At a time when schools are craving donations for everything from tissues to trombones, spending $125,000 on a one-year pilot program is a lot to ask — especially for Santa Rosa City Schools.
But in this case, it's money well spent.
The school board has decided to allocate that amount to address one of the district's less tangible challenges, namely its deplorable rate of suspensions.
At the moment, Santa Rosa City Schools suspends middle and high school students at one of the highest rates in the state. Only three other large school districts in California — those with more than 10,000 students — have higher rates of suspensions.
State data show there were nearly 4,600 suspensions in the Santa Rosa district in 2011-12. Given that there are 11,300 students total in the district, that's equal to roughly four out of every 10 students — a rate three times higher than that of Oakland schools and four times higher than the state average.
Suspensions have the one benefit of removing a disruptive student from a learning environment. But they come with costly downsides, including the loss of per-student funding. Given that schools only get funding for those students who are physically in class each day, the Santa Rosa district lost $350,000 in daily attendance funding from suspensions in 2011-12.
Perhaps more costly in the long run, however, is the lack of closure or reconciliation — measures to ensure that students learn from their negative conduct and make amends rather than just enjoy a day off.
For that reason, the district is closely monitoring a program underway at Cook Middle School and Elsie Allen High School that calls for consequences that involve more restoration at school and less recreation at home.
Working with Restorative Resources, a nonprofit organization, Cook Middle School officials have developed a program in which students, rather than being sent home, are required to stay at school and attend a 12-week session that involves confronting those who have been harmed by the student's actions. Those individuals could include parents, school administrators, teachers or other students.
As part of a two-year pilot program, two Restorative Resources employees will be on staff at Cook and Elsie Allen to help handle these cases.
The $125,000 one-year cost is expensive. But district officials say it will be offset by an estimated $46,700 saved in lost student attendance funding. They also are expected to save $100,000 in federal special education funds.
The added benefit is the potential long-term savings from preventing repeat problems and chronic truancy.
As noted in a recent Press Democrat article, truant elementary school students cost North Coast school districts more than $20 million a year. Although Sonoma County has one of the lowest truancy rates in the state at 12 percent, the 5,000 truant students cost the county some $14 million in lost funding.
The near-term savings and long-term benefits of restorative programs, made this funding decision easy. It pays for itself and comes with other benefits that are hard to quantify but are no less significant. Like an apology.