There are often expectations for a new superintendent to make an immediate impact in his or her district. That was the case when I became superintendent at Standard School District in Bakersfield in November 2013, just as the new Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) was unfolding.
Being new to the district and the area, the needs assessment required by the LCAP served me well as an educational leader. It didn’t take long to identify the areas of need or to come to agreement on how to address them.
One area of need in our K-8 district with nearly 3,000 students was to reduce the number of suspensions. In 2013, the number of student suspensions at our middle school was extremely high – over three times the state suspension rate. Budget cuts over several years had reduced the middle school administrative team and, with over 900 students in 6th to 8th grades, it was clear that the team was operating in survival mode. We needed to provide more support for students and staff and find a program that offered a long-term solution to address student misbehavior as well as guide future behavior.
In addition to suspending students and sending them home for violating school rules, the middle school was using an in-house suspension program called Opportunity Class, or “Op,” as it was called by the students and staff. Op was basically a holding tank where misbehaving students were sent for a day or several days as a consequence for disrupting the school environment. Op was punitive in nature, and the students were expected to remain quiet and do their schoolwork. For the Op teacher, the focus was on managing the class and there was little time available for any type of intervention. The Op program had no real impact on changing or improving student behavior, and as a result many students were repeat offenders or “frequent flyers.”
In January 2014, our director of student services Denita Maughan heard about a promising program. While attending the ACSA Pupil Services Academy, she met two administrators, Barbara Perez and Barry Tyler, from Oceanside Unified School District, north of San Diego. They shared their strategy to reduce suspensions, which was based on the principles of restorative practices. Following that meeting, Dr. Maughan visited the continuation school in Oceanside where the program was being implemented. She was convinced that it could be adapted to work at the middle school level. Our contacts at Oceanside agreed to help us implement a similar program, and we drew up a consulting contract with them to help us do so.
Thanks to increased state funding as a result of the Local Control Funding Formula, we were able to improve our student support services by providing a full-time school psychologist to each of our schools. We formed a middle school “Alternative to Suspension” team consisting of the site administration (principal and two assistant principals), a campus supervisor, school counselor, school psychologist, social work intern and the ATS teacher (formally the Op teacher). Each staff member plays an important role.
In addition to providing counseling, our school counselor and school psychologist play a vital role by teaching students how to acknowledge and own their behavior and to make amends with those individuals they have harmed both directly and indirectly. In order to prepare the apology, they conduct role-playing scenarios so students have the confidence to make a sincere attempt to repair relationships that were impacted by their behavior.
Alternative to Suspension is based on restorative practices that originated in the criminal justice system as an alternative to punishment and incarceration. Adapted for use in schools, restorative practices are used as an alternative to suspension by using a set of principles and strategies to encourage students to accept responsibility for their behavior and repair any harm caused by their actions. The foundation of restorative practices is based on the core values of respect, inclusion, responsibility, empathy, honesty, openness and accountability.
Offending students are assigned to the ATS class, where they engage in activities that enable them to accept responsibility for their behavior, learn better ways to respond in the future, and make amends. The implementation of restorative practices requires additional staff support to work with students and run classroom circles, a key component of the program. The underlying concept of restorative practices is that people are more likely to respond positively when authority figures do things with them, rather than to them or for them.
We began the program when school started in August, and the results were immediate. In the first week, the ATS program already had engaged its first students. I stopped by to observe the process and asked a student what was different between last year’s Op program and this year’s ATS program. Her response was, “This year it feels like the staff actually cares about me.” Curious, I asked why. “Last year we just had to sit here and do our time. Now they are talking with us and helping us work out our problems.” Bingo! We had a winner.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread to the students that things were different this year at Standard Middle School. In addition to a positive response from students, parents have been supportive and appreciate the positive impact the program has had on their children.
At our board meeting last December, Standard Middle School principal Jason Hodgson presented the midyear results of the Alternative to Suspension program. In the first five months of the program, suspensions had decreased 55% compared to the same time period in the previous school year. In addition, only 7% of the students have had to repeat their involvement in the program
“Of all the 10-plus years that I’ve worked with students in an administrative capacity, our ATS program is the most transformational program we’ve offered kids,” Hodgson told the board. “In fact, ATS is such a powerful program that in spite of how fantastic the Chromebooks are for kids, I’d give them all back if we had to choose between ATS and the Chromebooks.”
Rarely do administrators have such immediate success in implementing a new program. Ours isn’t perfect yet, but I believe it could be easily adapted and replicated in other schools around the state.
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