Removing Barriers to Opportunity: Eliminating Preschool Suspensions

By David Johns, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence on African Americans

djohnsI have said it before and it bears repeating: Learning starts at birth and the preparation for learning starts well before birth. The time period between childbirth until about age five is among the most critical of a child's life as it is when the foundation upon which all future learning and development is built. To ensure they develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills and experiences needed to be successful in school and in life, all children must have access to high-quality early care and education programs designed to reach that goal.

This is especially true for African American students, who, in spite of a legacy of accomplishment in the face of adversity, continue to confront significant barriers to academic achievement - barriers that are unrelated to ability to learn but rather are related to opportunity to learn. According to the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection survey, African American male students received a disproportionate number of suspensions, detentions, and call-outs, at all levels.8 A recent Kids Count policy report published by the Casey Foundation similarly found that African American students face the highest barriers to opportunity in our society.

Opportunities to support African American students - and other scholars from poor, racial and ethnic minority communities - are available early in their lives. We need to take advantage of them. In addition, while we are focused on expanding access to high-quality early care and education programs and services, we must be equally vigilant about ensuring that we stop the practice of removing children from, or otherwise pushing them out of, the very spaces designed to ensure their success.

More than 8,000 public preschool students from across the country were suspended at least once, with Black children, and boys more specifically, representing a disproportionate number of those suspended. Black children account for only about one-fifth (18 percent) of all preschool students but nearly half of all preschool students who were suspended more than once. It is worth noting that boys of all races account for 54 percent of preschool students in the Kids Count report but represent more than 80 percent of those suspended more than once. While some may decide to debate the merits of suspending preschoolers altogether, the data regarding the impact of suspension on behavior and achievement is clear - it does not work to improve either. Call to Action: A Critical Need for Designing Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion suggests that school districts are continuing to use out-of-school suspensions - even for minor disciplinary infractions - despite evidence that these suspensions tend to exacerbate problem behaviors and may, in fact, lead directly to academic problems.

Beginning at birth, all children deserve to feel safe, nurtured and supported in the spaces designed to ensure their cognitive, social and emotional development. We must work to end disciplinary practices that result in any child being removed from high-quality learning and development programs and services, temporarily or otherwise. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans supports efforts to eliminate preschool suspension and other practices that negatively impact the achievement and development of our youngest learners.

This commentary was orignally published in "Being Black Is Not a Risk Factor: Statistics and Strengths-Based Solutions in the State of Wisconsin