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Bill would help train teachers, staff to improve school culture, avert suspensions

The goal: to work with one school in each district in Hennepin County to replace punitive measures with positive discipline and behavioral approaches.

District 287 autism specialist Jason Backes sits in a swing that allowed a student the constant movement that kept him calm enough to work. The district could train other administrators and educators in proven behavioral approaches.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

On Valentine’s Day a group of students presented Sandy Lewandowski, who is the superintendent of a west metro school district, with an oversized white card decorated with pink and magenta hearts. The following week one of the fifth-graders hit her teacher so hard the teacher ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

Violent behavior, even in such a young child, is typically a ticket out of the classroom, with drastic consequences. But among other services it provides its 12 member districts, Lewandowski’s Intermediate District 287 operates programs for kids with mental-health issues and unique disabilities.

So where other educators often see behavior — willful, volitional behavior — Lewandowski’s staff is trained to see unmet social and emotional needs. In this case, it turned out that the girl’s father had gone to prison early that morning. The school was able to step in with support.

The card sits in a place of pride on Lewandowski’s credenza, a reminder no doubt of the urgency underpinning a proposal she’d like state lawmakers to give serious consideration during the current, jam-packed session.

Seeking funding

For a modest quarter-million dollars, District 287 could train administrators and educators in one school in every district in Hennepin County to replace punitive measures with positive discipline and behavioral approaches that Lewandowski’s specialized programs have proven work.

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But first House File 2707 needs a hearing, not an easy thing to come by in a session that’s moving like greased lightning. Helpfully, eradicating suspensions and expulsions — exclusionary practices, in educator-ese — is a high-profile issue at the moment.

Several weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder issued a call of action: To reduce racial discrimination and increase graduation rates, American schools need to drastically curtail the circumstances in which students are removed from the classroom.

“Unfortunately today, suspensions and expulsions are not primarily used as a last resort for serious infractions,” said Duncan. “It is adult behavior that has to change.”

Closer to home, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and the interfaith group ISAIAH have worked to raise awareness of the problems associated with suspensions.

95% of suspensions are for nonviolent behavior

The numbers are mind-boggling. Nationwide, 95 percent of suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior such as being disruptive or disrespectful. With three suspensions by ninth grade, a student is almost certain not to graduate high school.

African-American students without disabilities are three times as likely as their peers to be suspended, and much more likely to be suspended two or more times in a year. One in six was excluded from school at least once in the 2009-2010 school year, a rate that skyrockets to more than one in three among black high-school students with disabilities.

One in 13 Native American and Latino students was suspended that year. Students with disabilities and in special-education programs were also excluded at much higher rates than their classmates.

And it’s a problem that’s getting worse. Over the last four decades the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled has gone up 40 percent. Also on the rise is the number of students with trauma in their lives, ranging from fleeing a war-torn country to poverty and gang activity.

“We look at kids and say, ‘Boy did they go from zero to 60,’” said Char Myklebust, a psychologist and District 287’s director of social and emotional learning. “Well, no, they came in at 59.”

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The numbers don’t include “de facto” suspensions — situations in which kids with trying behavior are encouraged to find another school.

Minnesota is no exception. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have been criticized for racial disparities in their discipline rates. According to a December Star Tribune investigation, 7 percent of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and 8 percent of St. Paul Public Schools African-American students have been categorized as having a behavioral disorder.

The issue of school culture

The subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, MPS has recently undergone a painstaking reassessment of its discipline policies. But the real answer, according to Duncan, Holder, Lewandowski and others, is to change school cultures.

Teachers send kids out of the classroom and administrators send them home in part because they lack awareness of strategies that prevent disruptions or knowledge that there are underlying problems. Many of the adults grew up in households where misbehavior was met with punishment.

Myklebust notes that after the Columbine shooting, districts around the country began adopting zero-tolerance policies. At first they addressed severe infractions like the possession of weapons, but soon the use of suspensions spread to disorderly conduct and noncompliance.

“Once a child starts on an exclusionary trajectory, it’s hard to turn around,” said Myklebust. “The goal is to keep kids in class.”

Training for the teachers, staff

To achieve this, the adults in the building need training. School-wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Support is a starting place, said Myklebust. Teachers should have enough information about the school climate to be able to pinpoint places where student engagement is lacking.

Are students wandering the halls? Is a particular classroom a flashpoint? Is a child going without meals? Something as simple as a morning meeting can begin to build a positive culture.

Adults can also be taught to replace negative messages and to teach social and emotional skills such as self-awareness and management and relationship skills. Instead of seeing deficits, teachers can build on students’ strengths. And expectations should be clear and consistent school-wide.

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It’s work, Myklebust and Lewandowski concede, but it’s possible. Despite having the highest number of kids with the highest behavioral needs, they noted, District 287 has logged just 15 days of suspension so far this year — five of them in connection with one extreme case.

In addition to operating programs for students with intense or unique needs, 287 functions as a co-op that provides specialized services to its west metro member school districts. It has a long history, for example, of providing teacher professional development in math and science.

The in-house expertise both in creating the kinds of systems Duncan and Holder called for and in helping schools scale-up innovations makes District 287 a natural place to start, Lewandowksi said.

The near-term goal

Over the next year her goal is to offer to put one building in each of 287’s 12 districts through training on school culture and positive discipline [PDF] and to send coaches out to work with teachers as they put the new skills to work. When the approach proves effective, others will buy in, Lewandowski bets.

As part of a partnership with Hennepin County to increase overall graduation rates, Lewandowski would like to be able to offer the training to at least one building in every district in the county.

The bill authored by Rep. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, would appropriate $750,000 toward this end. The state Department of Education could distribute the money via grants, presumably to 287 and the metro area’s two other intermediate school districts.

At the very least Lewandowski and Myklebust hope lawmakers will find the funds to consider the first round of Hennepin County trainings as a pilot, of sorts. Not only would the strategies put schools in alignment with Duncan’s and Holder’s new guidelines, they would drive up graduation rates, they are confident.

“We know when kids do better in this arena, they do better academically,” said Myklebust. “We need to stop seeing behavior as something that comes out of a vortex.”