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By the end of this school year, Albemarle County school division leaders want to see out-of-school suspensions of black students reduced.

To make that happen, schools Superintendent Matt Haas or someone he designates will be personally responsible for approving any out-of-school suspensions of African American students, according to a presentation at Thursday’s School Board meeting.

In the 2018-19 school year, less than 4% of Albemarle County students received suspension. Black students comprise 11 % of the student body, but made up 27% of those suspended. Haas’ goal is to reduce that to 20% for this school year.

“That 27% should be no more than 11%,” Haas said at the meeting. “That’s why I’m proposing that I review all suspensions of black students that occur beginning Oct. 15. Because the number is small enough now that I can review.”

The division wants to suspend at least 30 fewer black students this school year. Last year, 122 black students were suspended.

In the last three school years, black students have made up more than 20% of all the out-of-school suspensions.

Last school year, a total of 455 students were suspended. Haas said he suspended more students during his first school year as an assistant principal in Virginia Beach than Albemarle did last year.

“It was actually celebrated by the administration,” he said. “That tells you how far we’ve come In 20 years.”

Haas said that the division’s overall suspension rate was “minuscule.”

Albemarle County has taken steps in recent years to reduce the number of suspensions. Jouett and Burley Middle Schools have implemented the Short-Term Education Program, which aims to decrease the disproportionate suspension of minority students and the overall out-of-school suspension rate. The division is planning to expand that program to Walton Middle School and Monticello High School, according to budget documents.

In addition to having Haas review suspensions, other strategies to reduce the suspensions of black students included having all county instructional staff go through a summer professional development session, which focused on culturally responsive teaching practices and the division is developing a dashboard of discipline data for each teacher.

Overall, 13% of black students received an out-of-school suspension in 2017-18, according to the 2018 Equity Report, which was approved last month. They were the only student group over-represented in the suspension number, compared to the division’s total enrollment.

The discipline goal is one of three targets for the 2019-20 school year outlined in an update to School Board members. In June, the board said it wanted division staff members to come back this fall with concrete goals regarding student achievement and opportunity gaps.

Haas said a goal is parity in representation in across metrics such as gifted education, graduation rates, student achievement and suspensions. If black students make up 11% of the division, then they should make 11% of the gifted program, for example. Currently, 3% of the students identified as gifted are black.

“Now, these are national problems,” Haas said of the opportunity and achievement gaps. “This is not unique to Albemarle County Public Schools. These are national problems. But we’re a school system of excellence. And we shouldn’t accept that.”

In Math, Haas and division leaders want to see the percent of students from those groups taking high school math in middle school increase by 1% during 2021-22 school year. White students accounted for 78% of those middle schoolers who took high school math course in 2018-19.

In reading, officials want pass rates on the third grade reading exam to increase by 2% or more in the 2021-22 school year for black students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities.

In the 2018-19, 70 percent of third-graders passed that exam. Of those students, 5% were black, 5% were Asian, 8% were Hispanic, 76% were white, 23% were economically disadvantaged and 8% had disabilities.

To improve reading scores, third-grade teachers across the division are working together to improve instruction and share strategies and implement common assessments, which help them better compare student data across the schools.

Board member Jason Buyaki questioned the 2% target and wanted to see a higher goal.

Haas said 2% was the minimum increase they want to see. For black students, that increase would mean an additional 18 students passing the exam in addition to the 32 who passed the test last school year.

Haas said it’s important to start reversing the trend, rather than setting a large goal up front.

“If you set a small goal and have success with it, you build momentum toward the end game,” he said.

Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, said although it was important to have high expectations, school leaders still need to address the reality in the system. Through the division’s new anti-racism policy, staff members are reevaluating structures and practices that hamper achievement for certain student groups, he said.

“We have tracking in place, we have low expectations in place, those are systemic structures that we really need to examine before we can make the progress,” he said. “So we’re moving in the right direction to take a hard look at those deep-rooted practices that prohibit us from having a system of equity for all.”

For the division, just setting target goals is “a big move forward” and something they haven’t done in the past, Haas said.

“I have never had a conversation like this at a school board meeting,” he said. “This is powerful.”

Haas said division staff members will continue to bring the testing results and other data points before the board.

“This isn’t like a one-time fix and then move on,” he said. “Every year, we’re going to keep pushing toward equity in all these areas, and you’re going to see these numbers change. It may take a while.”

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