LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Fewer Jefferson County Public Schools students are being suspended or referred for disciplinary action, but black students still make up a disproportionate share of those who are sent home for misbehaving, according to data presented to the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday.

The discrepancy between suspensions for white students and black students “has to change,” said Chris Kolb, the school board’s vice board who represents District 2.

Data presented to the board Tuesday show that suspensions dropped 3.8% so far this fall compared to last year, with suspensions for black students down 4.3%. Suspensions for white students dropped by four total, or 0.7%.

Despite that improvement, black students make up 66.3% of the 2,472 suspensions thus far. That’s slightly better than the 66.6% rate at the same point last school year, when black students made up 37% of enrollment at JCPS.

Black students comprised 64.5% of disciplinary referrals, down slightly from 64.6% at the same point in the 2018-19 school year. White students have made up 23.7% of referrals so far this school year, down from 24.3% by the same point in 2018-19, according to data presented during Tuesday’s work session.

Overall, referrals for all students have dropped 11.4% in the first weeks of the 2019-20 school year compared to the same period last year, JCPS figures show.

“It’s moving in a good direction, but we know that there’s no statistically significant, discernible difference in behavior between white and black kids,” Kolb said, referring to suspension data. “… Are we creating urgency with those schools to where we say, ‘Look, this is not OK.’”

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he believes the district has developed “a greater sense of urgency this year than we’ve ever had” in reducing the proportion of black students who are suspended at JCPS.

“I think we’re attacking it well at the elementary school level,” Pollio said. Data presented Tuesday show elementary school suspensions are down 44.8% compared to the 2018-19 school year and disciplinary referrals at those grades dropped 12.9%.

The effort to curb the number of suspensions among black students includes the district’s implementation of its racial equity plan, providing data and resources to schools, and developing implicit bias training for school staff, said Chief of Schools Devon Horton.

Improving academic outcomes for students was another topic of discussion during Tuesday’s work session.

After hearing about student growth and achievement on Measures of Academic Progress tests so far this year compared to the 2018-19 school year, Diane Porter, the board’s chairwoman and District 1 representative, asked how JCPS uses that data to help students improve academically.

District data show that more students hit their growth goals on the 2019 fall MAP tests in reading and math compared to last year across all grade levels.

However, achievement gaps between white and black students remained in both subjects despite both groups making gains compared to the first round of MAP testing last year. Among black students who took MAP assessments, 26% hit grade-level achievement benchmarks in math compared to 58% for their white peers, a percentage point higher than the same initial test last year. In reading, 34% of black students performed at grade-level compared to 63% for white students. That 29-point gap was the same as last year’s first MAP assessments.

Pollio said he believed the winter assessment would better reflect the district’s efforts to cut achievement gaps this school year. Students take MAP tests in the fall, winter and spring.

The MAP tests allow JCPS to identify kids who need help academically and give them the necessary resources and interventions to improve their outcomes in school, he said.

“MAP is just like going to the doctor and getting your checkup and those indicators,” Pollio told the board.

Board members discussed some strategies that could help students academically, such as providing additional professional development days for teachers in the district.

Porter, who noted that her district has 14 schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement in the latest round of state assessments, said one-size-fits-all approach at correcting the persistent problem of students falling behind academically won’t work.

“This is not a cookie-cutter operation,” she said. “These are children that are trying to learn, and if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

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