Vperspective

Changing school climate

Positive Learning Collaborative promotes restorative practices

UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez (third from left) joined Jonathan Fickies

UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez (third from left) joined American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (head of table, left), UFT Vice President for Education Evelyn DeJesus and others in a May 11 meeting at UFT headquarters with educators from Puerto Rico to discuss the island's fiscal crisis and its repercussion on schools. Puerto Rico is planning to close 167 schools — which will displace some 27,000 K–12 students and 2,088 educators — due to the financial crisis. 

I have had many proud moments during my 27-year tenure as the union’s vice president for special education. But few top the recent opportunity I was given at the City Council’s budget hearing to discuss the education initiatives the UFT supports.

This union’s primary responsibility is negotiating a fair contract and ensuring members’ contractual rights are respected and their professional needs met. We do that tenaciously and without apology. But the UFT is so much more than that.

We have initiated or provided critical support for a variety of educational programs and initiatives that are helping to move public education forward in New York City. At the hearing, I appealed to the Council — and it responded in the final budget passed on June 6 — to provide extra funding for Teacher’s Choice, the Dial-A-Teacher homework helpline, Community Learning Schools, the UFT’s BRAVE anti-bullying initiative and the initiative dearest to my heart: the Positive Learning Collaborative.

If I have visited your school, you have probably heard me say that a positive school climate is an essential prerequisite for teaching and learning. Students don’t come into your classroom ready to learn if the hallways, stairwells, lunchroom and playground are chaotic or if their interactions with other students and adults in the building are not based on mutual respect.

We know, too, that sometimes students — and school staff — bring into school the stresses they are experiencing in their homes or communities. That’s a lot to manage.

This is where the Positive Learning Collaborative comes in.

The PLC is a joint venture between the UFT and the Department of Education to do something hard: change the behavior of children and adults through restorative practices. The goal of the PLC is to move away from punitive, after-the-fact discipline and replace it with pro-active, restorative practices that can change individual student behavior and how staff responds — and in the process transform the school climate for everyone.

The PLC started with six schools in 2013. Today, 15 schools are in the program. With the additional $750,000 in funding provided by the Council in the final budget, we are hoping to expand the program to more schools and offer more parent workshops in the fall. I want to thank the City Council and Education Committee Chair Danny Dromm for their support.

The PLC trains all school-based staff — starting with the principal and the chapter leader — using Cornell University’s 26-hour course in therapeutic crisis intervention. Since the program’s inception, more than 1,800 educators have completed this intensive training.

The program is producing demonstrable results. The first 10 community district schools participating in the PLC since 2013 report a 61 percent decrease in suspensions. The two District 75 schools report a 76 percent decrease in suspensions.

Suspensions are reduced in PLC schools for the right reasons. We know that because anonymous surveys are administered annually to all school staff in PLC schools. Staff report tangible improvements in school climate; more students feeling comfortable talking to adults about personal issues; staff members feeling better equipped to manage challenging behavior in the classroom; and a more consistent application of the new school discipline policy. Notably, staff also report they feel more valued, that their voices are heard and that they have more trust in their school administration.

Schools are the heart of their local communities. The children they educate are the future of those communities. The changes we are making in PLC schools have the potential to ripple out into homes and communities. If students and staff learn how to recognize when others in the school are off their emotional baseline and how to listen, intervene proactively and de-escalate when conflict occurs, they have a powerful set of skills they can take with them anywhere.

Isn’t that something we would like to see in all our schools?

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