PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Department is taking a fresh look at discipline and so far that has led to 155 fewer days of out-of-school suspension.
Superintendent Jason McCandless presented the numbers to the School Committee last Wednesday. With a bolstering of the number of school adjustment councilors and registered behavior technicians, the district has been implementing new practices to improve behavior — that includes the creation of a restorative justice program but also rethinking the way principals handle discipline.
"As we continue to make attendance a real focus on what we do, knowing that nothing good that we are doing can work if a student isn't there, we are trying to get a hold of the piece in which we have direct control of, which is not making kids miss school ourselves," McCandless said.
"All too often, simply going home gives everybody a break but it doesn't help address the actual root problem."
At this time last year, there were 311 days of out-of-school suspension in the middle and high schools and 141 on the elementary level. This year, it is 236 days in the upper schools, a reduction of 75 days, and 61 in the elementary schools, a reduction of 80 days. McCandless said in total that's led to 447 additional hours of instruction in the upper schools and 480 in the lower schools.
McCandless said the focus has come from data crunching which had shown that the interventions the schools were providing weren't working. He said when he was a child being sent home from school meant the price to pay was "unimaginable." But, in today's world, both parents are often spending the days at work, leaving little time to turn the discipline into a learning opportunity.
"The students with disciplinary record an inch thick at the elementary school level tend to have disciplinary records an inch thick at the middle school. It really winds up to be the student who is the most at risk of dropping out of school," McCandless said.
Over the last two years, the district has stuck to its guns when it came to focusing on disciplinary behavior. Two years ago, the district added school adjustment counselors and when the City Council discussed possibly cutting the funding for them, McCandless said even if the budget was reduced he wouldn't cut those jobs out, he'd find other reductions instead.
The staffing is now more focused on providing students with more time with adults and working at finds ways to curb the behavior overall. That includes data crunching on times of misbehaving and delivering focused interventions to the individual students.
McCandless said the number of days of suspension are "middle of the pack" compared to other Berkshire schools and that it represents only a small percent of the overall population. He said about 9 percent of students in city school ever receive a suspension.
"More than 90 percent of our students never have an interaction with our principal other than chatting about how school is going," McCandless said.
At the upper-school level, the students are sent to the Student Resource Center where they can receive tutoring. But, McCandless said it is always better to keep the student with the teachers. Schools are using more in-school suspensions and other programs.
At the elementary school level, suspensions are typically "emergency removals," according to Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis. That is when there has been a physical offense and staff suspends the student for two days and uses that time to work with parents on a safety and re-entry plan.
The elementary school level is really where McCandless says he will see the most impact down the line. The district is "coalescing" its efforts around illiteracy at the early levels. McCandless said looking at all of the data, whether it be behavior or testing or special education, those who struggle with reading at the early age tend to struggle throughout their educational career. The district is placing a particular focus on bringing that level of reading up.
But the work isn't done. McCandless said the district is constantly looking at changes to its discipline to change the ultimate outcomes of student success.
In other business, he said the renovations to the Pittsfield High School auditorium are nearly complete.
"It's not going to be like the home improvement shows where they pull away the camera and you are amazed. These renovations were really about safety and about performance," McCandless said. "There were really about making sure the students are safe including electrical, fire suppression, and lighting and sound upgrades."
Limelight Productions will be providing training to staff to use on the new equipment soon.
The School Committee also heard from Kripalu, which has launched a yoga program at PHS. Kripalu is just one of many institutions in the county contributing to the educational programs. McCandless said Jacob's Pillow will also be holding a workshop for students at the Boys and Girls Club on Feb. 24.
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