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With Suspensions Down, Some Schools Struggle to Increase Learning

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Assistant Principal Michael Essien is in charge of discipline at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

It's a well-known fact at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco that the toughest time to teach is right after lunch. Kids are tired, and trouble that starts at lunch can sometimes carry into the classroom.

Today, the academic counselor is trying to mediate between two girls who were sent out of the classroom, and who are arguing about who's responsible. Later, three adults have to restrain another girl from running out into the hall.

These girls won't get suspended today, but they will lose learning time because they will sit in a room while school staff enter the incident into a database and then they will meet with a counselor.

In many school districts across California, schools are cutting down on the number of suspensions. The theory is: Keep kids in class, and they'll learn more and be less likely to drop out.  San Francisco Unified School District has been a leader, passing a resolution last year to ban all suspensions for "willful defiance."


To do this right, all the teachers in a school have to build deep relationships with their most challenging kids.

That's not easy.

One of the challenges is the sheer number of disruptions.  Seventh-grader Alexis Gill says the new policy hasn't improved her classmates' behavior.

"They cuss out the teachers, throw tables and chairs and stuff around the classroom," said Gill.

A handful of seventh-graders I spoke with say they get sent out of class for other kinds of behavior, sometimes for things like leaving the room or talking or using their phone. When these 12- and 13-year-olds have been suspended, it's usually been for fights. One girl lit a piece of paper on fire and said she hoped the whole class burned.

Assistant Principal Michael Essien says the school is seeking to look at these incidents not as crimes to be punished, but as cries for help.

He walks the halls, greeting students with a smile and a booming voice.

"Who’s bouncing that basketball up there? I need you back in class, man!" Essien yells to a group of boys. And then, to a girl using her cellphone, "Put that phone away, girl. You trying to give it to me?"

Essien says the school needs to revamp its entire culture. Part of the problem, he says, is that teachers don’t know how to relate to students. Most students at Martin Luther King are African-American, Asian and Latino. Most of the teachers are white.

"As a teacher, who may or may not have anything in connection with any of those cultures, how do I make the classroom such that there’s a relationship between the students and I, and between the students themselves, so we can reduce inappropriate behaviors that can get you referred out?" he asks. "It’s building relationships. But it’s challenging for teachers to do that."

Training teachers to change the way they teach is a long haul. San Francisco has been working with teachers on this since 2009. But there are gaps. At Martin Luther King, not all teachers are trained. And there's been some pushback here.

Eighth-grade social studies teacher Susan Warren says she supports reducing suspensions in theory.

"I agree, they’re not learning if they are outside the classroom, but for some students, no one’s learning if they’re in the classroom," Warren says.

She echoes what other teachers here say: They sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the steps they have to take before sending a kid out of class. First, they give a warning. Then they send the student into the hall. If that doesn't help, they send them to another classroom to reflect, and then they make a phone call home.

"I'm happy to facilitate that process," said Warren, "but it gets in the way of me trying to teach literacy skills and pure content."

That could be because she needs more training, said Laura Faer, education rights director with Public Counsel, an advocacy group that has pushed for alternatives to suspension and harsh discipline statewide.

"Universally, the teachers we talk to say, 'When I first started doing this, I thought, 'This is going to be so hard, it’s going to take so much of my time, how am I going to do it?' " said Faer.  "And then once they learned how to do it, and they spent that time building relationships in their classroom, through restorative practices, they cannot stop raving about how it changes the culture. It saves them so much time, because children are behaved well, and teachers can teach."

Public Counsel has urged the state to track not just the number of suspensions, but whether teachers and students are really receiving the support they need.

It's not just emotional support. It's also academic. Susan Warren says even if she knows how to avoid suspensions, she still has to teach kids who act out because they struggle with the material.

"And if you put something in front of them, they're not going to do it. They're going to start talking, they might get out of their seat, they might go to the garbage can six times, and then, they might hit someone on their way to the garbage can," said Warren.

San Francisco Unified School District officials say they are collecting data online every time a student is sent out of class now. They'll be able to see why kids are sent out, and what the outcomes are. That should help them target more help to schools that need it the most.

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