While Jefferson County Public Schools has improved its suspension record this year, the district of more than 100,000 students still struggles with the fact that a disproportionate number of minority students are suspended.
It’s a national issue that districts like JCPS have begun to acknowledge and address, but critics argue that the system is moving too slowly on the issue. Today, in a WFPL news special, we discussed what changing school culture looks like and ways some schools are turning around results.
Some successful campaigns nationwide are already underway to change the attitude in schools.
Among them are Fresno Unified School District in California, which recently decided to expand its restorative practice program. Others like Buffalo Public Schools are being pressured to change their Codes of Conduct, which outlines discipline practices in the district.
These are also issues playing out in JCPS.
Recently, the faith-based group CLOUT addressed the school board to pilot restorative practices at some schools, but Superintendent Donna Hargens said no school leaders wanted to fully commit to the program. JCPS is also undergoing changes to its Code of Conduct that will be presented to the board this year.
But what does it take to change a school’s culture?
We were joined by Iroquois High School principal Chris Perkins, Bullitt County School psychologist and PBIS district leader Kelly Shanks, and Indiana University professor Dr. Russell Skiba, who also leads the school’s The Equity Project.
Shanks says discipline issues in schools should be treated as a learning experience.
“If a student’s unable to read we don’t say go out into the hallway or leave the school for a few days and come back and we expect you to read, so why should we do that with behavior. We really should teach them what they want, acknowledge when they’re doing those appropriate things so that they can improve that.”
Dr. Skiba says districts should disaggregate and examine their data, which he acknowledges could be threatening to see the disparities. But he says schools should use this to improve their results.
“It’s important for us to say, it’s okay to start out with these disparities. It doesn’t mean that we’re racist. It means that there are some issues of culture and we can all learn to be more culturally responsive and to work on that as an intervention.”
Principal Perkins says the racial narrative in JCPS is a reality that needs to be confronted, but says “race aside, each child has some unique needs and if we’re not real intentional about looking at what we’re doing and whether its being effective or not and making modifications as needed then we’re going to dig ourselves deeper into a hole. There are differentiated needs, we have a significant population of international students that speak English as a second language and they bring to the table or whole different set of cultural values.”