student discipline

What do schools with low student suspension rates have in common?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Kindergarten teacher Lori Manhart, left, and school psychologist Jennifer Keller Johnson take a selfie with students in 2014. Home visits are a good way for educators to build relationships with kids, the report found.

Denver schools with low student suspension rates share several traits, according to a new report. Among them: The student population tends to be more integrated and the staff treat most misbehavior as a learning opportunity, not an infraction deserving punishment.

To produce the report, researchers from the University of Denver interviewed nearly 200 educators from 33 Denver schools that had suspension rates between 0 and 3 percent in the 2014-15 school year — including for black students.

Data shows that many Colorado school districts, including Denver Public Schools, suspend and expel African-American students at a higher rate than they do white students.

The researchers wanted to know more about the characteristics of those 33 schools.

Here are highlights from their findings:

Younger students, more integrated. Of the 33 schools, 58 percent were elementary schools and 58 percent were traditional district-run schools (meaning they aren’t charter or innovation schools).

The schools also had fewer children of color and fewer low-income children than other DPS schools, making them more racially and economically integrated.

An average of 61 percent of students at those 33 schools were children of color, as compared to the district average of 78 percent. An average of 56 percent were eligible for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty, as opposed to the district average of 74 percent.

The schools also had fewer English language learners and students with disabilities.

Relationships matter. Many educators interviewed attributed their school’s low suspension rates to strong relationships between teachers and students. Teachers who know their students’ strengths, challenges and triggers are more likely to understand the underlying reasons for misbehavior and be in a better position to respond, they said.

Conducting home visits to meet students’ families or attending students’ after-school sporting events and recitals were cited by the educators as ways to build those relationships.

Students are more willing to take responsibility for their actions and be more open to changing their behavior when they feel known by the adults in the building, the educators said.

“If you’ve got a relationship with a student, they’re 100 times more likely to listen to you and understand and respond and try,” one educator told the researchers.

Solutions, not consequences. Many of the schools use restorative practices to address misbehavior. Students who break the rules are asked to reflect on what happened, identify the harm done and come up with a plan to repair any damage, the educators said.

While that approach takes more time than meting out a suspension, the educators said it allows students to develop conflict resolution skills and an understanding of accountability.

Keep students in the classroom. A majority of the schools abide by the philosophy that classroom teachers should be the first to respond to misbehavior and conflict — and that students should be sent home from school only as a last resort.

“You can’t just send them home because you needed to take a break,” an elementary school principal told the researchers. “When they come back, they’re going to do the same thing.”

Be aware of racial inequity and bias. While the researchers noted that many educators were uncomfortable talking about the role of race in their discipline process, educators at about a third of the 33 schools explicitly discussed their use of culturally responsive practices.

They recognize that students of color have often been marginalized and that extra efforts should be made to connect with them and their families. By understanding the impact of racism and bias, the researchers wrote that educators at those schools “took responsibility for changing student academic and discipline outcomes, rather than blaming students and families.”

Student support services are crucial. Many educators credited their school’s social workers, counselors, psychologists, interventionists and restorative practices specialists with helping put in place positive responses to student misbehavior that helps kids instead of punishing them.

For more, read the full report below.

Get moving

Requiring P.E. for Tennessee’s youngest students would help academics, too, advocates say

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tom Cronan was a lifelong outdoorsman who was passionate about fitness and its many benefits, both physically and emotionally.

Now, almost a decade after his death at age 64 of pancreatic cancer, a bill in the legislature would honor the East Tennessee educator by requiring that the state’s students spend more time playing sports and exercising during school.

The Tom Cronan Physical Education Act, which unanimously passed the House Instruction and Programs Committee on Tuesday, would serve as a living tribute to the professor emeritus of exercise physiology at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City.

It also would act on research showing that physical education boosts children’s brain development, helps form lifelong exercise habits and promotes overall health and mental wellbeing.

The bill would require all public elementary school students to participate in a physical education class taught by a P.E. teacher at least two times a week.

Currently, Tennessee requires physical education for its K-8 students, but doesn’t specify how much time students should spend in it.

Cronan’s widow Joan, a former women’s athletics director at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, testified to lawmakers this year about the potential impact of physical education on student engagement and obesity. P.E. also could give students life skills that translate to academic success, she said.

“The Tom Cronan Physical Education bill could make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.  “We feel like that this discipline will make a difference.”

The bill is sponsored by Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican, in the House, and Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, in the Senate, where it passed the education committee last month. The measure now goes to the finance committees of both chambers.

Though the proposal wouldn’t cost the state extra money, it does come with a collective $253,000 price tag for three smaller school districts  — in Dyer, Hardeman and Carter counties — that would have to hire new teachers to meet the requirement.

The bill isn’t the first to address physical activity in schools, where more rigorous academic standards and preparation for high-stakes testing have challenged educators to strike the right balance.

In 2016, the legislature approved stringent playtime requirements that went into effect last fall. But lawmakers recently voted to roll those back to give educators more flexibility with recess.  But they didn’t scrap the requirements altogether. Under the bill that Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign into law, younger students would be required to have at least 130 minutes of recess a week.

Funding fight

Colorado poised to slash funding for controversial student health survey

Two years after a controversial student health survey sparked protracted debate at the State Board of Education, questions about the survey’s value have moved to the state legislature — and could mean a loss of $745,000 in state funding for the biennial data collection effort.

Funding for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which comes primarily from the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Funds, was not included in the proposed state budget earlier this spring and may not return despite requests by the state health department to restore the money.

The health survey is given to a sample of Colorado middle school and high school students in scores of districts every other year. It asks about topics ranging from nutrition to risky behavior, and proponents say it’s crucial for tracking trends and crafting interventions when trouble spots arise.

In addition to $745,000 in state dollars, the survey is funded with $89,000 in federal money. State health department officials said determining whether the survey could continue in a slimmed-down form if state money is stripped away depends on the federal budget.

“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the only comprehensive survey on the health and well-being of Colorado youth,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement. “Without funding, we won’t be able to provide the kind of credible health information schools, community groups and local public health agencies need to improve the health of the young people they serve.”

The state Senate is expected this week to debate the state’s budget. The House will debate the budget after the Senate completes its review.

The health survey became the focus of a debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office in 2015 after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission — called active consent — in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 26-year history, most districts have chosen passive consent, which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules. State officials emphasized throughout the controversy that the survey is anonymous and voluntary. After the state board uproar over the survey, most districts continued to participate.

On Monday, Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who helped write the state’s budget, said of the survey, “I think enough of us felt that it was just intrusive. I just don’t think it collects good data.”

Not all on the budget committee agreed.

“I support the survey,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. “Our school districts rely on that information for other grant programs. It is possible in the budget process we’re able to restore that.”

Chalkbeat Colorado’s deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report.