By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Aaron Harkey discusses classroom behavior with Marssy
Are student suspensions hurting academic achievement?
Some CTA members are helping kids stay in school by finding alternatives to suspension while keeping safety as the first priority.
“Zero tolerance” policies emphasizing suspending or expelling unruly students became widespread in the 1990s as schools responded to fears of violence, weapons and drug use.
California schools issued 778,084 suspensions and expulsions in 2009-10, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Of these suspensions, 40 percent were for “defiance” and minor infractions. About 400,000 students were suspended in California; this number is smaller because some students were suspended more than once.
Students can’t learn if they are not in school. They fall further behind in their studies. They may be unsupervised. Students feel a lack of connection to school, which fosters worse behavior.
“It’s time to return to common sense,” says CTA Secretary-Treasurer Mikki Cichocki-Semo, a member of the hearing panel on suspensions and expulsions in San Bernardino Unified. “Kids, as well as teachers, are entitled to due process. And we need to look at what’s best for students. There should be alternatives to suspension and expulsion whenever possible.”
Educators question the value of suspending students for minor infractions, especially in light of last September’s passage of AB 1729, mandating that suspension be imposed only when other means fail to bring about proper conduct. Fighting, drugs and weapons are still cause for suspension.
With the support of, and in coalition with, The California Endowment, CTA and its members are helping to lower suspension rates and keep kids in school.
Here are CTA members who are helping to lower suspension rates, improve student behavior and improve the overall school climate.
Taking back Gardena High School
Years ago, students ignored the warning bell calling them to class at Gardena High School. They roamed the hallways. There were no consequences for being tardy or ditching class. Fights broke out constantly. Kids were running the school.
Today, when the bell rings, a loudspeaker reminds students they have 90 seconds to get to class. They sprint across campus as the countdown continues. Students know that if they’re late, they’ll receive a tardy and detention.
“Move it, let’s go, come on, my loves,” calls out Daron Andrade, dean of student discipline, to runners.
Andrade gestures to fellow United Teachers Los Angeles members standing outside their classroom doors, waiting for students to arrive.
“When that started happening, it was a new beginning,” she says proudly. “The presence of teachers in the hallway shows we have taken back our school.”
Improvement at the inner-city high school began in 2009 with a leadership change, says English teacher Brenda Gordon. The principal implemented a “tardy sweep.” Security staff started rounding up students who were not in class, escorting them to the office, and issuing tardy slips and lunch detentions before sending them back to class. Staff also began enforcing the dress code, to students’ surprise.
“It was a big cultural change not only for us, but for the kids,” says Gordon. “Once teachers got on board, kids knew what was expected of them.”
Students quietly file into the auditorium for lunch detention. Those who come voluntarily sit on one side of the room, writing one-page essays on how to be a better student. Those who come involuntarily write two-page essays. There is no chatter.
“Kids know that detention’s no joke,” says math teacher William Berry, who graduated from the school in 1970. “It’s nice to have an administration that backs us.”
Before, students were suspended for minor infractions, such as “defiance.” Now most things are handled by detention. Gardena reduced suspensions by 83 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Positive behavior and good attendance is rewarded with barbecues and assemblies honoring teens who bring up their grades. Gordon hands out awards to those caught “being good” and lets ticketholders pick a prize at the end of the month.
With online access to attendance records and grades, teachers in “advisory period” have a better handle on what’s going on with their students.
“We’re on top of it,” says Gordon. “I make phone calls and get parents and counselors involved. These kids are like, OMG, what are we going to do now?”
But things aren’t perfect. Two years ago, a gun went off inside a backpack, injuring two students. That was a wakeup call, says Andrade. The school now randomly “wands” students with metal detectors each morning. Gang activity is seldom seen on campus these days. API scores and CAHSEE pass rates have gone up.
“It’s a much different vibe now,” says Berry. “I used to walk around campus and feel the tension, but it’s not there anymore. The kids behave a lot better. Teacher morale is better.”
“It takes a village to raise these kids, and we have evolved into a village,” says Andrade. “Working together, we’ve made a difference.”
A restorative justice approach in Santa Barbara
Marssy has problems in science class. The seventh-grader talks instead of paying attention and skips homework. On the verge of failing the class, she’s sought help from a third party.
“Why is this happening, and who do you think is being harmed by this?” asks Aaron Harkey, the AVID teacher she’s sought out. “What can we do to fix it?”
Marssy says she talks because she sits near friends. She admits she’s harming herself, the science teacher and classmates by disrupting the learning environment. She suggests changing her seat so she’s not sitting near friends, then worries she’ll make new friends and talk to them. She offers to attend study hall to catch up.
Harkey offers an “intervention” with himself, the student and science teacher to work out a plan. Meanwhile, he’ll ask the teacher to put a Post-It on Marssy’s desk to signal when a seat change is necessary, so the lesson can continue uninterrupted.
Welcome to Santa Barbara Junior High School’s restorative justice approach, which improved student behavior and cut the suspension rate this year. It’s a novel approach to find out why things happen, letting students take responsibility for their actions and communicating about ways to prevent bad behavior in the future.
“I like talking with somebody I’m comfortable with,” says Marssy, who prefers that her last name not be disclosed. “It helps me.”
Concerned about high suspension rates, the school board asked the junior high to pilot the program before it went districtwide. Santa Barbara Teachers Association members jumped on board.
“We’re proud to lead the way,” says math teacher Kathleen Glenn, one of five school employees who went to Denver Public Schools for training.
Posters in every classroom depict the Five R’s: Respect, Responsibility, Relationships, Repair and Reintegration.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Glenn. “It has to be customized for each student and the offense. We still need traditional discipline and referrals. But it’s working for a lot of kids. We take care of issues at the classroom level with a few minutes in the hallway and a quick discussion. Kids feel empowered to talk about why they did what they did and their feelings. They don’t need to take it any further or act out, because they’ve been heard.”
Science teacher Marilyn Garza found it helpful to have her entire class sit in a circle with three teachers and a counselor when her students behaved badly for a substitute. They talked about what good behavior should look like when a substitute teacher is present.
“It was not defensive and better than detention,” says Garza. “When everyone sits in a circle and feels like they have buy-in, we can describe what a positive culture looks like. It didn’t happen again.”
Science teacher Julie Kluss refers fewer students to the principal with the new approach. “When you listen to students without judgment and ask how you can help them, you develop a better relationship with them.”
“Initially some teachers had dread and suspicion,” art teacher John Houchin recalls. “But teachers embraced the restorative justice approach. It changed the climate of our school. It’s not just a program; it’s a gift.”
To learn more, visit www.restorativejusticecolorado.org/restorative-justice-in-schools.html.
Pushing the positive in Elk Grove
During lunchtime at Jackman Middle School, students suddenly migrate into a large circle in the quad. No, it’s not a sign of an impending fight. It means a “Dance Off” competition is about to take place. Students congregate to watch contestants; the loudest applause determines the winner.
Creating a fun, positive environment where students want to be at school is the goal of teachers and Principal Paul Burke. It’s part of the school’s Positive Intervention and Support Program, put into place to improve the school’s discipline problem. It’s working quite well.
Five years ago, it was a different story.
“The tardy bell would ring, and 100 kids would stay out wandering the quad,” recalls history teacher Mike Phillips. “You’d write a tardy or a detention slip and send them to the office, and nothing would happen. It was frustrating. Morale was lagging.”
Suspensions spiked in 2008-09 after a former principal instituted a “zero tolerance” policy. The school had the highest number of suspensions in Northern California, with 52 percent of the school’s black students suspended at least one time, compared with 25 percent of its white students.
Elk Grove Education Association members and Burke decided to turn things around. Clear behavior expectations are now accompanied by consequences to avert suspensions. This includes lunchtime and Wednesday night detention. A “tools” program was formed — consisting of teachers, counselors, security and other staff members — to help students who do not respond to minor discipline. Team members determine the source of misbehavior and make sure students’ needs are being met. Outreach efforts increased parental involvement; parents are invited to sit with their unruly kids in class.
Counselors formed a conflict management program, training students to mediate disputes.
“When students can work it out, they’re not fighting, getting suspended and missing class,” says head counselor Tyrone Weaver.
When teachers formed professional learning communities, creating lessons to increase student engagement, academic achievement went up, says Lisa Adams, History Department chair. Teachers made more of an effort to form relationships with students, says Adams, who started attending students’ basketball games and sponsoring clubs.
“There’s a consistent effort to get everyone on board with common goals, and have students connect to the campus,” says math teacher Taira Redding.
Connection is fostered through events such as lunchtime dances, kendama contests and barbecues for students who increase their GPA. Teachers reward good behavior in their classrooms. Redding, for example, has a “banking” system where students rack up points for good behavior and can “buy” a pizza party.
Rewarding the positive helped suspensions plummet and achievement soar: The 2011-12 school year had 729 suspensions, compared with 1,242 in 2008. Last year the school’s API score went up by 42 points.
“It’s not perfect,” says Redding. “We’ve gone through tremendous strife to get everyone on the same page with a schoolwide focus, common expectations for students and common staff goals. While there are a lot of good things happening, we still have a long ways to go. We are a work in progress.”