From Margins to Mainstream: School Discipline & Positive School Culture

Chris Sturgis
July 15, 2013
Positive school culture and elimination of the school-to-prison pipeline are making it into mainstream education.  Education Week now covers the topic thoughtfully-- a few years ago you didn’t even see any discussion at all about the impact of discipline policies on achievement, let alone discussion of how it can push kids out of school and into the prison system.  It signifies an enormous shift from defining the problem as “bad kids” to the culture of schools.
It’s even making its way into the business community. In the Fast Company article Redesigning Schools For Learning, Discipline, And Safety by Ben Shiller, Jim LaPosta from at JCJ Architecture is interviewed about how school facilities can impact school culture.  He emphasizes that school environment  “is a 'third teacher' after the actual teacher and what students learn from each other. The actual building teaches the kids a lot about the culture and society we want to have. It becomes a three dimensional textbook."
In Michigan, the Education Achievement Authority is embracing restorative justice as a common practice, as are many of the schools in Detroit. Personally, I think the SkillmanFoundation’s Henry McClendon, who brings a gentle but steadfast forcefulness to his work, is behind the wide embrace of restorative justice.
Just because the concept that schools have a responsibility to keep kids in school is taking hold doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Locally, students, parents, and educators still have to take action to get the attention of district leadership and to make sure that effective changes are put into place...and kept there.
For example, the Texas Organizing Project succeeded in getting the Dallas Independent School District Board to revise its Code of Conduct. Now it will be harder in those schools for students to be suspended, expelled, or referred to alternative schools for misbehavior. Philly’s Campaign for Nonviolent Schools organized a student walk-out in response to budget cuts eliminating counselors, libraries, and extracurricular activities. This is exciting because it means that there is awareness to the legitimacy of these ideas, and that is often a huge battle in and of itself.
I’m guessing that just around the corner we are going to see innovations in how to push kids out of school. Certainly, the combination of Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation reform is going to put enormous strain on the education system, and some people will look for a way to relieve that tension by finding ways to exclude some kids. I’m not doing a blame game here – it’s just systems thinking.  You push hard in one place, and another hole will open up elsewhere, unless the system is really aligned with student learning.
We’ll need to be on the lookout to weed out new exclusionary policies before they take hold. This time, thanks to the incredible work of AtlanticPhilanthropies, the Just and Fair Coalition, Advancement Project, and all the incredible local organizing groups, we know how to win at this game.  Just read all about it in Communities Turning the Tide in School Discipline.

This article was originally published on Connected by 25, the blog of the Youth Transition Funders Group. It is reprinted here with permission.