Building a New Normal: Support, NOT Suspension

For decades, many American educators have pushed for "zero-tolerance" policies in school discipline. The thinking often went that disruptive students compromised the learning of other students in the classroom, so removing them was the sensible solution.

However, like the war on drugs, such policies have had devastating effects on minority students - students of color, with disabilities, or those who identify as LGBT. Randi Weingarten, president of the country's largest teacher's union which once encouraged these policies, cites one study that found, "African American children make up 18 percent of enrollment in public preschool, but they account for 42 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 48 percent of multiple suspensions." Writing in this recent provocative, and hopeful, issue of American Educator, Weingarten put out a call for schools to do better for all our kids.

At Green Careers, we are working to answer that call.

Three years ago, when we began working to create a culture of learning in our community, we knew the challenges we faced - and so did everyone else. Looking around the school now, it's sometimes hard to remember where we came from - though a quick look through the reviews at InsideSchools is a cautionary reminder:

"students walk out the classes. make front [sic] of a gay teacher. smoke in stair cases"
"This school's behavior is out of control . . . if you want your child to be in a safe environment do not put your child in this school. Kids bring illegal drugs into the school, and do drugs inside the school out in the open, and teachers don't even try to do anything. Fights go on always and students physical hit teachers, and here's the crazy part they don't get expelled!"
"On a visit I made with my eighth grader, who was very excited by the concept of the school, we saw students cursing at teachers and at the principal (who did nothing), students who never even made it to class and ran away from school staff members who tried to wrangle them, students pouring out of classrooms without hall passes and refusing to go back in when redirected, and a myriad of other serious disruptions . . . the place needs a very serious discipline intervention if it hopes to survive."

Like many NYC public schools, our community was faced with the sharp realities of policies that lead to de facto segregation. As the gay teacher mentioned above, I definitely agreed with that last review - we needed a very serious discipline intervention if we hoped to survive.

We got very serious about survival.

That story is as good a place as any to start. It was the fall of 2013, one of the first day of classes. In a freshman writing class, a student sat at the front of the room sharing the start of a writing piece. Another student, we'll call him Mike, started taunting the sharer. Mike was repeating the 9th grade again, with new 9th grade students, a practice that is proven to lead to dropout. I hadn't taught him the year before, but after I had shared with some LGBTQ students about marrying my husband during the previous school year, word had gotten around, as it usually does. I guess Mike had heard I was gay.

I had heard about Mike, too. Most of the 9th grade teachers the year before had quit the school after teaching his class. Mike was one of the many "discipline problems" that were seen as afflicting the school. Now over-aged and under-credited, Mike was struggling to establish himself. He chose taunting.

He was relentless, picking on other students for the way they smiled, spoke, or smelled. After using the newly-introduced classroom ladder to try and redirect Mike, we reached the point for him to fill out a behavior reflection, which asks him to reflect on his behavior and how it broke a rule or got in the way of his or others' learning. In response to this, Mike began taunting me, "Don't bring that paper over here with your gay-ass" and on and on.

Other students, embarrassed, chuckled. You could see some of them wondering, "Is this how they normally talk to teachers here?" The bell rang, and students made a mad dash for the door. I called Mike's home to let his mom know what had happened. A student in the class documented it, anonymously - the first InsideSchools review quoted above was posted that same day and the student's reaction was normal - transfer out of the school. I documented the incident also, as a principal referral, but I didn't really expect anything would come of it.

By the end of that day, the new principal, Kerry Decker, had responded to my referral, saying Mike would be suspended for his behavior. She added that, when he came back, he would need to share a written, public apology to the class, since all were affected by his behavior. The class, in turn, would need to acknowledge their own complicity in chuckling at his words. When she joined me the next day to re-norm, the 9th graders passively complied, as did Mike upon his return. In Kerry's words, "the behavior violated the safety of the community, and there has to be a consequence for that."  

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So consequences started, in hopes of a new normal.

Suspensions went from practically none to 184 in that first year. Word got around. This new principal was tough. On-call teachers walked the halls with a walkie-talkie, making sure kids got to their classrooms. We share a building with five other schools - our school is the only one spread over the basement, first, and part of the second floors. There are a lot of hallways, and our students share them with other schools on their way to the shared gyms, cafeterias, and auditorium. Building a new normal was tough, but through teacher collaboration, both in and out of the classroom, it began to happen.

For the first time, teachers knew every student's name, mostly because we answered a lot of questions like "what class do I have?" Teachers would pull up student schedules online and walk them there. Incidents like those reflected in the InsideSchools reviews began to disappear.

The on-call system not only got students out of the hallways, but also supported the reflective, relational process students need to learn self-control inside the classrooms. Where other schools might kick a kid out of class, students were only pulled out when their behavior compromised the safety of the environment. Any other behavior was addressed as a learning opportunity to develop self-control, and the on-call teacher came to any room to help facilitate that process.

But it wasn't enough.

For all the impact these changes were having, and the palpable difference in how the school felt, suspensions continued to rise - to over 200 the following year. What was wrong? For all our effort to build what Camille Farrington and others have described as a "fortified environment" for the students, there was still an uptick in incidents that required suspension as resistance grew against the new normal.

Something was missing.

Working with NYU professor Cynthia McCallister, we continued to develop the support structures that have been proven to "eradicate disparities in discipline," disparities which would no doubt arise if we continued with the zero-tolerance suspension. We built these structures right into the classroom as part of the embedded Learning Cultures® curricular approach. We worked to answer the call of the AFT, to "focus less on punishing misbehavior and more on . . . helping students learn from what they did wrong."

We assigned each student, not just struggling ones, a teacher for collaboration on a "workout plan" to build supportive relationships through regular goal setting across classes. Unlike advisory, these focus on the one-one relationship the student has with the teacher, providing in vivo support and interventions where it's often most needed - the classroom. We charged students with the responsibility to wrestle directly with the standards and expectations of the Common Core and various contents, rather than interpreting and mediating those expectations through a teacher. This helps ensure academic rigor as we applaud their growth, not only from past performance, but also against national norms. We built perspective-shifting discourse into every course, teachers and students alike learning to value the perspectives of each other, and respecting each student's intentionality in reading and writing through our unique genre practice program.

Then, we tried something different.

Many Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports tend to focus primarily on assisting school personnel, which may be one of the reasons racial disparities continue even with PBIS. Yet, rather than focus on the school personnel, why not tap into the largest group in the school, the students themselves? So, in the spring of 2015, we implemented the Keepers of the Culture®, a part of Learning Cultures. At the beginning of the semester, students nominated their peers to become "Keepers," students who exhibit the school's core values of responsibility, collaboration, intentionality and who other students would feel comfortable approaching for support. Those nominated were then vetted by teachers and administrators and met as a class during the school day, where they learned how to intervene when students needed support.

When a student is regularly unable to use self-control in the classroom, evidenced by principal referrals, the Keepers of the Culture meet with that student to find and suggest supports. They then follow-up with the student in the classes they share together, holding each other accountable. Rather than less than 30 teachers intervening on behalf of more than 300 students, we built capacity by bringing students into the work with us.

And it worked.

After implementing Keepers, the suspension rate dropped 37% in one semester. You could feel a change. In a school where desire for learning was once taunted, working to maintain a culture of learning became a cool thing to do. Of course there are still exceptions to this, and sometimes those in Keepers mess up themselves (they're teenagers, after all), but overall teachers and students alike are excited by the collaboration.

I'll close with another story from writing class, with a boy like Mike. This boy also had trouble becoming a part of the community and decided to lash out against the learning culture of the classroom. This time, though, he wasn't in a class where he was immediately out of place for his age - part of our strategy became heterogeneously mixed grade classes to avoid the tracking of students that leads to gross inequity. While others worked on their writing pieces—one, a website reviewing local restaurant options for high school students, another writing an elegy for her grandfather—he continually tried to bait them into an argument. They didn’t take the bait, instead trying to help him get into his own writing.

"I'm not writing that faggot shit. That's gay."

This time, no one laughed. Eyes said it all - that's not the way we talk here. When he saw no one was reacting the way he wanted, he fumbled clumsily with his pencil. A Keeper of the Culture, seated nearby, piped up,

"I need some feedback on my comparison chart if you want to help - I'm proving Kobe is better than LeBron."

That was enough. By the end of the period, the student was halfway through a listicle defending LeBron's reputation. When the time came for him to share his writing, his initial resistance was overcome by the encouragement of the class. As he was about to receive his last piece of peer feedback, the bell rang for lunch. I braced myself for the mad dash for the door, but this time the class remained silent and still, allowing the student giving feedback to finish her suggestion that he turn his listicle into an imagined interview instead. He nodded, closing his share with our ritual, "Thank you for listening." I joined the class in response, together saying, genuinely, "Thank you for sharing."

This time, rather than posting anonymously on InsideSchools and looking to leave the environment, the students owned the room, and owned the culture, even inviting in the perpetual "outsider." They were empowered, as they must be, to move from reaction to action.

Something had changed, a new normal was growing.

At UAGC, we'll keep nurturing these new norms, and hope that as they grow, all students will be able to keep the culture of learning. Still, there's far to go. Too many programs like this fail to succeed in the long run; they're unsustainable. Political landscapes seem to threaten core values like responsibility, intentionality, and collaboration. But for now, in a little school on the upper west side where students are growing in classrooms faster than the native grasses in our garden, there is hope.

For us, that hope, and that sustainability lies in the power of collaboration - students with students, students with teachers, and teachers together - working towards doing better, not just for all our kids, but for our world.

Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.
— Justice Thurgood Marshall's Dissent, Milliken V. Bradley (1974)
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