empathy through appropriate professional development for educators and support staff should be every urban school district’s mandate, and it should be on-going.”

For Gaines-Liwaru, remedying the “disproportionate suspension mess and injustice” should include engagement in curriculum students “can see themselves in.” She fears “It’s easier to put kids out of the classroom, document negative behaviors and allow suspensions to ensue than to individually research and design lessons that empower students in their racial-cultural identities.”

She advocates “putting resources towards diversifying teaching staff” and “utilizing restorative justice methods that teach kids healthy social skills and behavior management techniques versus suspending them.”

OPS has made diversifying its teacher-administrator ranks a priority. It contracts with the Minnesota Humanities Center for voluntary cultural competency training. The district’s plan to reduce disproportionate suspension among special-ed students includes closer partnerships with Project Harmony and other mental health resources. OPS is also working to implement a problem-solving model called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavior (MTSS-B) to more effectively and equitably address misbehavior and discipline.

Activism-Advocacy

“It’s not enough to have blacks in leadership roles,” said Tunette Powell. “We have a tendency to be content or complacent with that. We need to really push them. If you’re leading a district struggling with disproportionally, what are you going to do about it? We have to hold people accountable. We are so far beyond symbolism.”

If there’s to be change, Powell said, “black parents need to discuss their experiences and take those to school board and community meetings. We have to become the community leaders and activists. I think people don’t want to listen to black parents because often we don’t have a Ph.D. after our names. But we can’t ignore black parents’ voices anymore.

“I wish education officials would be bold enough to say that systemically we have failed black children. It’s the only way we can move forward.”

Omaha community activist Leo Louis II held fall public forums on school suspension after black parents asked him to be an advocate in dealing with OPS.

“Often times the parent is completely unprepared for what the school has planned for their child,” he said.

He’s concerned that terms associated with adult criminal allegations, such as “assault” and “abuse,” are used to describe some young children’s misbehavior.

The forums have yielded personal testimonies about suspension and alternatives to its practice.

“it’s been my task to educate the community this is not a unique situation to individuals and individual families but a systemic thing,” Louis said. “We’re seeking allies willing to have this conversation and to put in real work toward the solutions.”

One ally, Sharif Liwaru, was fired in December as director of OPS’ Office of Equity and Diversity after forwarding an email from Louis about a school suspension forum at North High to district principals. Liwaru said he didn’t direct or invite school officials to attend but merely shared the event notice. Two previous suspension forums were held at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, for which Liwaru is president.

Louis led a silent protest of Liwaru’s firing at a Jan. 7 school board meeting.

The district will not comment on personnel matters.

Liwaru has not moved on from the suspension issue. He’s now executive director of the new grassroots Justice for Kids Initiative that seeks to reduce school suspensions.  Organizers and supporters held a Feb. 3 launch to build awareness and raise funds.

He worries alternatives will receive short shrift as long “as educational exclusion is on the table.”

“We need to find alternatives to suspension that actually teach the appropriate behavior as an immediate response to violations and we need to have solutions that build relationships between students and teachers. Bigger than that, we have to have the difficult dialogue about racism and how it shows up here,” said Liwaru, whose wife is Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru.

“Cooperative relationships and open communication between school, student and parent are fundamental to every child achieving his or her educational goals,” Summers said. “When a student is excluded from the school environment, particularly if strong lines of communication have not already been created, it can send the wrong message.”

School-to-prison pipeline?

Some suggest the jarring interruption of being severed from school contributes to truancy and drop-out behaviors. Once youth come in contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, this pattern can be a school-to-prison pipeline gateway. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said so in 2014.

“You talk about setting kids on a wrong pathway – it just adds to the trauma many children experience. The science is pretty clear,” said Buffett Early Childhood Fund President Jessie Rasmussen. “These things happening in the earliest years of a kid’s life have a direct connection to their trajectory for life. It doesn’t mean we can’t do interventions later, but it’s harder, more time and resource intensive and far too often not successful.”

The skew of blacks and Latinos facing exclusionary discipline mirrors that of individuals in detention and incarceration. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights reports that schools with Student Resource Officers have much higher arrests and referrals to law enforcement for black students than white students. A permanent police presence in schools makes children far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests for disciplinary matters than a generation ago, said ACLU Nebraska Legal Counsel Rose Godinez, “A school-based arrest is the quickest route from the classroom to the courthouse.”

ACLU Nebraska recommends “positive alternatives to exclusionary punishments” to improve student safety.

It’s clear to Powell and others that the same “racialized narratives” behind over-policing, profiling and criminalizing of adult black male scours in schools, where black boys are viewed as “older or less innocent.”

“Just as communities are exploring alternatives to detention, we must consider alternatives to suspensions-expulsions which push kids out and cause them to disengage with education,” said ReConnect Inc. Executive Director LaVon Stennis-Williams. Her program works with families who have contact with the justice system. She sees a direct correlation between exclusionary discipline and delinquency.

“Often what we label as a disciplinary problem is actually the child acting out because he or she is so far behind in school that learning is not making sense,” said Stennis Williams. “Some of this might be due to learning disabilities that go unmet. I have had youth sent to my program for day reporting due to long-term suspensions or expulsions who have gone months with no educational services. So the youth will eventually quit school at an early age and spiral in and out of the juvenile justice system until reaching the magic age to be charged as an adult.”

No one wants children’s welfare to get lost in the shuffle.

“Because a child can be disruptive for your whole class, it’s easy to say in the interest of all the other kids this kid’s got to go, What we should say is that in the interest of all kids all kids need to stay,” said Rasmussen. “This is not anything about the children. This is about decisions by adults, and that’s how we have to see it.

“Our job is to promote this child’s healthy growth and development. Our responsibility is to figure out how best to do that and what they need and to work in partnership with parents to accomplish that,” Rasmussen said. “It’s more important to get the support to the parents and the caretakers than to somehow penalize children.”

Meanwhile, Sharif Liwaru sounds a note of collective remediation. “Because this is so complex,” he said, “we must all take ownership.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

A firsthand account of school suspension and trauma

Black mother, 2 sons suffer the wounds of expulsion

By Tunette Powell

When I was three 3 years old, I was expelled from preschool because — as my mother remembers it — I was “acting too grown.”

I was a preschool dropout.

My elementary experience was similar. Whether it was me “acting too grown,” fighting over something silly or passing letters because I was bored, the end result was the same: I was suspended, and because my mother worked, my Aunt Linda and my grandma watched me.

It was the early 1990s, and on the East Side of San Antonio, Texas, where I grew up, the black community was unraveling. Crack cocaine had kidnapped black mothers and fathers, including my father. When my grandma saw me in the principal’s office, it was reminiscent of the countless times she had seen my father strung out on crack cocaine as he was being hauled off to the county jail. To my grandma, my schooling experience had become my father’s prison experience.

As I got older, rather than focusing on becoming better in school, I focused on getting out. The older I got, the less I attended school. I was chronically absent and despite a B+ average in high school, my mother was forced to pay a fine, to the courts, for my absenteeism.  I was assigned to a probation officer and sentenced to Saturday school and after-school detention for most of my 11th-grade year of high school to make up for all of the days I had missed. Despite skipping school and being suspended at nearly every grade level of K-12, I graduated from high school and tried college for a bit before dropping out. I eventually went back to college after a four-year hiatus, and in 2012, eight years after graduating from high school, I became the first woman — and just the second person — in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. On the surface, it appeared as though the adult-me had outrun the school-suspended child-me.  On the surface, the trauma of being cast out by schooling, and the trauma experienced in my family had been conquered.

And then in 2014, the phone rang.

“We need you to come pick up Jason,” the director of my oldest son’s preschool said.

“Is he being suspended?” I asked.

“We don’t like to use the word ‘suspended,’” the director said. “We just call it going home for the day.”

That same year, my oldest two sons, Jason and Joah, who were 3 and 4 years old at the time, went “home for the day” nearly a dozen times combined. By 2014, my life was completely different than that of the 1990s. Having escaped poverty and married now, my husband, who was in the Air Force, and I were living in suburban Omaha. I was a published author, motivational speaker and founder of a nonprofit. But no matter the years and miles removed, that phone call took me back to my childhood; that of not only being told that I was a problem but actually believing it. While on the first of multiple calls that year with my children’s preschool, I was reminded that I could not outrun trauma, out-accomplish trauma, nor could I buy my way out of trauma. The trauma of my childhood experiences with suspension and those of my children permeated my core being. Similar to a solider, safe and away from the battlefields, having a reflexive duck-for-cover response after hearing a loud sound, suspension had “impaired my hearing.”  Every time the phone rang, the sound brought tears to my eyes as I was always expecting it to be a suspension phone call. The trauma impaired my sight. As I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw the accomplished woman, only a problem who had given birth to two problems.

For black families throughout the United States, this has become the norm as black children have become the most suspended students in the country, according to a report released in 2018 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. According to that report and others like it, black boys are the most suspended of any group of students; and Black girls — the most suspended of all girls — have the highest-growing suspension rate of all students. Black K-12 students are nearly four times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students. Among children in preschool, black children, who make up only 19 percent of preschool enrollment, represent 47 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, according to a report released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, even among students with disabilities, who carry federal documents that are supposed to protect their civil rights (e.g. IEP and 504 plans), black students are unprotected as they are suspended more often than any other group of students with disabilities. Based on these statistics, it is easy to assume black children – as young as 3 and 4 years old – are the problem, that their behavior and emotional responses are particularly maladaptive to schooling.  However, black and white children do not behave very differently; it is the adult response that is different. Previous studies have shown that adults typically view black children as older, less innocent and more blameworthy compared with non-black children, including Latino children.

In my case, I was a curious child who asked a lot of questions and enjoyed talking. At home, my family, especially my father, called me smart and gifted. However, at school, preschool teachers interpreted that behavior as me “acting too grown.” These school discipline disparities are rooted in a history of the dehumanization and adultification of black children. Black children are treated like they should know better, adultified and are consequently robbed of the chance to be children. For example, in 2016, a group out of Yale University found that the early childhood educators tended to observe black students more closely, especially black boys. According to their study, early childhood educators expected black preschoolers to exhibit more challenging behaviors compared with their non-black peers. This has resulted in the increased likelihood of dropping out of high school, academic failure, grade retention and future incarceration – all things that are harmful and traumatic to black children and their families.

As the Trump administration is repealing federal protections that guard students from these discriminatory practices, the fight to disrupt and dismantle what is happening in schools must be fought at the local level – and must begin and end with black families. All across the nation, in cities such as Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and Dayton, Ohio, black families are fighting against school suspension and supporting behavior intervention. In Omaha, where black families are met with the same fate as black families nationally, the time to be vocal is now. The single-most-important first step of disrupting and dismantling school suspension disparities is for black parents and students to share their experiences. Additionally, because parents in other states have launched grassroots efforts to combat school suspension, it is important to study those successes. For example, Dignity in Schools – a national coalition of parents, youth and community organizers to end school pushout – offers a toolkit for parents, youth and organizers who want to combat school pushout. This toolkit includes organizing and campaign strategies as well as fact sheets and sample reports.

Right after desegregation, black parents tried to alert us of school suspension disparities. More than 50 years later, the cries of black parents have gone unheard, resulting in black children being the most pushed-out children in the country. However, at this time in history, black parents are lifting their voices in ways that are forcing school districts to hear us and see us. Omaha needs this kind of rallying.

Tunette Powell..JPG

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Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 1 comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”

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The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”

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He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”

Visit http://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu.

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