Making Strides Toward Ending Discipline Disparities


July 29, 2014


Students in a classroom

It’s been happening for a long time. Students of color — mostly boys — find themselves pulled out of class and/or sent home far more often than their classmates.

With new national and local data and research on discipline disparities and a push from the federal government to view discipline as a civil rights issue, many schools are now focusing on equity-driven discipline policies and practices that keep students in class.

“Kids can succeed and be engaged in learning,” says Lisa McCall, former principal of the K–8 Irvington School in Portland who has since moved on to become a senior director with Portland Public Schools, “but they need to be in the classroom.”

We recently spoke to administrators from three urban and suburban Oregon middle schools dedicated to keeping students in school and who are collecting data that show their success in changing their discipline policies and practices.

While their approaches are different, the schools share in common a commitment to practices that promote positive teacher-student relationships and provide supportive learning environments for each student. The principals and educators of these schools have been intentional in adopting discipline practices that reduce the loss of instructional time due to disciplinary reasons and reducing disparities based on race, sex, and other demographic characteristics.

All three schools belong to member districts of the Oregon Leadership Network (OLN), a statewide organization focused on equitable outcomes for students and administered through Education Northwest.

A Whole-School Approach to Equity
Irvington K–8 School, Portland, Oregon

While McCall was at Irvington, she and her assistant principal Kathleen Ellwood (who is taking over as principal in 2014–15) had a specific goal in mind: Equitable outcomes for students ingrained in every facet of the school experience. “We believe that to get equitable outcomes we can’t leave out behaviors and disparities,” says McCall.

McCall and Ellwood applied a multifaceted approach to equity and discipline that not only includes reviewing data, but also intervening early when a student begins to struggle, applying positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), reaching out to families and the community, and involving students. “The student voice is critical,” McCall says. “It’s important to be able to understand what’s happening from their point of view.”

In their three years as an administrative team at a school with a 30 percent African American student population, McCall and Ellwood started off making changes and seeking alternative discipline policies and practices with the goal of reducing referrals and suspensions and closing the racial gap in discipline.

The team looked at why teachers were making referrals and excluding students from class. When examining the data, they found referrals were often subjective and consequences for the same types of behavior were more severe for students of color. Three years ago, 89 percent of the school’s disciplinary referrals were for students of color. However, in 2014, Irvington finally achieved its goal of having referrals match the school’s demographics. “Our referral policy is now more concrete and most referrals deal with safety,” McCall says. “We are getting fewer referrals and improved student outcomes.”

“We favor community building over social exclusion, and our approach is less punitive and more collaborative. We provide positive support to students so that problem behavior does not repeat. We review discipline data every month, then step back and ask, ‘What structure do we need to prevent these?’” —Kathleen Ellwood

Additional equity work has included encouraging more involvement from African American families, facilitating courageous conversations among parents, and encouraging the PTA to become more diverse. “Our racial equity work has improved the whole school community,” Ellwood says.

McCall points to a shared philosophy with significant support from teachers for Irvington’s success. “There are a lot of leaders in the building, and we have to give much credit to the students,” she says. “Things are happening here that are a dream for an administrator.”

Prevention Through Positive Supports and Self-Reflection
Hazelbrook Middle School, Tualatin, Oregon

In staff meetings before the start of a new year, Hazelbrook Associate Principal Tim Gross emphasizes reinforcing positive behaviors and student self-reflection as two of the keys to the school’s discipline policy and practice. He shares data, and teachers collaborate on strategies to build caring relationships with students and to intervene on problem behaviors before they escalate.

After the school year starts, Hazelbrook students participate in lessons designed to build community. School staff members make it a point to reinforce positive behaviors, while students engage in friendly school spirit competitions, perform community service, and receive regular lessons created by the school’s behavior committee.

The school’s annual goals on climate and culture revolve around things that can be measured, and last year focused on discipline data sorted by ethnicity. The goal was to reduce the total number of incidents that remove students from class and narrow the discipline gap. At a school of roughly 1,000 students covering all of Tualatin and part of Tigard, where 35 percent of students come from Spanish-speaking families, the suspension rate was cut by nearly 50 percent over the previous year.

“In the past, we managed misbehaviors by sending students to the office, which is like putting students in a box. What we did is change the frame by adding a reflection process. Students who disrupt class now sit down with a staff member in a reflection space, think about what happened and what they can learn from it, and then they go back to class.” —Tim Gross

“How we manage major problem behaviors hasn’t changed,” Gross says. “What we have done is to work hard to prevent major problem behaviors from happening in the first place.”

Working Together & Responding to Data
Highland Park Middle School, Beaverton, Oregon

Collaboration inside the building and with other middle schools and weekly analysis of discipline data provide the backbone of the changes David Nieslanik and his team are making in his first year as principal at Highland Park, a Beaverton middle school with a 40 percent minority population.

“Where we are in our understanding is that we want to keep kids in school. The eight middle schools in the Beaverton district are committed to this. In our monthly meetings, we always talk about problems of practice around discipline. We share data, celebrate successes, and talk about what we can do better.”—David Nieslanik

One of the approaches Nieslanik and his Highland Park team follow is to track student discipline data in real time. Each week the school’s academic team (principal, vice principal, and student manager), look at data on attendance, academic success (or struggles), and behavioral patterns. When they see an emerging issue, they are able to mobilize quickly and work not just with students and teachers but with anyone in the extended school community who can contribute to a solution.

“We had 389 referrals the year I arrived at Highland Park as an assistant principal three years ago, and the two most utilized consequences were out-of-school suspension and detention at 86 percent,” Nieslanik says. “The number was astronomical.” The school has been able to cut referrals almost in half since then, largely through alternatives such as restorative justice and community service. Only 13 percent of referrals in the 2013–14 school year resulted in missing class time.

Started two years ago, another approach that has worked at Highland Park has been to create a cohort of sixth-graders identified by data as most at risk for missing class. School leaders divided the cohort into groups of seven students and provided additional supports. This past year, when the students were seventh-graders, not one was suspended. Highland Park has also seen the number of students who qualify for the grade-level cohorts shrink, as attendance and other factors improve.

Highland Park has seen a jump in the number of seventh-grade students meeting reading and math benchmarks, and Nieslanik makes the connection between academic proficiency and improvements in school climate. “It ties to the work we’re doing,” he says.

“It hasn’t been easy to change the policy that’s been in place for so long,” Nieslanik says. “Staff buy in is there, though there have been growing pains. We work with teachers so they feel they have a voice and are safe. I am also lucky to have seven peers at the district’s other middle schools committed to the work.”

Nieslanik also keeps in sight the connection between discipline and social justice. “Kids are not pulling themselves out of the system,” he says. “We push kids out of the system.”

That is what Nieslanik and his colleagues are working to change.