For the past several years, MMSD has been part of a national movement to stop the pipeline to prison and to create safer and more supportive schools through academic engagement, progressive discipline, and restorative practice. This effort is essential for African-American students and students with disabilities who are disproportionately affected by exclusionary discipline practices, but it is also beneficial for every child.
For our district, that means not only having different ways of responding to behavior issues when they occur, but first setting the stage for students to be successful in thriving school environments – through setting high standards for academics and behavior, providing adequate support and positive academic press when students struggle, and paying diligent attention to our decision making patterns.
Ultimately, we want to make sure that the standards we hold, the responses we have, and the decisions we make are driven by high expectations, love and respect for the future of our students. We want to have a proleptic view of them — to see our students for both who they are and who they are becoming.
Every quarter, we take a deep look our data districtwide, which includes an analysis of our behavior response data (recorded incidents and suspensions). This process offers us a critical opportunity to pause, reflect, learn, and take action – and a few weeks ago we had an opportunity to reflect on our third quarter data (roughly January, February and March).
What we saw was an unexpected spike in suspensions. While suspensions are still down from the start of the Behavior Education Plan, they had jumped 19 percent since last year – all in February and March. Half of that jump was accounted for by just five secondary schools and is still disproportionally affecting our African-American students and students with disabilities.
As we dug into the data deeper, we learned that several surrounding districts also saw a spike in this time period. That, coupled with the increased tension, fear and violence we have seen occurring in the Madison community as a whole, told us that we couldn’t ignore the impact of the larger national and local climate.
It also cannot be used as an excuse. Looking at our data, we determined what we thought were the root causes of the increase and worked to immediately disrupt any school-based or systemic factors causing it.
Since we’ve taken these actions, suspension data has dropped precipitously – 82 percent less suspensions district-wide by the end of April and 72 percent less suspensions in the five schools who were struggling the most.
Does that mean we are done? Not at all. But I think it is encouraging to see what our schools are capable of. We have a strong system to monitor our results, we saw something we didn’t like and we took swift action to correct it.
Most important, we learned about what it takes to take decisive action. While we must always keep our eye on long-term cultural change we are after, we cannot underestimate the impact of concentrated efforts carried out with urgency.
It’s never exactly simple. But we need to listen closely to those most affected by a problem, take risks on their behalf, and do something different — always with our students’ long-term future in mind. It’s been a good lesson for us all as we re-commit ourselves to this work, close the school year strong, and prepare for the school year ahead.