VISALIA: What Happened to Suspension Rates When a California School District Decided That ALL Its Kids Mattered?April 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon
VISALIA CHANGES COURSE
California’s Visalia Unified School District used to suspend their students at an appalling clip. For instance, for the 2009-2010 school year—a time when other districts were getting pressure to improve their stats—Visalia still suspended a flabbergasting 40.5 percent of its secondary school students. But then its superintendent and a few of his administrators got together and made some profound changes in how they disciplined kids.
So what did they do and how did they do it?
We’ll get to that in a minute. First a very brief overview of school discipline in America.
THE BEST & the WORST
We initially became aware of Visalia’s record a month ago when a national report was released that looked at which of the nation’s school districts had the worst records for overuse of suspensions and expulsions, and which districts were doing things right.
The report—“Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?”—was created by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, and the numbers it documented were alarming. It turned out that, despite a several years of public conversation about the damage that an overuse of suspensions can do to kids’ ability to succeed in the classroom and beyond, nearly 3.5 million public school children were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year—with many suspended multiple times. Since most suspensions were an average of 3.5 days, that meant that in one school year, 18 million hours of learning were lost for American kids.
Beyond the overview of suspension patterns, the report also looked at individual states and individual school districts within those states, to find out which districts were still doing a bad job at finding disciplinary solutions other than tossing kids out of class —especially black and disabled kids—and which districts had actually managed to take great leaps in improving their discipline stats.
The report also found that, in some districts, the overall numbers weren’t all that awful, but the racial disparities were, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, and the report’s lead author.
“The fact that 14 percent of districts suspended more than one of every 10 black elementary students, and 21 percent of the districts suspended one of every four black secondary students, or more, is shocking when compared to the Latino and white distribution,” Losen said. “The Normandy school district in Missouri, where Michael Brown attended is among the highest suspending districts in the entire nation with an overall suspension rate for black students of just under 50 percent.” This type of large disparity, he said, “impacts both the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children, inflicting upon them a legacy of despair rather than opportunity.”
But the report’s news wasn’t all bad, Losen pointed out when I spoke to him recently.
For example, in California, he said, there was one particular district that made it on the list of the report’s most improved districts in the nation when it came to secondary schools. The district was Visalia, and it went from suspending a gasp-worthy 40.5 percent of its secondary students in 2009-2010, to 15.5 percent in 2011-2012.
Now Visalia’s rate is down to around 11 percent (still lower when Visalia includes its charter high schools).
Losen suggested I check out Visalia.
POSITIVE DISCIPLINE AND CHANGING A CULTURE
“We still overuse suspension in our system,” said Dr. Craig Wheaton, Visalia’s superintendent, when I called him to ask him about his precipitous drop in out-of-school discipline numbers “I think we had very high rates that we brought down to a more reasonable level. But they need to be lower,” he said.
Okay, fair enough, but how did they make the drastic change they’ve already accomplished?
Changing a system is not something you do overnight, Wheaton said. “It’s a cultural change we’re talking about. You can’t just quit suspending kids. We had to first begin with the cultural change around how we approach discipline as a whole and, over time, that began to affect our suspension/expulsion rate.
“We began asking ourselves,” Wheaton said, “how do you work with discipline in such a way that it becomes a positive learning experience, rather than punitive?”
One of the specific things Wheaton did to reboot the district’s approach to discipline was to ask all of his teachers to read a best-selling parenting book called “Positive Discipline,” by Jane Nelson.
“We had Jane Nelson work with us, and she developed a positive discipline work training for us that really helped.”
What really affected their data, he said, “was just looking at ourselves and asking how we could create discipline as a learning environment that kept the behavior from occurring again.”
Yet, upstream of everything was a change in attitude by the adults toward the kids they were teaching, and that occurred slowly.
“We started looking at two rails. One rail was student achievement. But we were having to emphasize school achievement so much because of No Child Left Behind. So we started saying that the other rail was really about relationships with kids. All kids need to feel like they belong. They need a sense of significance and belonging. You can’t just demand that students achieve at high levels. You need to win their hearts first. You need to establish a relationship.”
FINDING THE POINT WHEN DETACHMENT BEGINS
Wheaton said that he and his colleagues also began looking at where kids started to detach from school that ultimately led them to acting out.
To find out, they pulled together all the district’s expulsion cases for the prior year-–which amounted to around 100 folders. “Then we reviewed them in teams. We looked all the way back to when the kids were in grade school, and noted when they began acting out, and what was going on with each of them then. In the majority, 9th grade was the big moment. In general, kids started disengaging in 3, 4th and 5th grades. By 7th grade it got more serious. And by 9th grade, they’re getting suspended.”
So Wheaton and company started thinking, “How do we ID and support kids— especially in elementary and middle school—and help them to feel like they belong, and are engaged?” Going off the rails, he said, “It doesn’t just happen over night.”
Another part of keeping kids engaged, Wheaton said, was to have programs other than academics that the students found important and gave their school time extra meaning. “We tried to hold on to all those things, in spite of budget cuts.” He fought to keep strong athletic activities, and other things, like music and performing arts. “We have a very strong music program that starts in 4th or 5th grade, and musical theater at all high schools and some middle schools.” Most recently they’ve done Guys & Dolls and Grease. “And Mary Poppins, a fabulous production with a professional company coming in and putting up the wires so she could fly through the rafters.”
DOES EVERY STUDENT REALLY MATTER?
Not everyone bought in to the new discipline practices, Wheaton said.
“I just don’t want to paint a rosy picture that everything’s alright, because it’s a struggle. Some people are against what we’re doing. They feel that we’re turning too soft, that we’ve gone overboard, and that certain kids should be kicked out.” But a lot of those people are older, he admitted, and are retiring out of the system.
“But even now, our teachers’ association still reminded teachers that they have the right to suspend.” Wheaton sighed.
“The truth is, we identified the need [for a new discipline system] long ago. We really wanted our schools to be safe learning environment, but the answer was always suspension.”
The new direction really began, Wheaton said, “when we talked about doing the best we could for ‘all students.’ And we started questioning who was ‘all?’ Who does that include? Did we mean all? Or did we really mean most.”
And if all truly meant all, they were going to have to make some changes.
So they did. “And we’ve still got farther to go.”
AND…BEFORE YOU GO OFF FOR THE WEEKEND: THE ACLU IS STRONGLY ADVOCATING FOR SUBPOENA POWER FOR THE SOON-TO-BE-CREATED SHERIFF CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT COMMISSION. Here’s the ACLU’s forceful and fact-driven letter, for your reading pleasure. It was sent on Friday to those who have decision-making capabilities in the matter. It should also be noted that the LA Times editorial board is of the same opinion.