If not suspension, then what?

California schools are reducing suspension rates, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.

Pressed by law enforcement, civil-rights advocates and the realization that the way they disciplined students was failing, schools are keeping on campus more kids who talk back, throw tantrums or even threaten teachers.

Some educators say they’ve found better alternatives. Five years ago, Yerba Buena High in East San Jose lost 1,062 days to suspension. Last school year, that was down to 23 days. ”Suspending students is not effective,” said Yerba Buena Principal Tom Huynh.

Instead of sending students home on a mini-vacation, YB requires detention. At a recent session, a counselor talked about her own rebellious childhood.

Oak Grove High, which serves high-poverty San Jose neighborhoods, uses detention, Saturday school or litter patrol, as well as referrals to a counselor, anger-management help or a substance abuse support group.

But some teachers say “taking away the option to suspend creates a disciplinary void and sticks them with rowdy or even dangerous kids in class,” writes Noguchi.

 ”For an experienced teacher who knows how to deal with intense behavioral management — we get that,” said one Oakland Unified teacher who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal. “But for a new teacher, it’s a disaster.”

Even worse, Oakland teachers allege, the pressure not to suspend has led schools to fudge their numbers by not documenting fights or even weapons violations, or the ensuing punishments.

Oakland Unified was forced to reduce suspensions as part of a settlement with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Instead, the district promotes “restorative justice,” which “tries to get scofflaws to make amends, combatants to reconcile and students to come to terms with any harm they’ve done.” The district stresses conflict resolution and support for African-American boys.

“All of this is done to try to put a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It leaves a lot of kids feeling unsafe,” one teacher said.

You can look at school suspension rates by district, courtesy of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which is leading the anti-suspension crusade.

Learning irresponsibility

Managing classroom misbehavior takes up way too much time, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches English in a Bronx high school. Students know they can get away with talking in class, hitting each other, walking around the classroom and then talking back to the teacher.

. . . these kids are 16, not six. At some point, no matter how difficult their upbringing, how uninvolved their parents, or how dry the material . . . high school students have to be held accountable for their own behavior. . . .  many times the kids can’t be engaged by even the most fascinating lesson–and, with virtually no consequences for non-violent infractions, teachers’ hands are tied.

New York City’s new discipline code will make it harder to suspend students for “disorderly behavior,” such as swearing and lying to teachers. Instead, principals will use reprimands, parent conferences and lunchtime detentions.

Calling home sometimes helps, but not for long, Garon writes. The school can’t afford supervised detention. Suspension “is often treated as a vacation by the kids.”

Immigrants from Jamaica and Ghana are “often appalled at the behaviors of American-born kids,” who take  education for granted. High school is free in the U.S., so it’s not valued, a Jamaican told her.

Garon dreams of “hard detention” (cleaning the school), suspension and “the threat of expulsion for the toughest repeat offenders.” If there are no consequences, students are taught that “even in their teenage years, they are not responsible for their own behavior.” That’s a dangerous message that will undermine their academic future and their employment prospects, Garon writes.

Teaching students to control their impulses and take responsibility for their actions should start in elementary school.

Teaching math to 11th and 12th graders who’ve failed the seventh-grade-level graduation exam, Michele Kerr has to manage “vortex” and “driftwood” students.

The quintessential disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.

(Yet) Deon was a math-solving machine who worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.

“Good” kids and “bad” kids “aren’t useful distinctions,” she writes on Larry Cuban’s blog.

Charter discipline: Too strict?

Charter schools in some cities are being pushed to relax strict discipline policies, reports Ed Week.

Charters expel students at the same rate as traditional public schools and have lower suspension rates, according to an Ed Week analysis of 2009-10 federal data. “But in a few urban districts where high discipline rates at charter schools have drawn scrutiny, school officials have recently taken steps aimed at ensuring that students in both charter and other public schools are treated fairly,” reports Ed Week. 

New Orleans’ Recovery School District centralized admissions, transfer and expulsion for its charter and non-charter schools last year.

“Many parents choose charters because they offer safe havens” from violence and disorder, say charter supporters.

In A Tale of Two Students, Ed Week looks at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which runs 12 schools in Chicago.

. . . its mission is to “prepare low-income students with the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and lead exemplary lives, and serve as a catalyst for education reform in Chicago.”

Its academic record is impressive: Noble students’ average ACT score, 20.7, is more than 3 points higher than the average score for Chicago’s regular public schools.

Discipline is strict. Ronda Coleman, whose daughter Janell, 17, is a Noble senior, says “the rules create a safe environment, and that parents and students are well aware of what they’re signing up for.”

Michael Milkie, the superintendent and a co-founder of the Noble charter school system, said he and his wife were inspired to create a school with a stricter code of conduct after teaching in the Chicago school system.

“One of the things we looked to implement right away was a structured, strong discipline code that teaches students proper behavior and allows teachers to teach and students to learn,” Mr. Milkie said. At Noble, students receive demerits for certain offenses, including dress-code violations or possessing a permanent marker. Racking up four demerits means serving detention for three hours on Friday and paying a $5 fee.

“Students get an average of 12 detentions freshman year, and only two by senior year,” said Milkie.

Donna Moore thinks discipline is too rigid. Her son, Joshua, 17, spent two years as a freshman at Gary Comer High School, a Noble charter school, drawing hundreds of detentions and dozens of suspensions. He now attends an alternative high school.

Go to detention, pay $5

Strict discipline is part of the “secret sauce” at the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, which runs 10 high-performing high schools in low-income areas. That includes charging students $5 for the cost of detention if they’re caught in minor violations: Carrying energy drinks or chips, chewing gum, failing to tuck in a shirt or tie shoelaces when asked, carrying a permanent marker or sleeping in class can lead to a three-hour detention, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Noble’s 10 high schools in the city raised nearly $200,000 from the disciplinary fees last year, according to  parent and student advocacy groups who protested the policy.

“It’s nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

Noble Network CEO Michael Milkie said enforcing rules creates an orderly atmosphere that discourages the violence that plagues many Chicago public schools.

“We maybe have one fight per year, per campus. It’s an incredibly safe environment from a physical and emotional standpoint, and part of it comes from sweating the small things.”

And he said students who behave poorly should be forced to pay.

“For far too long in the city, students who behave well have had their education diverted to address students who behave improperly,” Milkie said. “We have set that fee to offset the cost to administer detention.”

Schools offer waivers and payment plans for low-income students and take disabilities into account, Milkie said. The network’s 91.3 percent retention rate is better than the district’s, he added. There are 10,000 students on wait lists to get into a Noble high school.

Parents must like Noble’s policies because they keep signing up their kids, responds Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s praised the schools for their high graduation rate, nearly double the rate at other public schools, and the high college-going rate.

Charging parents for detention

Parents would pay a detention fee for their misbehaving children if two board members in Nutley, New Jersey get their way. Detention costs the district about $10,000 a year in overtime and maintenance. The board members want to fine parents of “habitual” detainees.

However, the policy may not be legal, says Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Board Association. Detention isn’t an extracurricular activity.

“Discipline is part of a public education,” he said. “Since detention would have to be used to enforce discipline, it is doubtful that you could charge for that, the same way you can’t charge for someone taking a history class or math class.”

In some areas, parents can be fined for their children’s truancy.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.