It’s clear that when you lead the state — by a wide margin — in suspending your students, that something is amiss. Here we have a district, Beaumont ISD, with a suspension rate that is 48% higher than the second-highest rate in Texas, and it consistently ranks low with accountability ratings — all in the context of having a reduced teaching force enacted by a board of managers appointed by the Texas Education Agency.
So the red flags are waving, but is anyone responding? And does the blame fall on TEA and the district board of managers? The second question is particularly interesting to explore since TEA is on the path to try and appoint a board of managers for Houston ISD.
The Houston Chronicle’s Jacob Carpenter examines all these issues in a Thursday investigative piece: “Beaumont ISD suspends kids at Texas’ highest rate — and it’s not even close.”
Students in Southeast Texas’ Beaumont ISD, one of the state’s longest-struggling school districts, were suspended at a rate more than six times the state average and far exceeding any other district with at least 1,000 kids last school year, a Houston Chronicle and Beaumont Enterprise analysis of state discipline data shows.
As districts across Texas have scaled back on suspensions and “zero tolerance” approaches to discipline in recent years, Beaumont has gone in the other direction, administering 46 suspensions per 100 students last year, the state’s highest rate over the last decade.
By comparison, the district with the state’s second-highest rate, Port Arthur ISD, issued 31 suspensions per 100 students. In the Greater Houston area, every large district reported fewer than 16 per 100. The state average was 7 per 100.
Beaumont’s suspension practices have coincided with dismal academic performance and behavior challenges afflicting the district, which barely eked out a C grade under the state’s accountability system in 2019. Frequent discipline particularly has impacted Beaumont’s black students, who comprise about 60 percent of the district’s population but received 87 percent of suspensions last school year.
….According to Texas Education Agency data, 3,325 out of Beaumont’s 19,000 students were suspended last school year, missing a combined 17,500 days of school.
First, out-of-whack suspension rates are nothing new, and periodic focus on the issue — especially on suspension rates for African-American students — has been ongoing, with many legislators and juvenile advocates often noting that it should be TEA’s job to investigate exceedingly high rates. TEA hasn’t offered any meaningful comment on the Chronicle story. One would think that if TEA were adequately monitoring its own board of managers it would have taken substantive action to ensure that the high suspension rates were addressed.
The board of managers was appointed in 2014 after embezzlement by two district officials and financial mismanagement left the district essentially broke. According to the Chronicle, the managers did clean house and restore financial stability, but with an extreme cost to the kids.
Excessive financial mismanagement resulted in widespread layoffs in the mid-2010s, prompting a dramatic spike in the district’s suspension rate. In subsequent years, Beaumont’s state-appointed governing board and its since-retired superintendent did not comprehensively address discipline in schools, leaving educators unprepared to handle students’ complex behavioral needs.
Five years later, Beaumont’s school board and top administrators have returned the district to solid financial footing, stashing away $53.6 million in its “rainy day” fund as of June 2019. Rebuilding the district’s reserves, however, left little money for bolstering a demoralized teaching force, which remains at 2014–15 levels.
In the half-decade since the cuts, Beaumont’s annual teacher turnover rate has more than doubled. About 23 percent of teachers did not return to the district following the summer of 2018, higher than the state average of 17 percent.
In addition, Beaumont’s percentage of first-year teachers nearly has tripled during that time, reaching 13.4 percent in 2018–19. The state average was 7 percent.
Educators working in the district also face class sizes larger than the state average, despite serving one of Texas’ neediest student populations.
During that five-year stretch, Beaumont’s suspension rate remained among the state’s highest, never dipping below 36 issued per 100 students.
“We have a high number of teachers with very little experience dealing with some of the behaviors coming into our classrooms,” Allen said. “That’s just the reality of where we are.”
….“Some of the administration would talk a good game, but when a teacher had a problem with one kid and 20 others in the classroom were feeding off that one, sometimes they didn’t know what to do,” said Michael Renfro, who taught in Beaumont middle and high schools for 22 years before retiring in 2018. “It really wasn’t a priority.”
Carpenter pointed out in a series of Tweets that the problems in Beaumont don’t necessarily mean Houston ISD will face the same issues:
Given that Beaumont ISD’s highest-in-Texas suspension rates occurred under a state-appointed governing board, some in Houston ISD have argued this bodes poorly for an appointed board here….I’ll explain why these 2 cases are pretty different. First, the 2 districts were in very different shape before appointed boards.
In 2014, Beaumont ISD was coming off major financial mismanagement/corruption, it had “no rainy day” fund, and its suspension rate already ranked 5th highest in Texas (29 suspensions per 100 students).
Today, Houston ISD is in solid financial shape, it’s academically sound on the whole (though with too many chronically low-rated schools), and its suspension rate is certainly not cause for major alarm (12 suspensions per 100 students).
When Beaumont ISD’s state-appointed board took over, the district was laying off about 200 teachers, 15% of its teaching staff, just to make ends meet.
While a state-appointed board could dramatically reduce Houston ISD’s teaching staff, there’s no need for that.
….It certainly can be argued Beaumont ISD’s appointed board should have done more to reduce suspensions, as we addressed in our story. But the board’s top priority was fixing finances, which it did. As we’ve written, that’s usually how appointed boards go.
The more significant point here should be what the Beaumont case shows us about a board of managers’ wrongheaded focus on one issue — finances — while the district wallowed in a reduced workforce, large class sizes and discipline problems. Indeed, it was an elected board that got Beaumont ISD into a mess, but five years under a board of managers has shown that there hasn’t been much consideration given to the academic and personal growth of its students. That must be considered a consequential failure by TEA, and it again reinforces why it’s important for communities to retain the responsibility to govern their schools.
I suspect some readers may weigh in to say that discipline is out of control in many schools and that perhaps Beaumont is stepping up to do something to gain control of their classrooms, and if suspensions are necessary, so be it. It could be argued that many principals are refusing discipline referrals and aren’t suspending because of more pressure to keep the statistics low. I still believe these stats are so out of bounds that they are signalling a significant problem in Beaumont ISD — one that wasn’t addressed by the board of managers — and I think you’ll get more of the context of this argument by reading the entire article.