On Tuesday, while speaking at the National Association of Public Charter Schools conference in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. Secretary of Education John King called on charter school leaders to rethink school discipline.
As the founder of New Orleans College Prep, a network of four schools serving over 1,500 students in pre-K through 12th grade, I have grappled with the complex issues of school discipline since we opened our first school 10 years ago.
And, as the father of two children, ages 4 and 2, my thinking and approach to discipline systems have continued to evolve. I’ve learned what works best can vary greatly for every child. What works to improve my daughter’s behavior is totally different than what works for my son.
In the beginning years of New Orleans College Prep, we modeled many of our structures and policies on those found in high-performing, urban charter schools across the country, including our approach to student discipline. Many of these schools had improved test scores with disadvantaged populations — and it seemed to be a practical model to follow.
And yet, our focus on structure, order and strict consequences in our early years left us feeling unsatisfied with our mission to meet the needs of every child. Our schools were working for about two-thirds of the students we were serving. And as a result, the percent of students scoring proficient on state exams increased by nearly 40 percent within our first two years. Our team and many of our families felt good about the progress we were making.
But we also knew there was significant room for improvement. Too many of our students were losing class time because of repeated out of school suspensions. We had to ask ourselves why we were suspending these students over and over again if it wasn’t working.
We were upholding our code of conduct with unwavering consistency, but the one-size-fits-all discipline system was not working for ALL of our students. Our mission is to serve ALL students effectively, so we had to change.
Over the last several years, our schools have implemented an approach to student discipline that is far more data-driven, adaptive and responsive to individual student needs. We have empowered our school leaders to make decisions in the best interest of each student and the interest of the entire school community; they are no longer bound to a strict adherence of our code of conduct. While it is sometimes messier than we’d like to admit, our new approach has benefitted our children significantly.
Our policy would have previously instructed our school leader to suspend a sixth-grade boy who was recently involved in a fight. But his principal did not believe that spending a day or more at home was going to help him learn. So the principal provided one-on-one tutoring in her office while she told the sixth-grade class that it was up to them to determine when the student would be allowed back into their classroom. Three days later, the student stood in front of the entire class, asking for forgiveness and publicly committing to never do anything again that would put their learning environment or their safety at risk. The class welcomed the student back with open arms and the student has not had a single serious behavior incident since.
As our schools began to implement new approaches to school discipline, we established a partnership with The Center for Restorative Approaches, a local New Orleans organization, to ensure our team had the knowledge and skills to effectively use a restorative justice approach to school discipline. Implementing this more personalized, restorative approach has worked well for our students. Since undertaking these changes, we have seen our suspension rates drop in half, and an even greater reduction in the number of students receiving multiple suspensions. At the same time, the academic outcomes for our students have risen significantly. Proficiency on state exams in our high schools has risen by 23 percentage points in the last four years.
The work of improving outcomes for children, both socioemotionally as well as academically, is difficult and complex to accomplish successfully — but it’s the right thing to do for children, and the teachers and leaders at NOCP are proving it can be done.
Ben Kleban is the founder of New Orleans College Prep.