Preschool students who are suspended, expelled, or otherwise excluded from their early care and education settings miss out on crucial developmental opportunities that can affect the course of their lives.
A new project aims to address that by eliminating suspensions, expulsions, and exclusions in North Carolina’s preschool settings.
Valerie Jarvis McMillan, an associate professor at NC A&T State University, told attendees at the 51st annual conference of the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) in Washington, D.C., this month about the origins of the project, its three-year goals, and five promising models funded by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.
“A long-range vision would be for us to be the flagship state that really solves the issue and then share our successes with other states,” McMillan said in an interview with EdNC. “But the first way to put us on the path of reaching that vision is to start talking about what we’re doing, in targeted national platforms.”
Presenting the problem
Nina Smith, an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, is working with McMillan on the project. She began the presentation by outlining the problem, starting with why early care and education (ECE) is important.
“Zero to 5 is the point in time where the brain is developing most rapidly,” Smith said. “Early childhood is a foundational developmental period, so it sets the stage for academic preparedness and later school success, and just overall development.”
Removing children from their care and learning environments during this crucial developmental period, Smith explained, is inherently disruptive to the goals of ECE.
“Unfortunately, we also know that there are racial inequities in ECE suspensions, expulsions, and exclusionary practices,” Smith said. “And these are depriving a disproportionate number of Black children from early education opportunities.”
In addition, “often these practices are used in response to developmentally appropriate behaviors,” she said.
Eliminating the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline in response to developmentally appropriate behaviors among Black children is precisely why this project exists.
Here are the five models that the project is supporting, as described by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation:
Educational Equity Institute (EEI) EEI will partner with the Hertford-Northampton Smart Start to co-design a model with community partners, including educators, administrators, and parents. The project will begin with intensive training for Smart Start staff to ensure their work is grounded in a deep understanding of racism, bias, and systems change. EEI and Hertford-Northampton Smart Start will then work to recruit a strategic planning team of community advisors that will inform the development of a specific model that will then be implemented in local child care centers with support from Smart Start technical assistants. Learn more at educationalequityinstitute.com.
Empowered Parents in Community (EPiC) EPiC is partnering with “we are,” a Durham-based organization specializing in anti-racist curriculum development in early childhood education, to develop a new curriculum that is culturally affirming and humanizing for Black children in ECE settings. EPiC, “we are,” Black parent leaders, and early childhood educators will build upon this existing project and implement a community-based, collective engagement model that supports the navigation and disruption of key dynamics and biases that can lead to suspensions, expulsions, and other exclusionary practices. Learn more at epic-nc.org.
Truth Education Foundation: Truth Education Foundation was founded by two women who have deep professional experience in early care and education and whose Black sons were both subjected to exclusionary discipline in preschool. Truth Education Foundation plans to test a model grounded in anti-bias framework at a pilot site in Durham County. They will deliver a series of workshops to child care center staff with an anti-bias design for the adult learning experience. This will be followed by coaching, classroom observation, and data collection to measure effectiveness and fidelity in the classroom.
Village of Wisdom (VoW): VoW will utilize the Black Genius framework, a model grounded in more than 150 listening sessions with Black families and shown to improve learning outcomes, to build culturally affirming classrooms. VoW will begin by strengthening partnerships between parents and educators using the wisdom and experience of Black parents to inform instructional decisions. VoW’s Black Genius framework will equip educators with the tools they need to create culturally affirming learning spaces and to be less reliant on stress-induced responses that lead to exclusionary practices. VoW will implement this project in a small number of child care centers in the Triangle. Learn more at https://www.villageofwisdom.org .
YWCA of Asheville (YWCA): The YWCA of Asheville is on a mission to eliminate racism and empower women and as such, will implement a number of strategies to address suspension, expulsion, and exclusionary practices that fuel a preschool-to-prison pipeline. These strategies include increasing staff and educator racial justice acumen, implementing trauma-informed practices, approaches, and strategies, reconfiguring staffing to provide educators with greater support, and slowing enrollment to decrease the teacher/student ratio; these pilots are intended to reduce suspensions and expulsions of black students in child care. The YWCA will engage the most directly impacted part of our community, the families of all childcare students, by developing and engaging a parent advisory board, creating more avenues for parent/teacher engagement, and offering free, community racial justice workshops. The YWCA will track data on professional development, teacher competencies, and exclusionary practices in order to quantify the impact of this work. Learn more at https://www.ywcaofasheville.org.
‘Every kid deserves to get off to a great start’
The project originated from conversations among people at the foundation and leaders in early childhood research across the state.
“Every kid in our state deserves to get off to a great start,” said Rob Thompson, director of early childhood at the foundation, “and early care and education is a great way to make that happen.”
“There’s just no good reason why we should be depriving some kids of that,” Thompson said. “It’s especially troubling when the kids that we’re depriving of that opportunity are primarily Black children, whose families are also subjected to a whole set of other systemic inequities.”
In conversations about preschool suspensions, expulsions, and exclusions, one issue kept emerging.
“The data stinks,” Thompson said.
The most recent available data are from 2017-2018 and represent only those pre-K students enrolled in classrooms operated by a public school system — about 20% of 4-year-olds in the state.
The data reveal that Black students — particularly Black boys — are suspended at disproportionate rates.
Expulsions have been banned for students under age 14 since 2011, but only for students in North Carolina’s public schools.
No one knows how prevalent suspensions or expulsions are for 4-year-olds in classrooms outside of the state’s public school system, or for children under the age of 4.
“We know there’s a significant disproportionate impact on Black children, and there’s some initial research on maybe why it’s happening,” Thompson said. “So could we fund a series of projects to see if there are interventions that might work?”
‘Come on this journey with us’
Thompson and his team realized there needed to be a coordinated statewide effort instead of individual projects happening in isolation. That’s when McMillan and NC A&T came up as potential leadership partners.
“It just kind of organically happened with us and this project,” McMillan said.
Starting in November 2021, McMillan and her team began collaborating with Thompson to develop a request for proposals intended to eliminate the use of suspensions, expulsions, and exclusions in early care and education settings.
They received 25 applications during the submission window in April and May 2022.
At the same time, they were assembling a statewide 31-member advisory committee made up of family representatives, educators, child care facility owners, researchers, and early childhood organization representatives.
The advisory committee is split into five task forces to generate public awareness of the issue, provide mentorship and coaching to the five grant recipients, gather research and data, evaluate programs and practices, and develop public policy.
Members of the advisory committee worked with McMillan’s team and Thompson to review the applications and choose the five grant recipients.
Those recipients were announced in August and are already beginning their work.
With the five promising models selected and the advisory committee task forces engaged, McMillan was on the lookout for a way to bring this project to a national audience.
“The agenda of NBCDI, with its primary focus on Black children and their families and their care and educational experiences,” McMillan said, “fits with our focus on early care and education suspensions and expulsions in North Carolina.”
Throughout the three-day conference centered on a theme of Afrofuturism, attendees were asked to reimagine a future for Black America that centers Black children.
McMillan said she hopes policymakers will do more than just imagine. She hopes they’ll visit early care and education settings to learn how these promising models can help North Carolina create that future.
“Come on this journey with us,” McMillan said, “before we get to the policymaking process to eliminate this issue.”
Editor’s Note: The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation is a supporter of EducationNC.