In a room of brightly colored motivational posters and yoga mats, two middle school students sit across from one another in a circle of comfy blow-up chairs, glaring at each other, and talking through an argument of name-calling that almost escalated to fist-throwing.

The boy, with his hoodie up and his eyes on the ground, says he felt that his classmate had disrespected him and his mother. The girl, leaning forward in her seat and with a loud voice, said she felt that he had overreacted to a joke. Neither was interested in apologizing, and when their bickering turned to yelling, their teacher sent them to the reflection room at Kirby Middle School in Memphis, where students are encouraged to resolve conflicts before they escalate.

The charter middle school, a part of the Achievement School District, has cut its suspension rate in half this school year — it’s now down to 11 percent. In the state’s turnaround district for low-performing schools, reducing suspensions — and consequently, improving attendance — is a key way to improve student performance. Finding different ways of dealing with behavior is especially important in this district, where many of its students come from poverty and childhood trauma.

At a glance: Percentage of student body suspended in 2017

  • State average: 12 percent
  • Achievement School District: 24 percent
  • Kirby Middle School: 25 percent

Back in the reflection room, Rolander Mann calmly asks the students, “Was there a way you could have handled this differently?”

“Yelling at each other isn’t going to solve anything,” added Mann, who coordinates in-school-suspension at Kirby and staffs the reflection room.

The girl replies that she was joking, and the boy took her comments way too seriously. “Something could seem like a small thing to you, and can mean a great deal to him,” Mann said. “You don’t know what someone’s going through. You triggered him with your comments.”

The girl eventually half-apologizes, saying, “I know I was being petty, but I was just joking.”

“You try to justify every little thing,” Keisha Adams, a Communities in Schools student support specialist who staffs the room with Mann, tells the girl from across the room. “You need to listen to understand, not listen to respond.”

“Ok, sorry,” the girl mutters, leaning back in her seat and looking up at the ceiling. The boy doesn’t respond, but nods his head slowly and lowers his hoodie so he can look her in the eye.

They head back to class, separately and not exactly reconciled, but calmly. The whole interaction lasts 20 minutes, and the two avoided a suspension, which Mann said would have been likely if their argument had continued to escalate.

The reflection room is new this year to Kirby Middle, one of five Tennessee charter schools managed by Green Dot Public Schools. Four of their schools are in the achievement district, which is home to 30 of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, serving students in some of the state’s most under-resourced neighborhoods.

Across the achievement district, about 24 percent of students were suspended last year, slightly up from the year before. That’s double the state average of Tennessee, where 12 percent of all students received suspensions last year.

Keeping kids in school is a daily battle for educators across the nation, and that includes instruction time lost due to discipline. Suspensions and expulsions are also linked to students having lower test scores, dropping out of school, or becoming involved in crime more often than other students.

Read our deep dive into rising expulsions and decreasing suspensions in Shelby County Schools.

Marian Williams, now in her first year as Kirby’s principal, had heard of other schools in the nation having success with something like the reflection room, and she was eager to move the school’s culture toward restorative practices. She credits the reflection room and an incentives program for students’ good behavior as conduits for a more empathetic approach to discipline this year.

Williams assigned Mann to staff the reflection room alongside Adams of Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wraparound services for children.

Green Dot Kirby Middle School restorative justice
Marian Williams (right) jokes with students in the hallway of Kirby Middle.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

“There have been issues with students bullying in past years that could have been prevented,” Williams said. “This year, we’re being more proactive. We’re trying to keep small problems small.”

Williams’ changes are part of a larger effort in the achievement district to lower rates of suspensions and remands — re-assigning a student to a school for expelled students. The district’s schools are managed by 12 charter operators, which all have the authority to craft their own discipline strategies.

In 2016, the district directed schools not to expel students without placing them in an alternative school. Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from classrooms lasting 10 days or less; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions.

Definitions

  • Out-of-school suspensions: exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days
  • In-school suspensions: exclusions from students’ regularly assigned classroom
  • Expulsions: Suspensions lasting longer than 10 days
  • Remands: Expulsions where students are placed in alternative schools

Students remanded to alternative schools are sent to 11 schools, two of which are in the achievement district. Last year, 116 students in the district were expelled and placed in an alternative school. This school year, 40 district students have been remanded overall. At Kirby Middle, three students were remanded last school year, and three so far this year.

Because of turnover and downsizing of the achievement district office in 2017, there hadn’t been a dedicated person overseeing discipline for more than a year. Teri Manning-Euell, who started managing discipline for the district in late 2017, said her goal was to lower the number of remands without creating a spike in suspensions. When a charter operator wants to remand one of its students, part of her job is to push back and make sure the school staff did its due diligence.

“I can look at it objectively,” she said. “I can ask the school, ‘Is this absolutely necessary? What did you try to change the students’ behavior before we got here? What conversations have you had with the parents?’”

Manning-Euell said she wants to make sure schools in her district are no longer suspending or remanding students for the small things – like wearing shoes that go against dress code.

One Kirby Middle school student said he had previously been suspended for what he saw as small issues, like chewing gum in class, but he said the culture had changed this school year.

“There were too many rules last year,” said Joshua Kent, 13, an eighth-grader. “If we were chewing gum, they’d suspend us for chewing gum. They should’ve just made us spit the gum out.”

Green Dot Kirby Middle School restorative justice
A student completes a worksheet on emotional responses to conflict in the reflection room.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

Manning-Euell said the district has recognized that in a school district mainly serving students from impoverished neighborhoods, teachers without the proper training can be quick to suspend or remand without understanding the why behind a child’s actions. So, the district has focused this year on professional development for charter operators that promotes restorative justice practices and educates teachers on the effects of trauma and poverty in their schools.

“To us, restorative justice looks like ensuring educators are culturally sound,” said Manning-Euell, adding that the district has ramped up its professional development to get more buy-in from teachers. “Student behavior may look different in the settings that we serve.”

Eboni Gales, a third-year teacher at Kirby Middle, said that this year has been a shift for teachers in how they think about discipline. At first, teachers believed the reflection room would become a place for students to hang out if they were misbehaving, she said.

“It allows teachers to deal with students in not harsh terms,” said Gales, who teaches reading intervention. “The harsh approach was not getting results.”

Kevin Parham, 14, is an eighth-grader at Kirby. It’s his first year at the school, and he told Chalkbeat with surprise in his voice, “This is the first year ever that I can remember where I haven’t been suspended.”

Kevin said that at his previous schools, in-school-suspension was held in drafty rooms where  “we had to copy words out of a dictionary, just so we’d have something to do. I wasn’t learning how to do better, how to treat people better.”

Kevin said the reflection room at Kirby is a “calm place to focus on what to do right.”

“A lot of us have been exposed to a lot,” Kevin said. “We’ve been traumatized at home. We need to rest our brains and rejuvenate. We want to do right, we just need some space sometimes.”

Caroline Bauman
Keisha Adams, a Communities in Schools student support specialist (left), works with a student.
PHOTO CREDIT: Green Dot Kirby Middle School restorative justice