By Peter White
NASHVLLE, TN — Sixteen Metro School students have died in the last twelve months. While none of them died on school grounds, hundreds have been suspended from school.
“When you suspend a child they go home and a lot of times when they are home they are unsupervised. When they are unsupervised and they have time to think of things to do. If they don’t have positive influences in their lives, they tend to do negative things ……and they end up in the court system,” said Juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway.
That means those kids miss more school. When they return, they are behind and tend to disengage from learning in the classroom. And then they act out.
“Once their behavior starts showing that’s when the suspensions start all over again and you end up in a vicious cycle that lands that child in the prison system,” Calloway said.
Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) is a faith-based coalition of 62 churches. They work on housing, criminal justice, and job issues. Members of NOAH’s Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration Task Force spoke last week on the steps of Metro Schools headquarters on Bransford Ave.
“It’s time for us to get serious about breaking that school to prison pipeline. It’s time to invest the money and resources where they are needed to make some real change in our public schools,” said Linda Robinson, Co-Chair of the NOAH task force.
“We must ensure full support of social emotional learning and positive discipline practices in MNPS because these practices have been proven to work in stopping the school to prison pipeline,” said Dawana Wade of NOAH’s School Discipline Subcommittee.
Wade said the district must reduce suspensions and expulsions that are disproportionately handed out to black students by two to one margins. The school district gets it.
“We need teacher training in a number of areas. We are looking at cultural awareness training to pick up implicit bias, training to help teachers understand how they can build stronger relationships with kids, helping teachers think about how they can help students resolve conflicts,” said Dr. Shawn Joseph, Director of Metro Schools.
Joseph has reorganized the district into four quadrants and is allocating resources according to a strategic plan developed last year with the school board. He has put reading specialists in all 168 Metro schools. That hasn’t raised test scores much.
Joseph said the plan calls for looking at the whole learner. Schools need to pay attention not only to academic needs but also to social-emotional needs and students’ experience within the schools. The big question is how to pay for it.
“It depends on on the type of resources we get,” Joseph said. The district is drawing up its budget for next year. It is going to include 24 new positions in the 42 schools that have chosen a restorative approach to discipline.
“We’re slow to come around to that,” said Lorraine Stallworth. She is a licensed trainer of restorative practices who works in Metro’s Department of Student Services.
The restorative practice specialists will go into classrooms and help teachers implement restorative practices and provide them training to teach more effectively by resolving conflicts without sending kids to the office.
Metro schools are supposed to choose one of three discipline models: Restorative Practices, Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), or Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Forty-five Metro schools have adopted SEL, forty-five Restorative Practices, and thirty-five have adopted PBIS.
A SEL pilot project at Fall Hamilton Elementary School reduced office referrals by 87 percent last year. Students in grades 4-6 improved English scores by 7 percent and Math scores by 9 percent.
“If you have people who commit harm, who have conflict, it’s important to separate the deed from the doer,” said Stallworth. “I’m gonna make a mistake. I’m going to fall down but I’m still a good person.”
“So we spend most of our time repairing harm, that’s part of it and then restoring relationships so once that harm is over, then the relationship is restored and you move forward,” she said.
Seventeen schools have restorative specialists now. They have stand-alone offices and provide peace centers for students to go to who are experiencing a crisis.
“I do believe that our district is starting to come around to focusing on the social and emotional needs of our students. Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Are we moving in the right direction? Sure, yes. Are we doing enough? Absolutely not,” she said.
In the last three years, 1400 administrators and teachers have had positive discipline training. But there are 4600 teachers who need it. Stallworth said next year’s budget request will include funding for four new SEL trainers.
Stallworth said getting experts into the schools is key. They can be on site when problems arise and they can model the ways to de-escalate conflict, speak respectfully without causing shame, and build better relationships.
She said academic scores won’t improve unless students are available for learning and too many of them aren’t. Involving parents is part of what these specialists will do.
“You have to like kids,” she said. “You have to be willing and open to working in an environment that is ever-changing with all kinds of characters in it. You have to have some skills in terms of counseling and support and be aware of resources in your community. And you have to be a leader in the building. You have to conduct yourself like that,” Stallworth said.
She knows people who fit the bill but until recently there hasn’t been a place for them in the schools and more are needed.