Sharing the Magic

“I’ll never forget the man at the camp who spoke to us about the magic.”

Alepho Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, shared his story and the lessons he learned from surviving the horrors of war as a child in Sudan with students at Palisades Charter High School  last Friday.

The ‘magic’ he spoke about was an education.

Photo by Rich Schmitt

Alepho was seven years old when he was forced to join tens of  thousands of other fleeing boys whose villages were attacked by government militias. The children escaped in the dead of night with no food, water, shoes or parents, travelling by foot more than a thousand miles across three countries.  After five years of walking, Alepho made it to a refugee camp in Kenya where he stayed for another nine years. He was one of 3,800 Lost Boys resettled to the United States in 2001. He and his brother and cousin chronicled their ordeal in the poignant account, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan.   

Alepho was twelve when he first learned to read (English) and do math.  He understood the power of literacy immediately and became an avid student. “I ended up understanding the cause of war – no education, no magic.”  Alepho and the Student Task Force, the terrific student activists who sponsored the event, advocate for education as  a human right as basic as food, shelter and health care.  And Alepho challenged the Pali kids to think about how they can make a difference for children who lack that right – around the world and right here at home.

“What if that was you?” he asked his audience.  “What would you do differently today?”

It was a compelling question addressed to students who are fortunate enough to attend one of the highest performing public high schools in Los Angeles.

No need to point out for the umpteenth time that many children across town are denied this basic human right.  They are not learning to read or do math, are dropping out of school, and are all too frequently landing in the criminal justice system.  A new unsettling report that takes a different tack on the frightening disparity in education quality focuses on student discipline – specifically student suspensions. According to the analysis from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA , the children most likely to be suspended are African American boys with disabilities.  Really?

The first shocking statistic in the report is the sheer number of suspensions in California: 400,000 students were suspended one or more times in 2009-10. Then comes the disaggregation.  Nearly 18% of all black students received out-of-school suspensions, as compared to 6% of white students.  It gets worse.  Children with disabilities are more than twice as likely (13%) to be suspended as children without disabilities (6%).  And the black students with disabilities? 28% were suspended in 2009-10 statewide.  In LAUSD, worse yet: 36%. These are the students who we are supposed to be providing with extra support. Instead they wind up- way too often- in the juvenile detention camps.

The implications are enormous. Not surprisingly, high rates of out-of-school suspensions are strongly associated with lower achievement, higher drop-out rates and a greater likelihood of juvenile justice involvement- and carry no academic benefit (see the powerful analysis of Texas middle schools from the Council of State Governments Justice Center).  In fact, studies indicate that suspensions increase the likelihood of future poor behavior.

Finally, it turns out that the vast majority of suspensions are for minor infractions (such as dress code violations or disrespect).  And – no surprise again- demographically comparable districts with lower suspension rates score higher on academic performance measures.

Clearly it’s time to look at the impact of our student disciplinary system on education outcomes. We know there are schools that are getting this right- low suspension rates and high performance levels- in the toughest neighborhoods. When the school leadership establishes a culture that encourages performance and respect, students and teachers focus on teaching and learning.

Alepho might call it ‘magic’.  Others might call it common sense.

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