Lower Suspension Rates and Raise Graduation Rates

How Schools Can Lower Suspension Rates and Raise Graduation Rates

(Image: Thinkstock)

(Image: File)

The year she arrived, the school had just moved into a gorgeous new building and enrollment jumped to 295 from 167. In a school survey, close to half the students said teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms, and nearly three-quarters of teachers said they didn’t get the help they needed to handle student discipline problems. Tenth-grade test scores had dropped, putting the school near the bottom of the pack in New Haven: Only 10 percent of students met reading goals; only 7 percent met math goals.

Metropolitan’s team now includes a school social worker, six social work interns and three part-time drama therapists from the ALIVE program. The social worker’s salary is included in the school budget, and the therapists’ work is funded this year with $30,000 from the New Haven Trauma Coalition, a public-private partnership launched in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 25 miles from New Haven in the far wealthier community of Newtown.

With that small investment, the impact has been profound. Over the past three years, the number of suspensions at Metropolitan has dropped by two-thirds. It now has a suspension rate of 3 percent. Incidents of physical fights in school have also plummeted, from 40 in 2010 to less than five last year. The graduation rate rose to 90 percent in 2014 from 82 percent in 2012, and college enrollment rose to 70 percent in 2012 from 48 percent in 2010.

Citywide, New Haven recently embraced an increasingly popular approach to discipline known as restorative justice. Like trauma-sensitive discipline, restorative justice emphasizes students’ social and emotional development, but it focuses on cooperatively repairing damage rather than the underlying reasons for behavior problems. Garth Harries, superintendent of the 21,500-student school district, said the city is exploring how to fund more programs like Metropolitan’s.

Metropolitan’s required course for ninth-graders addresses some of the students’ most potent problems, from homelessness to gun violence to drug addiction. By bringing experiences into the open and allowing all the teens to hear what others have been through, the aim is to reduce bullying and enable adults to offer support.

“It’s a nonjudgment zone,” said Tia Stevens, an outgoing 14-year-old who mixes prodding and compassion to encourage her peers to speak up in class.

“It helps us help other people,” added Henry Seyue, 14, who admitted that he started the year with prejudices about some of his classmates. “You really don’t understand what other people are going through unless you’re in their shoes. Like we did [a role play] where someone was coming out to being gay to their family. … It was mind-blowing stuff.”

One freshman class on a snowy March afternoon began with a happy celebration of a student’s birthday, but then took a darker turn. The group of 20 usually boisterous freshmen sat silently for 15 minutes as the birthday girl, encouraged by her teacher, related why she almost didn’t come to school that morning. “My mom told me she never wanted me,” the girl said, looking at the floor, determined not to cry. “She said what she always says. That I’m kinda worthless. A waste of space.”

Her teacher, Nataliya Braginsky, said the girl struggles with attendance in other classes, but she always shows up to this one. In another class, Braginsky asked students to list community problems. Responses included snitching, abuse, money, violence and drugs.

A boy raised his hand and asked if the teacher knew of a drug called K2. Braginsky said she didn’t and tried to move on with the conversation, but the ninth-grader interrupted several times, joking about how he used and sold it. Braginsky finally brought the discussion to a halt.

“Are you using K2?” she asked, smiling. “Are you using drugs?”

“You gonna call the cops on me?” the student shot back.

“No, I don’t think I’d call the cops on you,” said Braginsky, a slender 29-year-old with cropped hair and a nose ring.

“You don’t care?” asked the student, his voice rising.

Braginsky’s tone turned serious. “No, I care a lot about whether you use drugs. I just don’t think I’d call the cops on you.”

The class quickly moved into a role play between a drug dealer and a teenager who had gotten kicked out of his house – played by the student who had raised the K2 question – and was vulnerable to the dealer’s influence. Classmates tried to intervene and help the homeless student stay away from the dealer. When he rejected every offer, the class reconvened to discuss what to do when you can’t help a friend and what some other options might have been. A drama therapist who was co-teaching the class followed up with the boy after class. The staff determined he wasn’t using drugs but was still coping with the violent death of his older brother a few years ago.

Addressing trauma requires educators to understand students differently, said Jim Sporleder, the recently retired principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, another school that’s had success with a trauma-sensitive approach. But, he added, it does not necessarily require significant resources.

“We’re trying to get to the root of the problem instead of just repeating the kinds of things that got ’em to that bad place in the first place,” said Sporleder, who changed his school’s discipline code in response to a slew of studies showing the impact of trauma on brain function.

This nontraditional approach to discipline has garnered attention from educators nationwide. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children has received emails from 250 schools around the country requesting help in the past year. Susan F. Cole, the initiative’s director, said schools won’t get the results they want if they just reduce suspensions and expulsions. They must learn how to create a place where students feel safe enough to learn.

The Metropolitan student who exploded at his English teacher is on track to graduate next year. He still sometimes struggles to stay motivated and complete his work. But he continues to see the school-based therapist as needed, and he hasn’t had any more outbursts or fights. He and his English teacher became close after the incident. Today, when things get tough in his life, the teenager turns to the adult who welcomed him back into class.

Meredith Kolodner previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper, and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is also an active New York City public school parent. She is grateful to her 11th grade English teacher who persistently gave her Cs on essays until she finally stopped burying the lead.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.