School discipline reform in D.C.: Interviews with two practitioners

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Tomorrow morning, the Council of the District of Columbia will hear testimony on a pair of school discipline bills that would effectively ban non-violent suspensions in grades K–8 and would explicitly prohibit suspensions at the high school level for behavioral infractions, including insubordinate behavior, defiance, disobedience, disrespect, or disruptive or rowdy behavior.

Unfortunately, the findings of Fordham’s recent report on discipline policy reform in Philadelphia suggest that these bills could have unintended and potentially serious consequences, despite their good intentions.

But what do practitioners in Washington think? To find out, we reached out to faculty at two high-performing D.C. charter schools—Robin Chait of Center City PCS and Elaine Hou of Two Rivers PCS—to get their takes on school discipline.

Below is a lightly-edited summary of their responses.

1.) In your school, how do school culture and the discipline code intersect? What are the key ingredients of a strong approach to each?

Center City:

A restorative and positive school culture minimizes disciplinary incidents. Practically we have a discipline code, but philosophically we are working to minimize incidents of discipline through a restorative, reflective, and positive culture of discipline. The discipline policy is a fall back for when all things restorative and relational fail. We engage children in conversations when they have made bad decisions so they can reflect on their actions and the impacts of their actions on others. Whenever possible, we aim to find a positive and inclusive resolution that doesn’t require the student to miss time in school.

Two Rivers:

Our school culture is driven by a shared understanding that every student strives to exhibit our four scholarly habits: I am responsible and independent; I work hard; I am a team player; and I care for my community. Teachers weave these scholarly habits into all instructional experiences in the classroom, holding these inter and intra-personal skills to the same importance as academic skills.

Building on the Responsive Classroom model, the goal of our discipline approach is to support students in learning from their mistakes. When students have challenges with demonstrating the scholarly habits, the school team is committed to seeing these behaviors as learning opportunities. Our social-emotional learning and discipline approaches intersect through the practices of really listening to students, using a strengths-and-assets-based approach to behavior plans that incorporates problemsolving with students, including determining logical consequences and restorative action when appropriate.

When students struggle with the scholarly habits, Two Rivers uses a system of logical consequences that involves progressive losses of privileges, including a logical amount of time away from the community. These consequences are always coupled with explicit opportunities to reflect on the impact of one's behavior and the different options one has to rebuild the trust of their community again.

2.) What supports do principals and schools need from policymakers at the district, state, and federal levels?

Center City:

Schools need policymakers to identify funding and supports for wrap-around services for our students, staff, and families. Our students and families need mental health services and social services, particularly for students who experience trauma. The city doesn’t do enough for students who experience trauma. Our staff needs to be aware of community resources that they can refer families to, and need training in identifying and helping students who have experienced trauma.

Two Rivers:

As a growing charter network with three campuses spanning preschool through eighth grade, an important support is establishing across campuses and grade levels what we mean by progressive discipline and how we approach discipline for students with special needs. Two Rivers uses a progressive discipline model in which responses to misbehaviors are dependent on the severity and frequency of the behaviors over time, as well as previous responses to behavioral interventions. To ensure equitable discipline practices, Two Rivers needs the autonomy to set its own guidelines for how to take into account both individual student needs and needs for school-wide consistency.

Another important support from the district, state, and federal level needs to be around research and best practices in racial equity and discipline, especially in addressing the disproportionate number of African American male students being suspended and expelled. Understanding national trends and our school's story within the larger narrative is very important as we strive to create a culture and implement a discipline model that opens instead of closes doors for our most at-risk and vulnerable students.

3.) What autonomies do principals need?

Center City:

Principals need the autonomy to make decisions about discipline that meet the needs of the whole school community and align with our discipline policy. These decisions are often complex. While our goal is to minimize students' removal from the school community, there are times when removal is necessary for the safety of other students. Therefore, it is difficult to legislate discipline policy.

Two Rivers:

As a charter network, our principals need to maintain the autonomy to implement discipline decisions closely aligned to our mission that best meet the learning needs of our students and the safety concerns of students, families, and staff. Principals need to be able to make effective, nimble responses to behaviors that are aligned with our philosophy. When community safety is a serious concern, principals need the autonomy to make certain decisions concerning the amount of time the students needs out of class, within the guardrails of our progressive discipline model and expectations for restorative work in our culture.

4.) What are your goals in designing an approach to school discipline?

Center City:

Our goals in designing an approach to school discipline are to ensure a positive and safe learning environment, to minimize the need for students to be removed from that environment, and to build students' relationships with teachers, school staff, and each other. We also aim to teach students so they learn from their misbehavior and don't repeat it.

Two Rivers:

Our discipline approach involves balancing community safety and the needs and growth of the individual student.

With our belief that every misbehavior communicates a deeper need, we work hard to establish a culture and implement discipline that communicates that every community member is expected to grow through failure and support others in doing so. In addition to instilling in students reading, writing, and math skills, we strive to explicitly teach students the social-emotional skills of being responsible and independent, a hard worker, a team player, and someone who cares for one's community.

When designing an approach to school discipline, it is very important to believe that every child wants to do the right thing if they know how to. Our goals are to make sure we teach students a more constructive way to meet their needs for attention or power, to impose logical consequences when they don't do it constructively, and to consistently provide opportunities for explicit reflection and restorative action.

5.) What's been your biggest challenge in developing a good school culture and policy around discipline?

Center City:

The greatest challenge is helping adults modify their mindsets. They need to shift their thinking from a punishment-driven approach to an approach that teaches the student and helps them improve their behavior. We also stress for adults the importance of relationships with kids and minimizing disciplinary incidents.

Two Rivers:

Our biggest challenge is also the right one to be grappling with, which is effectively balancing differentiation in responses to behavior with the implementation of a consistent discipline model. Related to this challenge is working with all of our families to understand and support our discipline system.

6.) What do you consider your biggest success?

Center City:

Our biggest success has been reducing our suspension rate. We were proud to see the positive impact of our restorative approach to discipline. Our suspension rate decreased from 8.3 percent in 2015–16 to 7.2 percent in 2016–17.

Two Rivers:

As a school going into its fourteenth year, our biggest success is creating and sustaining a warm and welcoming culture of learning in which strong student-teacher relationships create the conditions for successful academic and social-emotional learning. We create a culture in which students can safely take risks and learn from their mistakes—both academically and social-emotionally. Our joyful and rigorous instruction enables students to grapple with and build deeper understandings of content, and our progressive discipline model enables students to learn from their misbehaviors.

 
 
David Griffith
David Griffith is a Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.