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Schools Need to Build Relationships for Student Success

June 06, 2013 By Steve D. Fletcher, Fellow and Director of Grassroots Strategy

This week has seen a flurry of attention on issues of school discipline here at MN 2020, and around the state.  Zero-tolerance policies and ineffective codes of conduct resulting in the disproportionate use of suspensions to discipline African American students have been put firmly in the spotlight and require meaningful attention.  Indeed, the alarming statistics revealing the disproportionate use of suspensions to discipline students of color makes this issue one obvious point of entry for parents, students, teachers and community activists working to close the racial equity gap in our schools.  

Earlier this week, we ran guest commentary from St. Paul Public Schools teacher Ian Keith urging changes to district disciplinary policies, and criticizing the district's failure to imagine alternative approaches to suspension, even as it attempts to reduce suspensions.  Yesterday, we ran guest commentary from NOC member Kokayi Nosakhere, describing a "parent listening session" designed to help the Minneapolis Public Schools wrestle with their own breathtakingly inequitable suspension statistics.  His description accurately frames the event as both a laudable effort by the district to generate meaningful input, and an awkwardly structured event that exposed a disconnect between the district and the parents it serves.  We also featured a post from Undergraduate Research Fellow Michael Peterson on our Hindsight Blog noting the way zero-tolerance policies are undermining efforts to address mental health in schools.   

This was also a week in which the Hopkins High school debacle was resolved remarkably positively.  Earlier this year, a group of white students held an offensive "Ghetto Spirit Day" event.  Predictably, in the disagreements that arose, only two students faced consequences - both African American students who raised concerns about the event.  This week, the suspensions and criminal charges those boys faced were all dropped.  Instead of suspending them and feeding them into the criminal justice system, the district facilitated a restorative justice process to "ensure understanding on the part of all stakeholders."  According to the district's incident report (viewable in full at Minnesota Public Radio):

"During the restorative justice process, everyone was able to voice their concerns about the treatment of students of color at Hopkins High School and to share their perspectives regarding the February incident, and to discuss how to move forward in the best interests of the students. The students involved in the process were able to make clear that they did not intentionally disrespect the school staff, but were making a conscious effort to stand up for what they believed was right. Hopkins Public Schools expressed its commitment to making Hopkins High School a welcoming educational environment for all students."

Combined, the week's events paint a picture of a system that is struggling, and in many cases failing, to build relationships, to its great detriment. The Minneapolis Public Schools does not have sufficient relationships with MPS parents to conduct meaningful conversations among parents of color without outside help.  Ian Keith's open letter to the St. Paul School Board is evidence of a lacking engagement with teachers about policies that impact their classrooms in St. Paul.  Hopkins High School's response to their own students—suspending them and turning them over for criminal charges—evinced a failure to relate to their students. These are each symptoms of an increasingly impersonal educational system geared toward producing test scores, and getting problems out the door. We can and must do better.

Under pressure from community stakeholders, including University of St. Thomas Law School Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, the district was pushed toward a fantastic solution, and invested in building relationships and really communicating with their students and community.  The outcome was satisfying and fair.  Behavioral strategies like restorative justice and youth courts have proven to be very effective around around the country. The New York Times has featured successful examples in California. Edutopia has produced videos exploring schools in Anchorage, Alaska that have instituted a comprehensive social and emotional learning curriculum with great results. As an added bonus, the Alaska schools found that by addressing the social and emotional needs of students and helping everyone to feel cared for and safe in school, they also improved performance on standardized tests by 10%. Locally, MMEP and others have been advancing restorative models in the Twin Cities. Behavioral models that keep kids in school, engaged, and in relationship with adults and other students are the right thing to do to keep kids safe and mentally healthy, and they improve performance.  

Research has shown that community organizing can play a critical role in improving school outcomes.  This is a great example of a moment where the parents, teachers, students and community leaders are all trying to lead their school districts toward investments in relationship-building behavioral models that support students' social and emotional learning.  If district leaders are smart enough to listen, we might see equity gap-closing reforms that also make schools nicer, safer, more human places to learn and to teach.

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