New law aims to keep expelled students from falling behind

MUKILTEO — For decades, when students got into trouble in school they were tossed out of classes.

That can lead to a cycle of problems. They fall behind on classwork, think they can’t succeed, and sometimes give up and drop out.

A new state law is aimed at slowing that downward spiral by requiring school districts to provide suspended or expelled students with educational services and maintain regular contact.

Local school district officials are aware of the state law and say they already have academic services in place for students who can’t be in class for disciplinary reasons. Several are working on expanding those services. That includes adding more online learning options and providing one-on-one planning and mentoring for suspended students when possible.

Next month, the Mukilteo School District plans to open an Opportunity Day School. Mukilteo’s suspended or expelled students will be able to meet face-to-face with a teacher and teaching assistant to keep up on their studies.

The school district will base the day school at the Boys and Girls Club on Casino Road in Everett, which the district owns but has an agreement with the nonprofit for the club to use the space.

Students can attend either morning or afternoon sessions, said Beth VanderVeen, the district’s director of student services and athletics.

It’s expected to initially serve three to five students who either have been expelled or have a suspension of more than 10 days.

The emphasis will be on providing one-on-one help for students and them having a good relationship with the teacher, VanderVeen said.

If necessary, students also can be matched with mental health counseling at schools, drug and alcohol programs, and a staff member to work with the students’ families.

“In the past, those kids did fall behind or not return to school,” VanderVeen said. “We need to stay connected with these kids.”

The goal is to keep kids in school and moving toward graduation.

In some cases, students may opt to continue at the district’s ACES alternative high school or the Sno-Isle Skills Center following their suspension or expulsion, she said.

Both the teacher and the teaching assistant at the Opportunity Day School will be working part-time. The cost of the program for a full school year, including salary and benefits, is $135,000 with an additional $15,000 for furniture, computers and other supplies.

Students aren’t required to attend. “They can refuse to participate,” said Alison Brynelson, deputy superintendent.

“I’m excited to hear about Mukilteo,” said Dixie Grunenfelder, director of secondary education at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “School districts are jumping in and trying things beyond the packet of homework going home and looking for face-to-face interactions and instruction in a different setting.”

The state education office is collecting data from school districts on educational or behavioral services being offered when students are suspended or expelled, she said.

More than 4,000 students were suspended or expelled from Snohomish County schools in 2015, according to state data. That total includes short- and long-term suspensions. It does not include data from the Northshore, Darrington or Index school districts.

In Everett schools, changes have been made over the last couple of years aimed at keeping students who have been suspended on track academically. In 2015, there were 625 students suspended or expelled from Everett schools.

“We’re very aware of (the law) and actually for the last two years we have been doing a program specifically for this,” spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht said.

The goal is to work around the needs of individual students, she said. For short-term suspensions, that often means providing them with homework and other at-home lessons.

For long-term suspensions, a district employee is assigned to work one-on-one with students to put together an academic plan for them. There is a designated location in a district building where students come twice a week to check in, ask questions and build their plan. The district aims to get parents involved, as well.

“Each plan is different according to the student,” Albrecht said. “We also try to connect them with social services or other resources as needed to help ensure basic needs are being met.”

Another part of the plan is encouraging students to get involved in an off-campus sport, activity or club, she said.

In Lake Stevens, district administrators are working to find new ways to help students who have been suspended, district spokeswoman Jayme Taylor said. For example, they aim to enhance online learning programs. At-home activities are provided for short-term suspensions. For long-term suspensions, students can participate in the online programs or seek after-school help, she said.

“The educational plans for suspended students depend on the student and the severity of his (or) her discipline,” Taylor said.

Last school year, 453 Lake Stevens students were suspended and 15 were expelled.

Generally, students who have been suspended or expelled cannot be on campus during normal school hours. When possible, though, the district tries to get them on campus after school for instruction, Taylor said. This may be limited depending on the offense that got the student suspended. Teachers or administrators also can meet with students at public locations such as the library.

Students in the Arlington School District can log on to an online system to get homework or parents can get the information from teachers. If students don’t have access to the internet at home, they can drop by their school to pick up assignments, said Kathy Ehman, assistant superintendent.

“With the new law in place, we’re looking at alternatives,” she said. “You’ll probably see a lot more in-school interventions, but have some adult there to help support them.”

The Edmonds School District has recorded a significant drop in suspensions and expulsions, from 3,021 in the 2011-2012 school year to 1,240 in the 2014-2015 school year.

“The vast majority of suspensions that still occur are 10 days or less,” said district spokeswoman Debbie Joyce Jakala. The majority of those are short-term suspensions that are one to three days, she said.

“Since we have Chromebooks assigned to middle and high school students, they are able to take them home” to keep up with course work, she said. Students have access to assignments and teachers online.

Those who don’t have online access at home can have someone bring the work to them.

For the past several years, someone has been designated at each middle and high school to supervise in-school suspensions, she said.

“We identified a number of years ago that removing them from the academic setting is exactly what you don’t want to happen,” Jakala said. “It snowballs the issues that students are having. They’re falling behind in credits and learning.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com. Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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