Saturday, January 11, 2014

Suspension Should Be Suspended

A Linked-In contact published an article about suspension today, and enumerated his steps as a turnaround principal in a poorly-performing middle school. I agreed with everything he mentioned. Mostly, it was about establishing an atmosphere of caring among the staff to the pupils. Staff who care about the kids, communicate well with parents, can counsel troubled students, provide all kinds of experiences to succeed in and generally have enough people on hand who can help students who need one-on-one during the day. All of those things dramatically dropped the suspension rate at the school and dramatically increased attendance.

Here are my thoughts on suspension.

I am a firm believer that out-of-school suspensions serve little purpose other than to give the student a vacation from the thing they are rebelling against. My middle son was a frequent flyer in the principal’s office in high school. He was bored stiff (150 IQ) and would frequently cut class when he felt he wasn’t learning anything. Punishment for 3 cut classes was a suspension. Does that make ANY sense? He was suspended many times that year, and I was up there begging for In School Suspension instead. In fact, on the days he was suspended, he was likely to attend every class anyway, in spite. Did the suspension change his behavior? No, but heavy-duty counseling and an appropriate IEP made all the difference in the world. He also had a free pass to visit the counselor when he felt that he was going to explode, rather than leave the school.


The school where I spent 28 years teaching was like that for the last 12 years with a few differences. The principal was out each morning to greet students and even played basketball with a few ne’er-do-wells before or after school. They were surprised and thrilled that a woman principal could play as well as she did! The entire school, Kindergarten to Grade 8, stood in the yard in the morning for the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silence, and announcements. I thought this was a great start to the day. At the end of the day, our lead teacher stood in the yard and said goodbye to every class before they left.


Despite that, we still had a sizable number of kids who broke the rules on a consistent basis. We arranged for a mobile therapist to come to the school to meet with troubled kids, we also had an attendance program similar to yours that worked nicely. Most days we had more than 95% attendance. We recognized “good citizens” monthly in an assembly, weekly in classrooms. We contracted to have a cadre of  Therapeutic Support Services (TSS) workers at the school for those kids who needed an extra push to pay attention or to behave in class. We even had a behavior therapy class in the school where kids stayed until they showed that they were ready to go back to the classroom. This was for those who were way beyond the pale, but were not considered special ed. Unfortunately it only served 3-4th graders.


With all those supports in place the school counselor worked at creating a whole-school Positive Behavior Model to get the kids to learn exactly what we expected of them by modeling over and over. Included were activities like, how and when to come to reading groups, how to walk quietly on the hall, what was expected when they first came in the room and when they left, sharpening pencils in class, emergency procedures, etc. As new kids came onto the school, the “old” kids showed them the procedures. We didn’t have kids running around the halls. We also used The First 6 Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete, establishing Morning Meeting that helped a lot.


Extra personnel in the school helped to keep the lid on – our Dean of Students took care of the upper grade kids who were upset and needed to not be in the classroom. Our lower grades were taken care of by the Parent Liaison, fulfilling the same role as the Dean. The Dean and Parent Liaison called parents when kids were absent and worked with them to get the kids to school. Kids who needed time away from class for infractions, spent their In School Suspensions (ISS) with them. We didn’t have many out-of-school suspensions in those years. For 4-5 years, when we were trying to make AYP and get off the Reconstructed School list, we had an extra teacher who was the substitute for our school and who got to know them all, reduced class size, and  an Assistant Principal to help deal with problems.


After we made AYP three years in a row, all the extra positions and money were removed from the school and we found it impossible to continue many of our successful programs and despite our efforts, the discipline on the school deteriorated and we found we were suspending kids again. Then 6 years later, the school budget was slashed. We had no extra personnel to man the ISS room. The problems of the inner city began to show themselves in the school. Now, with the severe budget cuts in Philly, there isn’t even a counselor in a school everyday to help out, and classes are at 33 kids in every room. Things have really gone downhill. Extra personnel seem to be the ingredient we needed to keep it together. Suspensions are up and school is not a pleasant place to be, I have been told by a good friend and trusted colleague.


To really “fix” the problem of suspension, we need funds to hire quality personnel and establish new programs with needed small classes to help the kids deal with the problems that accompany them to school. Punishment really doesn’t help to alleviate the problem, only caring people and good programs do. People who care make all the difference in the world.

Still learning!

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