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Discipline disparities: How some Minnesota schools are working to reduce them

Teachers at nine school sites committed to an Educators for Excellence-Minnesota effort this past year, achieving various levels of success.

Jennifer Christensen, left, says she was shocked to notice a gender disparity in her discipline data.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

The majority of the students in Jennifer Christensen’s kindergarten class at Prodeo Academy are black and qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch. There’s little racial diversity at this Minneapolis K-4 charter school, where the student body is nearly three-quarters black, 14 percent Hispanic and only 3 percent white. Given Prodeo’s demographic breakdown, it’d be hard to pinpoint any significant racial discipline disparities within the walls of the school.

But when Christensen and a handful of her colleagues considered how students of color across Minnesota are disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline practices — things like in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension and expulsion — they suspected their students were being impacted as well.

For instance, statewide, black students make up just 11 percent of the student population. Yet they accounted for 41 percent of all suspensions during the 2015-16 school year. A significant portion of these suspensions are for nonviolent infractions like attendance or willful defiance, a subjective category that disproportionately impacts students of color.

Christensen, along with three of her colleagues, approached the school’s leaders for permission to access and review every classroom teacher’s discipline data. On first look, they found that girls were being sent out of the classroom more often than boys for simply talking back or some other type of behavior teachers considered to be defiant. It’s not that the boys weren’t guilty of acting out in the same way. But when they did these things, teachers were less likely to react.

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Christensen says she was shocked to notice this gender disparity in her own discipline data. And when they shared their findings with everyone else, they set out to re-examine their school-wide discipline practices.

“None of it was punitive. It was always to figure out how we can grow and learn from it,” Christensen said of the data dive. “Once their eyes were opened to it, they started thinking more critically about when they were calling kids out.”

This initiative at Prodeo is part of a broader effort that Educators for Excellence-Minnesota, an education advocacy nonprofit, is supporting to reduce discipline disparities — primarily those that break down along racial lines — in Minnesota schools. Teachers at nine school sites committed to driving this work at their schools last year. According to the guide they published in August, they achieved various levels of success, depending on how much student data they were allowed to access and how much buy-in they were able to generate with their school leaders.

“If leadership really felt a sense of urgency and understood the impact of exclusion and held a belief in the efficacy of a different method, that was a huge factor,” said Shannon Mitchell, managing director of external affairs for Educators for Excellence-Minnesota. “That really impacted the other two factors: how widespread and available data was to teachers … and how much time was held in staff discussion and developing teachers’ ability to understand alternatives.”

Here’s a look at the various approaches being taken at Prodeo and three other participating schools in the Twin Cities and Columbia Heights.

Restorative practices

Last year, Mary Lambrecht helped spearhead an effort to reduce discipline disparities at Anne Sullivan Communication Center, a K-8 community school in the Minneapolis Public School District where she worked as a teacher for three years before taking her current position in the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

Similar to Prodeo, Sullivan is also a very racially isolated school, serving a majority black student body. When she and a few other teachers at her school started looking at their discipline data, they found that when teachers filled out a referral form to send a student to the dean or principal, it was most often for disruptive or disorderly conduct.

To disrupt this pattern, they substituted the referral form with a “restore form” that they created. It includes a number of prompts to guide a restorative conversation and a space to record the incident and what sorts of coping strategies the student may have been directed to use, such as breathing exercises or drawing.

“It definitely helped me, as a grounding tool,” she said, adding she often had students use the new form to work through peer conflicts. “Quite often students had to restore the relationship they had with each other because of something that had happened.”

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The teachers held weekly meetings with the deans, says Lambrecht, to discuss ways to be more proactive than reactive. They’d bring their restore forms to talk about what was happening in their classrooms. The forms helped establish a common language around restorative practices and alleviate the need for deans to get involved in every little incident, she said. But as the year went on, momentum waned a bit.

“I think the biggest pushback is staff felt like there were no rules,” she said. “I think what we need to define real clearly is restorative practices doesn’t mean no consequences or no rules. It just means the manner in which you approach students or an issue is different and we don’t jump to punitive.”

Like any new initiative, transitioning to a more restorative-based approach to discipline will take some time, Lambrecht says. They’re largely figuring it all out as they go. At least, for now, school leaders seem to be on board, she said. They even designated one of the deans as a restorative practices lead, signaling their support of this work.

Maggie Borman helped lead a similar effort at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Northrup, a Minneapolis-based charter school serving a majority Latino student population. Anecdotally, teachers had been noticing that it seemed African-American students were being referred out of class at much higher rates than Latino students, she said. And when they looked at their discipline data based on race, they found that to be true.

Hesitant about pushing anything new on teachers who weren’t ready to embrace restorative justice practices, Borman says they simply asked teachers to opt-in to trainings last year. She was joined by seven other teachers, plus school leadership. They participated in three training sessions, two of which were conducted for free by a restorative practices expert employed by the state Department of Education.

In her own experience, Borman says holding a restorative circle at the start of her math lessons helps deter behavior incidents. As a third-grade math teacher who rotates from classroom to classroom, transitions can be difficult for some students, she says. But by taking five minutes to  do a quick breathing exercise and touch base with one another before diving into the lesson, she says she’s able to hold their attention better during their math lesson.

As interest at her school continues to grow, she says finding ways to train teachers is probably the greatest limiting factor. “I think our main challenge has been the funding piece and wanting to build a longer relationship with a trainer or a coach.”

Looking for patterns

At Valley View Elementary School, a preK-5 community school in the Columbia Heights Public Schools district, Teresa Fenske says her efforts to tackle discipline disparities were initially thwarted by the local teachers union, which objected to the involvement of Educator for Excellence because of the group’s reform-based agenda.

“It’s something I strongly believe matters to a lot of people in this building,” Fenske said. “But when we got that pushback, it was really scary for a lot of people, especially people who do not have tenure.”

Since they were only granted access their own classroom discipline data, they were unable to look for any schoolwide disparities, she said. But they made the most of that data, focusing instead on what they could do to ensure that students were being sent out of the classroom less often for minor infractions.

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They had the opportunity to present their findings at a staff meeting, to spark a larger conversation around looking for patterns in the data. What they discovered was that students often were being sent out of the classroom around the same time each day. Aware of this, Fenske says they were able to dig into the root causes of these more predictable behaviors and take some proactive measures. For instance, they had a student who was acting out midmorning, pretty consistently. They came to find out that student wasn’t getting breakfast in the morning — a situation that could be resolved pretty easily, once they knew the source of this student’s distraction.

They also focused on identifying their own triggers, so they could make sure they were more self-aware. Offering an example, Fenske says something that really gets under her skin is when a student pushes a chair across the classroom. Even if it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s the sort of thing that, before, she’d send a kid out of the classroom for doing.

“We talked about recognizing our triggers within ourselves,” she said, noting the handful of teachers who are invested are focusing on taking proactive measures. “Beyond that, we weren’t able to make any systems changes we had hoped to make.”

At Prodeo Academy, Christensen says they noticed a different type of pattern in their discipline data. The third-graders — the oldest students in the building last year — were being disciplined for defiant behavior more often than their younger students. This sparked some conversations about how a student’s size may be influencing a teacher’s course of action, she said.

Building on some restorative practices the school had already adopted — such a mindfulness classes with a yoga teacher and glitter jars — they came up with a school wide definition for “defiant behavior” and reimagined how they use their break rooms, which are outfitted with sensory objects for students to tinker with as they attempt to self-regulate their emotions.

Before, the break rooms were used in response to an outburst. Now, students are given passes that they can hand over to their teacher when they feel the urge to act out. For some, that means taking a few minutes in the break room to regroup before a stressful transition after recess or before a math lesson. They’re already seeing positive results.

Last year, for instance, a second-grade boy had spent over 900 minutes out of the classroom in January and February. By the time the changes had been rolled out in March, he had only spend about 450 minutes out of the classroom. And by April, he had spent less than 50 minutes out of the classroom.

“A majority of the teachers were like, ‘Yeah it’s a little more work, but the kids are learning so much more about how to regulate their behavior,’ ” Christensen said.