Improving California school environments focus of pilot program

July 25, 2018

Teachers and administrators throughout California will get additional training on how to improve school environments and implement alternatives to traditional discipline thanks to a state-funded partnership between two county education departments and UCLA.

This week the departments of education in Orange and Butte counties, along with UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, announced a pilot program to develop a training curriculum based on multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), an approach to learning and behavioral problems in which students progress through a range of interventions depending on their need levels.

The program, which is funded by a $15-million grant that was part of the budget deal struck by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature in June, will emphasize restorative justice, social emotional learning and other alternatives that prioritize mediation and building healthy relationships over traditional punishments.

However, it’s crucial that the program address all facets of school culture and student achievement, not just behavior and discipline, said Pedro Noguera, professor of education in UCLA’s graduate school of education and founder of the Center for the Transformation of Schools.

Noguera and others point to persistent racial disparities not only with suspension and expulsion rates, but also with test scores and graduation rates. African-American students are up to three times more likely to be suspended as their white peers for similar infractions. Meanwhile, more than half of all white students meet state standards for English and math proficiency while less than a quarter of African-American and Latino students do.

“The achievement gap and the discipline gap are two sides of the same coin,” Noguera said. “You can’t, for example, address the racial disparities in discipline without addressing them in all the other aspects of a student’s experience at school.”

The collaborators expect to spend year one of the program working with experts and educators to design a training curriculum. Year two will consist of a statewide train-the-trainers effort that they hope will involve 50 to 100 teachers, administrators and other staff from across the state. The focus in subsequent years will be on training at the school and community level.

“For us the hope is schools end up paying as much attention to the social, emotional and behavior needs of children as they do academic needs, and it becomes seamless,” said Christine Olmstead, associate superintendent of instruction for the Orange County Department of Education.

Tim Taylor, superintendent of the Butte County Office of Education, said the scope of the grant gives rural districts the chance to catch up in some respects to their urban counterparts on discipline reform and improving school climates.

“It is a great opportunity for schools to work collectively to create more positive school cultures and environments,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of small districts up north and it is a big deal for these teachers to collaborate with others throughout the state.”

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