Alexis Ramirez missed most of kindergarten to sobbing fits. First grade at Edison Elementary was little better. She would cling to the school gates or run from the classroom. Her flustered parents enlisted a police officer to tell Alexis that school was mandatory. Nothing worked.
“She would never stay with anyone else, except her mom,” said her father, Antonio Ramirez. “Even me.”
Missing so much class dragged down her grades. It took heavy cajoling and rewards from her mother and her teachers to coax Alexis, now 8, to the classroom, but slowly she came around to the idea. Now she clamors for books and primps in the mirror each morning before school.
Alexis’ story opens a window onto a quiet crisis in schools. Though behavior often takes a backseat to academics in school reform, tantrums or talking back can block kids from learning at all, pulling them from class for suspensions or worse. The problem is more likely to afflict students of color, especially black boys, who are at least 50 percent more likely to be suspended and three times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than their classmates.
Eyeing those numbers, educators in San Diego Unified are turning to behavior as one way to close the achievement gap between students of different races. Their goal is not only to quash misbehavior, but to change how educators handle behavior in the first place, from turning around a child like Alexis to reassessing how to diagnose a child as emotionally disturbed.
There are signs of a turnaround. Suspension rates dropped 12 percent in San Diego Unified in 2007-2008, one year after reaching their highest point in at least 25 years. Staffers caution that some of the decrease may be due to more accurate records. Racial gaps remain. But individual schools are feeling the change in calmer campuses.