Tough Love in Texas District

By Ann Bradley — January 24, 2006 1 min read

Several hundred students in the Lancaster Independent School District in Texas learned a tough lesson this month, when they were suspended for failing to complete assigned homework over the winter break.

Larry Lewis, the superintendent of the 5,800-student district since July 2003, says the days are long gone when students and families could assume that athletics and band were more important than academics, or when suspensions were only for infractions such as fighting or swearing at a teacher.

“I am a firm believer that society doesn’t believe that a large majority of students of color can learn,” said Mr. Lewis, who is African-American. “We are going to show the world that our kids can.”

When he arrived in the 35,000-resident community, located south of Dallas, most of the students were reading between three and four years below grade level, he said in an interview. Now, 72 percent of the students are rated “academically acceptable” in reading.

About 80 percent of the students in the district are black, about 14 percent are Hispanic, and the remainder are white.

The district’s goal is to have every student on or above grade level, Mr. Lewis said, to lay the groundwork for introducing the demanding International Baccalaureate academic program next year.

Given that agenda, allowing students’ minds to languish for three weeks didn’t make sense to Mr. Lewis. So high school students were required to conduct research for next month’s science fair. Younger students, depending on their grades, were given reading assignments and related projects to complete.

Of the 1,700 high school students, 236 returned to school on Jan. 9 without their research and were suspended. Most got their work done by the end of the week, Mr. Lewis said, but district officials were visiting the homes of the last stragglers, who will be kept after school until their assignments are done.

Nearly 400 elementary pupils didn’t finish their work, but most were given a reprieve when they turned their work in the next day. The rest of the suspensions were of junior high students, who were asked to do the science assignment.

Most members of the community have been supportive, Mr. Lewis said. He noted that parents were made aware of the assignments in advance.

And that’s a good thing—the district’s curriculum department is already finished with the math assignments to be handed out for spring break.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week