At the Shriver Center, we believe that justice requires that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Research shows that high-quality child care and early learning programs can offset disadvantages and close opportunity gaps faced by young children experiencing poverty. However, every year thousands of preschool-aged children are being suspended or expelled from these programs at alarming rates.
In our second year of our Early Childhood Justice initiative, the Shriver Center sought to explore the issue of preschool expulsion through a Dialogue event. Our location: Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. We gathered nearly 70 guests to hear a distinguished panel of experts delve into the problem and solutions.
Shriver Center board member (and granddaughter of President Johnson) Catherine Robb set the stage for the evening by recounting how President Johnson called Sargent Shriver to lead Johnson’s signature program, the War on Poverty. Shriver's leadership of this effort gave birth to countless poverty-flighting initiatives including Legal Services for the Poor and Head Start.
Ann Courter, director of Early Childhood Justice at the Shriver Center introduced our panelists: Dr. Walter Gilliam, Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, Patrick Sanders, Director of Head Start at Child Inc., serving 1,800 families in Travis County, and Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, a statewide policy and advocacy organization with a robust agenda to improve the lives of children and families.
So, how did the issue of preschool expulsion come to light? Dr. Gilliam, who has authored extensive and groundbreaking research on preschool expulsion, shared alarming findings from a March 2014 U.S. Department of Education report that expulsions and suspensions in our early care and education programs are greatly disproportionate to boys and African American children. Specifically, black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. Similarly, boys represent 54% of the preschool enrollment, but 79% of children suspended once and 82% of children suspended multiple times. National data on preschool expulsion has been available for about a decade, with little action toward a change.
"Preschool expulsions and suspensions are not child behaviors; they are adult decisions" says Dr. Gilliam. "We form biases and use things we think we know or think we have seen to make sweeping stereotypes. It's most harmful to children when because of those biases we expect something different from children and treat children differently."
How do these issues play out in Head Start programs today? Patrick Sanders, who has deep experience with the strengths and struggles of low-income families in Austin and Nacogdoches, Texas, notes that two important components guide Head Start's approach to ensuring children from impoverished and unstable home environments succeed in the classroom: (1) support and resources for instructors and staff, and (2) environmental supports for children and their families, including nutrition and wellness.
"If we kick them out now, we are essentially throwing them into prison," says Sanders. "Parents also need to be a part of the solution."
What is the role of policy in preventing preschool expulsions? Stephanie Rubin acknowledges that the data on preschool expulsions is shocking. Drawing on her past experience overseeing pre-K campaigns in over 20 states for Pre-K Now and the Pew Charitable Foundation, Rubin said it's very a big discussion among Texas state legislators. Rubin, who has successfully advocated for increased public investment in early education, mental health and child abuse prevention services, cites four current bills on the table that aim to support this issue.
"Our legislators expect big outcomes," says Rubin. "The challenge to the community is to point out that there is no silver bullet to improving preschool. We have to keep kids the focus, but it's not just a student issue. Instructors and teachers need more education and support."
The Dialogue certainly created conversation and questions among the community of early childhood, education and mental health professionals in the audience. Is there political will to do the right thing? How do we move through implicit bias? How do we improve learning conditions for children in poverty? As issues were raised and potential solutions were shared, one theme was for certain: the need for parents, students, teachers and community at large to work together toward justice from the start.
Our President, John Bouman, closed with a call to action. Join the Shriver Center and thousands across the country in pushing for solutions that work for all.