Rebuilding strong school communities

A restorative justice circle in a Colorado school.

A new report by the School–Justice Partnership Task Force calls for more emphasis on social and emotional learning.

A strong school community is an essential foundation for learning. Communities create commitment, teach manners and rules, and offer understanding and second chances, so the people in them can thrive and learn to live with each other.

Creating such a community is what many educators call social and emotional learning.

Under the Bloomberg administration, school communities have been undermined — by closure, co-location, revolving principals and harsh judgments from outside. The culture of schools has been diminished with the relentless focus on performance on high-stakes testing. Students and staff are held accountable for only a narrow set of indicators, none of which assess social or emotional maturity.

Now we are faced with worrisome levels of bullying, violence and disrespect in schools. A May 2013 report by the New York City School–Justice Partnership Task Force, “Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court,” found that the schools lack the capacities to handle this.

The report found a 40 percent increase in suspensions between 2006 and 2012. There were also a startling number of in-school arrests (882) and summonses (1,666) in a single school year, 2011–12, for what often amounted to misbehavior rather than misdemeanor offenses.

Fortunately there are teachers and administrators who have pushed back against “zero tolerance” and the overuse of suspensions. They have challenged the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students — especially young men of color — long before they complete adolescence. They have argued instead for teaching social and emotional skills, advocated for peer mediation and conflict resolution, and instituted “restorative justice” circles, where misbehaving students learn to talk out their anger and make amends to those they hurt.


Bringing social and emotional learning to scale

Mostly, teachers and administrators have done this on their own, without the support of the Department of Education. That is a mistake, according to Matthew Guldin, a retired history teacher and a former dean at East Side Community HS in Manhattan, who consults on school climate. “You have to invest in social and emotional learning,” he said. “It will pay off in less acting out, less bullying. Kids will know how to handle conflict.”

The DOE should pilot schoolwide use of such positive discipline and restorative justice programs, Guldin told a City Council hearing on April 15. Testifying on behalf of Dignity in Schools, a coalition of teachers, advocates and youth organizations, Guldin said that giving students the tools to manage their roller-coaster emotions and de-escalate cafeteria showdowns means fewer suspensions and more time for learning.

And in fact, those social skills are academic ones, too. Looking at a situation from two sides, understanding motivation and problem-solving are all part of the Common Core Learning Standards.

“Students in schools with lower suspension rates have better academic outcomes than students in schools with high suspension rates, irrespective of student characteristics,” the task force wrote in its report. It identified social and emotional learning, positive behavioral interventions and restorative practices as the three practices that schools can adopt to reduce suspensions.


Getting started

But who will teach these things?

Dignity in Schools says there should be a coordinator in every school who would train classroom teachers, school safety officers, guidance counselors and administrators on how to teach social and emotional skills.

A coordinator in every school is not likely to happen soon. But teachers and counselors can implement some of these practices now. “Teachers can be role models for cooperation,” Guldin says. “Social and emotional learning expands the definition of teaching to the whole child, which is what we are about.”

UFT Director of School Safety David Kazansky, who was a member of the School–Justice Partnership Task Force, says social and emotional learning should be the primary focus of the first month of school each year, with reinforcement throughout the year. “This would allow students from kindergarten through high school to be taught to listen and empathize, express themselves without hurting others and manage conflict, which would sow the seeds for a school year with fewer disciplinary problems and more learning going on in the classroom,” Kazansky said.

Cincinnati, Ohio, incorporates mental health supports into its community schools model. Baltimore cut suspensions by a third and upped graduation rates when it decided to confront lower-level misbehavior in the school. Family court judges and others in the juvenile justice system can partner with schools in teaching some of these techniques.

In fact, a former chief judge of the State of New York, Judith Kaye, headed the School–Justice Partnership Task Force. “We are losing too many kids from school to a life in the criminal justice system,” she warned in her introduction to the report. “Let’s take our clue from [songwriter] Johnny Mercer: accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative — and by all means don’t mess with Mr. In-Between,” she wrote. “Let’s seize this moment of national awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline for meaningful change.”

That seems like good advice to bring forward to the new school year this fall, when we begin to reassemble the school communities that we will share with our students for the next nine months.

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