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Out-of-school suspension policy ending in Buffalo ; Students will get instruction instead

When Jean-Claude Brizard became Rochester's school superintendent 2 1/2 years ago, one of the first things he did was issue a declaration: no more out-of-school suspension.

"I have one rule. For a kid to learn, they have to be in the classroom," he said. "Without that being priority No. 1, I don't see how you can educate kids."

It took Buffalo school leaders a little longer to reach the same conclusion, but after the shooting death of a 15-year-old boy who was on the streets because he was suspended, they now seem ready to sharply curtail out-of-school suspensions.

Superintendent James A. Williams said he will use the $2 million to $3 million that's now being used for off-site instruction to staff an in-school suspension room in each school.

"If they're suspended from school, they're going to get their two hours of instruction a day [in the school]," Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes said.

Students who are considered dangerous -- accounting for less than 5 percent of suspensions in Buffalo -- will continue to get two hours of instruction a day somewhere other than school, such as a community center, he said.

In Rochester, students report to in-school suspension for a full day. Putting an in-school suspension room in every school cost Rochester $4.2 million.

Brizard says the effort is paying off. Last year, 700 more students than the year before stayed in school in Rochester, which is about the same size as Buffalo, with more than 30,000 students.

"This was a hill worth dying on," Brizard said. "I could never increase achievement, I could never increase the graduation rate if I didn't do this. This was a major achievement for us."

The end of out-of-school suspension also brought Rochester into compliance with laws governing the education of special-education students. They are disproportionately affected by suspensions in most districts, as are black students.

In Buffalo, the schools have been out of compliance for years with a state law that requires an hour of daily instruction for suspended elementary students and two hours for high school students, officials say.

Buffalo officials say they are aware of what Rochester has done, but they are not ready to provide a full day of instruction to suspended students.

"[The Rochester model] is what we have our eye on, but we're not going to start with that just yet. Just putting alternative instruction in schools [for two hours a day] is something we can do right now, with the budget we have," Keresztes said.

>New approaches

For years, schools' approach to discipline was fairly simple, experts say.

" 'Do what we say. If you don't like it, leave. If you rebel against us, we'll kick you out temporarily. And if it happens enough, we'll kick you out for good,' " said Randy Sprick, who founded a group that trains teachers across the country in a different approach.

A growing number of educators say they recognize that telling kids not to come to school does not prove to be much of a deterrent for many students.

Nationally, more and more urban districts, including New York City and Los Angeles, have abandoned their out-of-school suspension programs.

Locally, schools are trying various approaches. Enterprise Charter School, for instance, has found three-hour Saturday detentions to be more effective at modifying behavior than out-of-school suspensions.

At West Seneca West High School two years ago, administrators turned a classroom next to the counseling center into the home of the new "Tailored Academic Program," where students get help with their classwork from a teacher and meet with a counselor to talk about why they landed in trouble.

Now, the majority of suspensions have been replaced with a tour in the "TAP lab." Students spend about one-third of their day in their regular classes, and the rest in the TAP lab -- until 4:30 p.m., 2 1/2 hours after the standard dismissal time.

"Students would prefer to be suspended from school than go to TAP," Principal Jon MacSwan said. "It has become a great deterrent. Parents prefer it. Students don't."

>Positive support

Reforms in discipline don't end there.

For more than a decade, schools across the country have gradually been shifting to an approach known as Positive Behavior Support, which emphasizes building relationships between students and adults, and rewarding students for what they're doing right.

"It's basically an approach that is all about prevention and intervention. The goal is to eliminate school suspensions and office discipline referrals for anything other than very violent situations," said Jane Ogilvie, director of community youth development and student support services for Erie 1 BOCES.

The adults in the building define the acceptable student behaviors in the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls and other areas. Students are told exactly what's expected of them.

Then the adults in the building pay very careful attention. They catch students behaving the way they're supposed to -- and reward them for it, both individually and as a group.

At John F. Kennedy Middle School in Sloan, for instance, students who exhibit character traits the school is promoting get their name displayed on the "Power Paw Wall," which recognizes positive behaviors.

Every month, those students' names are entered in a drawing. The winners can choose a gift certificate from a variety of places. At the end of each quarter, the school takes a picture of all the students who were recognized by their teachers.

"Because you are recognizing positive behaviors, kids want the recognition," said Principal David L. Peters. "Kids who are causing problems fade right out."

Buffalo Public Schools in the past few years have been working with Erie 1 BOCES to implement the approach. At the high school level, it's known as Safe and Civil Schools, the approach that Sprick and his team of trainers promote across the country.

Safe and Civil Schools, as well as other positive behavior-based approaches, relies heavily on software that enables schools to record and track changes in student behavior.

"Science has proven it works," Ogilvie said.

South Park High School unveiled it a few months ago. One of the problem areas teachers and administrators wanted to focus on first was students coming late to class.

Principal Theresa Schuta this spring introduced a program called "Start on Time" that tracks students' tardiness . She launched a competition that pitted the three "houses" in the school against each other. The house with the fewest students coming late to class in a given month would get a pizza party or an ice cream party.

Before Start on Time launched, 800 students a week were late going into a class, Schuta said. After the first month, only 29 students a week were late to class.

The payoff will come in the form of more instructional time for students, she said. If a student was consistently two minutes late to a class, that meant losing 10 minutes of instructional time a week, or 40 minutes a month.

"It was a team effort at South Park High School," Schuta said. "Teachers volunteered their own time to monitor the halls, during their break or lunch. That made it work."


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