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Strategy to reduce suspensions in Pittsburgh schools may be working

Written by Sarah Schneider/WESA | Jan 14, 2019 3:24 AM
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A locker at Brashear Middle School (Sarah Schneider/WESA)

(Pittsburgh) -- A practice developed in the justice system has proven to be successful in Pittsburgh's public schools.  

Over two years the Pittsburgh Public School district reduced overall suspensions by 18 percent, and according to a new study released by the RAND Corporation, half of those schools reduced suspensions by 36 percent.

The schools that kept more kids in classrooms used an approach called restorative practices. It's a way for teachers to talk through disruptive behavior without removing a student from the classroom.

PPS leaders have leaned on all schools for the last three years to change the way they discipline students after the district was criticized for high levels of suspensions and the racial disparities among them. During the 2013-14 school year, 28 percent of African American males were suspended and 20 percent of all students were suspended at least once.

The following year, 22 schools were given tools to respond to conflict and build relationships in a non-punitive way thanks to a $3 million Department of Justice grant. Teachers and staff in those buildings were trained to use "I" statements to express feelings and build a community in the classroom.

Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher for RAND and co-author of the study, said those kinds of statements are meant to start a dialogue with the student.

"If a student, for example, refuses to take off a hat in a classroom, instead of the teacher yelling or sending them out of the classroom or suspending them, the teacher might say 'I'm feeling disrespected. I'm concerned I won't be able to teach well if I can't have eye contact with you because your hat is on'," she said.

The teachers also use "responsive circles" to address disruptive action. The offender, victim, and teacher sit in a circle to discuss the harm. The offender is given time to reflect and apologize rather than being excluded from school.

According to RAND, those tools have proven successful at reducing suspension rates and shrinking disparities.

Christine Cray, Director of Student Services Reform for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said that is validating.

"We've been working for a long, long time to reduce disparities in suspensions and to have something come along that has really high buy-in and support from educators, and that is getting those outcomes that we've been trying so hard to get for our students, is just really exciting to see," Cray said.

The study found that the practice was particularly successful at the elementary school level. While suspensions were reduced in elementary schools using restorative practices, the elementary schools that didn't use the practice saw suspensions increase during the two year period.

"This tells me that teachers when confronted with behavior especially these minor infractions, insubordination was a term we heard a lot, without a tool like restorative practices, they don't know how to maintain order in the classroom, create a climate where everybody feels fairly treated," said John Engberg a senior economist and co-author of the study. "But with restorative practices, they really seem to be able to keep the kids in class, keep them learning."

The practice wasn't intended to improve academic achievement, but Engberg said outcomes didn't dip as they often do when new interventions are introduced. He said it will be difficult to ever know whether an increase in achievement was due to restorative practice.

"I would expect that that over the long term would lead to improvements in academic outcomes. But whether it does or not, if it's creating a better community, I think that's something we ought to take note of," he said.

The RAND researchers concluded that they would recommend the practice for elementary schools.

"Particularly if they're concerned with their school climates or with suspension rates or disparities by race and income," Augustine said.

The study also includes recommendations for schools or districts that want to use restorative practices based on Pittsburgh's outcomes.

Surveys used for the study, teachers in the "treatment" schools reported working in safer environments since the shift in practice.

The study found, though, that the suspension rate for violent actions in the "treatment" schools did not change.

"The district and teachers continued to suspend students when it was warranted," researcher Catherine Augustine said.

She said she's unsure what to take from that finding. It could mean the practice might not be effective in addressing violent behaviors in a school setting, or that it will take more time for teachers to adapt. 

"Or is it that when it comes to misbehavior that's not violent that's less severe, teachers and staff feel comfortable doing something restorative instead of suspending students, but they're still going to suspend students when it's warranted?"

Now, all but one school in the Pittsburgh district are trained to use restorative practice. 

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