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Tone of school affects learning for everyone

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Moving Forward

By Keith Davis

 Last month, this column celebrated some of the great initiatives we have in place for our high school students - Career Readiness Center, Bullitt Advance Math & Science program, College Credit Acceleration Program, etc. 

This month, I need to discuss something less positive and explain how our school district intends to address it.  The issue has to do with civility and positive interactions in our classrooms and schools.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines civility as: Courteous behavior; politeness.  We should all strive for civil behavior; it just makes the world run more smoothly, but in a classroom and in a school, it is a requirement to ensure that our students can learn. 

Every time one of our principals suspends someone from school, I get and read a copy of the suspension report. 

Most of you would be shocked by some of the things children - mostly high school, some middle school, and even a few elementary students - enrolled in our schools do and say to their fellow students,  teachers and principals.  

I understand this isn’t the 1950s, but I think that most people in this community would agree that a child should not be permitted to address their teacher with in the most coarse and disrespectful manner imaginable and not have pretty severe consequences.

Other than the severe disrespect, there are often instances of downright in-your-face defiance of the teacher’s and principal’s authority and rules of the school.  I’m not one of those that believe that things are getting worse in this respect, but it is bad enough that we need take a stand about the matter for the good of the vast majority of our children who would never think of acting this way toward adults.

We must find the balance that protects the need for classroom civility and student learning while not throwing away kids who can be saved. 

We are working on multi-pronged approach to student discipline that starts with education, and in the worst cases, will be very punitive - to the point that we will separate the child from the school environment entirely and place the responsibility for completing school on the parents or guardians.  The bottom line is that our students and teachers deserve an environment as free as possible from severe, profane, and sometimes violent disruption.

All but two of our schools have adopted the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline (KCID) model.  It is an intentional method of teaching common school-wide expectation to children, tracking data, and making adjustments.  You can tell a difference in the school culture of schools that have been KCID schools for several years.  So, step one is teaching what we expect.  Step two depends on the level of the school.  I’ll address middle and high schools, since that is where most of these situations happen.  Each school has several tools to address negative behavior, starting with the classroom teacher’s positive and non-provocative approach to dealing with students. 

How a teacher addresses misbehavior can definitely change the outcome.  Many times they can diffuse a situation before it gets out of hand.  Other times, there is nothing that can stop a child from escalating and they must be removed to preserve the learning climate in class.  The principal can obviously suspend the child, but most issues can be handled internally - a parent call, a detention after school, an assignment to the in-school suspension program, etc.

When a student continues to make bad choices, our district does have an alternative school that provides educational services.  Frankly, it is expensive to send a kid there; the average cost per child last year was almost $16,000 - compared to around $8,500 for the average student.  The cost comes from a much smaller student to adult ratio.  There is some additional state funding that supports this program, but not much.  The alternative program is where much of the change we will recommend will take place.  

We will beef up the staff at our alternative school and raise the level of behavior expectations there so that the students will not wish to be there long.  It should be a place where students who severely disrupt the education of the rest of our children go to learn more appropriate replacement behaviors and how to address frustrations they may have in their lives. 

It will not be a prison with a set “sentence,” but it should be punitive - not fun and games - so a student will be encouraged to meet their treatment goals and return to their home schools and behave. 

It will not necessarily be time-bound, but depending on the social and academic progress of the student.

Finally, there are those who - unfortunately - come to our schools and commit crimes.  They assault other students or their teachers, they come to school under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they sell drugs to other kids, they steal from their classmates. 

Even when sent to our alternative school, the behavior continues or even escalates.  I hesitate to use the word incorrigible, because even most of these will someday change their lives, but we must protect those that are more receptive to our efforts. 

We must provide them with an opportunity for an education, and for these, we intend to place them at their homes and provide them with a curriculum and technology that will enable them to complete their classes.  After a period of time, once they show some effort, we will transition them slowly back to their home schools where they will be closely monitored.  We do not want to throw them away, but we must ensure a civil, safe, and productive environment where the vast majority of our hardworking, well-mannered, and forward looking students can receive the education they deserve.

We do not have to accept the status quo.  This will affect very few students (likely less than 1%), but any of our principals will tell you that those who come to school simply to disrupt take up an inordinate amount of their attention which can be better spent improving instruction and monitoring progress.   We can do better and we will.