Two Racine Unified elementary schools are making targeted, team-focused efforts to reduce suspension rates for Black students. As the Journal Times reported earlier this year, out-of-school suspension rates for Black students are high across the district.

About a quarter of Black Unified students were suspended in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 5 percent of White students and 7.2 percent of Hispanic students. Knapp Elementary School, 2701 17th St., has set a goal of reducing the rate of suspensions given to Black students to 35.5 percent this school year, from 60.5 percent last school year. Dr. Jones Elementary School, 3300 Chicory Road, has a similar goal to cut out-of-school suspensions for Black students to 29.5 percent, from 37.5 percent last year.

Rich Wytonick, directing principal at Knapp, said that office referrals and suspensions are already down significantly this year. Last year, the school had 900 office referrals, and is tracking to have fewer than 400 this year. The school handed out almost 600 suspensions last year and is tracking to have fewer than 200 this year. “So we’re super excited by the progress that we’ve seen,” Wytonick said. Dr. Jones School successfully reduced office referrals for special education students by 42 percent last year, another group that typically has a higher rate of suspensions than other students.

Dr. Jones Principal Sherrie Hopkins said the school is working to identify students with behavioral issues and take a look at the whole child and his or her needs. To decrease office referrals and suspensions at Knapp, the school has established areas in each classroom where students can go to take a break, redirect themselves and refocus. If that doesn’t work, students are sent to a “take a break” classroom.

Racine Unified School Board member Matthew Hanser said it is important for the public to understand that a decrease in office referrals does not mean that administrators are ignoring inappropriate student behaviors. Wytonick answered that he believes a high staff retention rate this year of 92 percent has been the most significant contributing factor in decreased office referrals and suspensions. He said this has helped to build continued student-teacher relationships.

“These teachers are choosing to come back and stick it out,” Wytonick said. “That’s something that’s been missing at Knapp for quite some time. If we treat them right and support them, they want to work for us, they want to stay.” Staff at both Dr. Jones and Knapp spoke positively of the Unified program Circles of Support, which places youth advocates in schools to help a targeted group of students master the behaviors expected of them at school and in the community. “I believe that having a youth advocate in the building for our students has made the difference for Dr. Jones as a school community,” Hopkins said. “When I first arrived five years ago, the relationships between the school and the families were broken.”