From Expel to Excel – What We Can Do

From Expel to Excel – What We Can Do

By: Susan Lewis Kaylor, St. Vincent Family Services


Expelled.” “Suspended.” “Leave school and don’t return until…

No matter how it’s phrased, every parent dreads these words. The repercussions from one expulsion can echo throughout a child’s life. Severe disciplinary action is so linked to later school failure and even criminal involvement that many refer to it as the “pre-school-to-prison” pipeline. The American Bar Association compares expulsion’s impact to that of a jail sentence.

Like an unwelcomed health diagnosis from a doctor, all of us fear the repercussions when kids at any age are evicted. But here’s another fact that should give us pause: Parents of pre-school children hear those heart-wrenching terms more frequently than parents of older children. In fact, a recent Yale University study reported in Governing Magazine’s November issue found that pre-schoolers, on average, were eight times more likely to be expelled than their older counterparts.

The drivers behind this disturbing trend connect back to three key factors:

  • Lack of trained mental health experts in most child care centers and pre-schools. While most school systems deploy counselors and administrators to intervene in extreme behavioral situations, early care providers typically do not have the same resources.
  • Ever-increasing need for pediatric mental health professionals even during the earliest years of life. More than one fourth of U.S. children will experience a traumatic event before the age of four according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention. Those numbers are even more dramatic for kids living with poverty and addiction.
  • Lack of hard data. No one entity tracks or counts how may kids end up in this situation. If national trends hold true, as many as 4800 preschoolers in the Franklin County met with the same fate.

Whatever the causes, thousands of three and four-year-olds in our community may experience this major life setback sometime this year.

It’s not just the child who is put in jeopardy by expulsion. The entire family may be pushed to the brink. Imagine what it means for working single parents to unexpectedly find themselves without child care. They may think: “How long will it take to find another provider for my child? Can I find a reputable center if they know about the previous behavioral problem? How much more will it cost? And, what about transportation – can I get there by bus? How much extra travel time is involved? What impact will it have on my job?”

The questions and considerations seem endless.

We know these issues well at St. Vincent Family Services. As experts in pediatric behavioral health, we provide early childhood mental health consultation to more than 70 childcare centers throughout Franklin County, thanks to generous funding from the ADAMH Board of Franklin County and United Way of Central Ohio. Our goal is to provide support to pre-school teachers and youngsters to support social and emotional learning and provide tools so that young children can be successful in a typical classroom. For those students whose behaviors are in need of more intense mental health support, we manage a best-in-class pre-K Day Treatment Program, designed specifically to help kids learn how to better manage their own behavior so they can return to school and life. Our Day Treatment pre-k program provides academics and 2.5 hours of mental health treatment that equips youth with social and emotional learning in small ratio classrooms with highly trained specialists. In the last three years, we’ve treated and taught nearly 400 pre-schoolers.

Most of these youngsters could never attend St. Vincent specialized Day Treatment Program without our transportation assistance, assistance that costs us nearly half a million dollars annually for our pre-school students and for which we receive no reimbursement. Most of our students are very low income and receive healthcare through Medicaid. They require door-to-door transportation daily in order to arrive at St. Vincent Prep Academy on time and ready to learn.

We’re happy to report that nine out of ten of our kids can return to their original child care provider or school within 9-12 months, which is exactly the outcome we’re here to deliver.

But, it’s time to put the emphasis on the transportation necessary to ensure students receive the mental health support they desperately need. While our clinicians and teachers are absolutely essential to helping these children and families, so are our bus drivers. However, we cannot expand our reach to other children who we know need our help. We’re asking the community to take a long and wide view of expulsion issues, including getting expelled and suspended kids to a resource that can help them.

Think about it. As a community, let’s take a closer look at pre-school expulsions and work together to do more for our most vulnerable three – four- and five-year-old children. Some communities have tapped federal transportation dollars for this purpose, so at least some basic solutions may already exist.

Early intervention transforms lives, dams up the pre-school to prison pipeline and saves money as well. Every dollar invested in early education and intervention produces a 13% return on investment per child, per year.

We can’t afford for pre-school expulsion to be a confining life sentence.