An alternative to suspension
The Escambia County Board of Education started a new program this year which offers a positive alternative to suspension.
The Suspension Deferral Program started at W.S. Neal High School in March, thanks to a federal grant of more than $30,000. With this new program, administrators at W.S. Neal have the option of assigning students to community service on Saturday rather than suspending them during the week.
With the resources to make this possible, community service is clearly a better option than suspension.
When students are disciplined with suspension, what do they learn? What is the benefit to their schoolwork, attendance issues, their attitude toward doing well in school? Often suspension may be the only option, but not necessarily the best one.
Saturday community service, on the other hand, has several advantages. First of all, students assigned to the program will not miss any classes. For students who are already behind because of attendance or discipline problems, a few days out for suspension can mean an insurmountable setback.
Another advantage of the program is the character building that is an inevitable side effect of serving the community. Helping others can make troubled students feel proud, accomplished, like part of the community. They may even develop a habit of serving long after it's not mandated by the school. And they can learn from the influence of adults who devote a lot of their time to local programs that serve the community.
The school system has a head start in providing opportunities for community service. They've partnered with existing programs like RSVP, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks and other projects for the Suspension Deferral Program.
Students in the program can also receive educational services in a classroom setting -- meaning not only do they not struggle with the loss of classroom time, but they get that much more opportunity to bring their performance in school up to par.
Yes, suspension deferral seems preferable to suspension, but not all schools have the option, and it's only become available to Escambia County in the last three months.
What's needed to provide a program like this is funding. The Escambia County School Board has that funding for one year, with the opportunity to renew it two more years if the program works.
According to Superintendent Melvin Powell's report at the board's last meeting, it is doing very well at this point.
When I spoke to Escambia County's attendance and community education coordinator Donna Revel in February, she said she hoped that this pilot program can eventually be used as a model for other school systems wanting an alternative to suspension.
I'd like to add to that the hope that when other schools are ready to adopt something like this, they can find the money to do it.