A lesson for closing the suspension gap

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2008 - 7:28 AM

Experts say there are ways for teachers to reduce the number of suspensions of black students while still preserving discipline. Just look at Webster Magnet.

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Bryan Harris 10, a fifth-grader at Webster Magnet School in St. Paul, played with a basketball outside the school before the morning bell.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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In a district that suspended more than 5,300 students last year, one St. Paul elementary school stood out. At Webster Magnet School, 177 students -- most of them black -- were suspended 349 times for misbehaviors both great and small. It was the highest number of suspensions of any elementary school in the city.

Not this year.

A concerted strategy by a new principal that includes training teachers how to avoid conflict with kids -- or handle it differently inside their rooms -- appears to be paying dividends. Webster's suspensions are down 65 percent compared with last year.

"We said, 'We need to change this,'" said Webster Principal Lori Simon. "We can't raise test scores if kids are constantly being sent out."

The school's efforts are one example of an increasing focus on student discipline and reducing suspensions -- especially among black students -- across the Twin Cities area. In schools from Anoka-Hennepin to Osseo to Minneapolis and St. Paul, educators are searching for ways to avoid sending students home. Much of those efforts center on making children feel welcome while also managing classroom behavior.

Black students in Minnesota are suspended from school at a rate about six times that of white students.

While some are sent home for serious misbehavior such as fighting or weapons, most are suspended for lesser offenses, such as talking in class, goofing around or challenging their teachers.

Many educators insist that Minnesota schools will make little improvement in black students' test scores, graduation rates or college admissions unless they stop kicking so many kids out of class.

Officials say they can succeed. After all, look at Webster.

At first glance, a recent morning in Sheila Martin's fourth-grade classroom didn't seem unusual:

"Good morning, class," she called.

"Good morning, Ms. Martin," they chimed back.

Then they gathered for the morning meeting. Sitting in a circle, the children greeted one another by touching hands and wiggling their fingers. Then they played a counting game, then a self-control game in which one student spied others fidgeting. When the kids got loud, Martin held up five fingers. Everyone stopped and put up their hands in response.

It's called "Responsive Classroom," a way to manage classroom behavior while also getting to know students. When students need discipline, teachers move them to a different part of the room for a few minutes. If that doesn't work, the student could go to another, neighboring teacher's classroom for a short time. It's a way to help the students cool down while continuing their lesson, something they wouldn't do in the principal's office.

"You have to do a shift in thinking. You really do," said Simon, in her first full year at the school. "You want to work with your kids -- versus send them out and punish them."

From the classroom to the hallways to the lunchroom, it seems to be working, said Webster parent Selita Barber.

"I see the teachers more collaborating as a team, sharing ideas in the classrooms," she said.

Martin said Responsive Classroom was put in place a couple years ago. But it's really making a difference this year. Simon sets clear expectations -- Responsive Classroom calls for several levels of intervention before a child is sent out of the room.

"Every day, we are hearing a message that reminds us of the need to make connections with kids," Martin said.

It's not an easy task

Most Minnesota teachers aren't taught how to manage a classroom, let alone how to work with children from different backgrounds, said Frank Hernandez, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Urban Teaching at Hamline University. It's not required, he said.

The center at Hamline trains new teachers, as well as working with existing teachers in school districts such as Osseo, to find ways to better connect with their kids and manage their classrooms.

"We have found a couple of issues, often with newer teachers," he said. "They are just not experiencing any success with students. And they are having so many challenges with managing behavior with students that they just throw their hands up in the air and they just can't do it anymore."

Teachers often make assumptions about students, Hernandez said. For instance, a white teacher could see a group of white students hanging out near the lockers and talking loudly and not give it a second thought. But if that same teacher saw a group of black students hanging out and making noise, the teacher might tell them to get to class.

"In our program, we actually try to make teachers conscious of these things," Hernandez said. "At the end of the day, you have sent five black children out of your room. And they are the only five in your room."

One way to start breaking down those assumptions is for schools to hire more black teachers, said Eugene Dix, executive director of the African American Action Committee, a nonprofit community-based group in Brooklyn Park that seeks to raise the concerns of the black community. The committee has been studying the suspension numbers in the Osseo schools.

"When you don't understand how to talk to people, your first reaction is progressive discipline," he said of teachers. "And that is kicking them out of school."

Dix believes that black teachers are more likely to correct black student behavior without resorting to suspensions. And, he said, they would increase the understanding and tolerance of their white peers by helping break down stereotypes "in the teacher's lounge."

All of this is a lot to expect of teachers, Dix and others say. But the success of black students depends on it.

"Teachers have a right to expect an orderly room," Dix said. "But they also should be experienced when they walk into that room. And they should have some cultural training as well. And, if they don't want to do it that way, they shouldn't be in teaching."

Sandy Reichert is convinced that teachers -- and the attitudes they bring to their jobs -- have much to do with the disparity in suspension numbers between black and white students. Program manager at MERC Alternative High School in Minneapolis, Reichert said that when teachers are stressed, intimidated or unsure of themselves, they often resort to sending problem kids to the principal's office.

In alternative programs, where students have often been booted out of other schools, it is even more critical for teachers to leave their own baggage at the door, she said.

"You have to have a lot of patience. You have to have a lot of hope."

Teachers must develop a bond with students, she said. It's not easy, she said. She has been called plenty of names. Kids have refused to do their work. What happens then? "They sit with me," she said. "And, tomorrow, many get to sit with me again. You have to have a staff that is willing to deal with the kids."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

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