An uplifting story today from Chalkbeat about how a school got itself off of the state’s persistently dangerous list.

In my 12 years as an educator, the toughest moment came exactly a year ago, when my school was designated as one of New York City’s 27 “persistently dangerous” schools.

Many of my students and their families face overwhelming odds every day, so as their principal I was distressed by the notion that my staff and I were failing in the one place where they should always feel protected and supported. Despite the clear flaws in the state’s designation of what classifies as a “disruptive” or “violent” incident, the designation presented a critical opportunity for change within our school.

From the outset, my staff and I knew this wasn’t a challenge that could be resolved with more rules and a more punitive disciplinary code. We know our students and the challenges they might face in math or English class pale in comparison to those they encounter outside of school. Some students who struggle with stress or anxiety lack the resources to channel those emotions or to express them in a constructive way.

It’s good to see a leader recognize that creating new rules and ratcheting up punishments wasn’t the answer. Schools and school leaders seem to be coming to the consensus that consequences alone–especially suspensions–don’t improve student behavior (although we don’t seem to be able to agree on precisely why).

I’m curious if the staff that undertook this change initiative was partially or entirely new. It seems unlikely that in any given school, there would be clear consensus on the idea that “this wasn’t a challenge that could be resolved with more rules and a more punitive disciplinary code,” unless this was a new staff that was recruited for that particular philosophy or onboarded that way. The other possibility is that the principal was able to change “hearts and minds” on this issue with her staff extremely rapidly–in which case we need to know more about how she did it.

Throughout this past school year, my staff worked tirelessly to put a new support structure in place. Among other measures, we implemented a school-wide, whole-class incentive system that offers students positive reinforcement for strong behavioral or academic performance, while also allowing teachers and staff to track and communicate about students’ academic and social-emotional progress. We created student support teams comprised of a guidance counselor, social worker and school staff, each team worked with teachers, parents and students in a specific age group, to implement a social-emotional curriculum.

The consistent communication and collaboration around student needs is the cornerstone of our school’s new culture. Specifically, the social-emotional curriculum creates an opportunity for students of all ages to learn about their emotions in a safe and supportive environment, and for our staff to proactively identify and address any emotional issues. We can’t expect our students to change their impulses and behavior unless we truly teach them how, using the same patience, persistence and dedication we use to teach other subjects.

I’ve written before about the drawbacks to incentive systems; I can’t unequivocally say that they’re bad–so much depends on how they’re implemented and more specifically the messaging coming from teachers and staff around the system. But I do wonder if the bigger factor behind this school’s success wasn’t the incentive system but the commitment to actually teaching students adaptive behaviors rather than simply raising expectations or increasing punishments.

I know Chalkbeat is written for a general audience, but it would be great to get more depth on the concrete steps Keville took on this turnaround. That would be the only way to know whether this kind of effort was scaleable.


One thought on “How to scale a school discipline turnaround

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