OPINION: When Schools Support Our Kids, They Can Succeed

By Eddie Madison

Los Angeles public schools have lots of challenges, and one of them is a dropout rate as high as 50 percent for black and Latino students. But as a parent of four in South L.A. and a community organizer, I’ve learned that many schools contribute to that dropout rate by creating a climate that makes our kids feel unwanted and pushed out. The antidote is creating schools that make students feel welcome and eager to be in class, and that is what a new approach called School-wide Positive Behavior Support can do.

The week of Oct 1-7 is the National Week of Action on school discipline, taking place in 25 cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles. In California, the use of harsh school discipline is on the rise, with more than 720,000 suspensions and expulsions in the last school year. The week of action is a time to call for an end to ineffective school discipline and to support ideas like School-wide Positive Behavior Support, which the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted in 2007 as an alternative to punitive “zero tolerance” approaches to misbehavior.

I’m a member of CADRE, a parent-led grassroots organization that advocated for the school board to approve this new program because we saw our kids being pushed out of school, their futures put at risk. We went door to door, surveying families about their experiences and heard the same stories of children, especially black and Latino boys, being treated unfairly. They were being suspended for crazy things, like not bringing a pencil to school, by teachers who had the authority to kick them out of class at their discretion.

School-wide Positive Behavior Support replaces suspensions and punishments with a system that teaches students skills to avoid negative behaviors and gives them the support to overcome obstacles to success. Instead of simply suspending the problem child, administrators address what’s causing the problem. Teachers get training and support to manage their classrooms and create welcoming environments. They learn how to prevent problem behaviors before they become a problem, and suspensions no longer must be an automatic response to misbehavior.
Another key to the program is documenting students’ problems when they do arise so that school administrators get the full picture of what’s happening and can get to the root causes.

Here’s an example. My eight-year-old son attends the 107th Street Elementary School in District 7, which began using School-Wide Positive Behavior Support last school year. One boy in my son’s class was very disruptive and there was nothing the teacher could do to control him. Under this new approach, every time that child acted out, the teacher would document on a computer in her classroom what he did and when.

After recoding repeated incidents, the principal could see the pattern, and he recommended that the child’s mother take him for a medical evaluation. It turned out he had a learning deficit and couldn’t keep up with his classmates. He got help he needed, and now the “problem” student is not so disruptive in class. Without this approach and a system to track incidents, he might have just been labeled a “bad” kid and suspended from school. Keeping kids in school, in a safe environment is also the best way to keep them healthy and away from risky behaviors outside school.

There are often good reasons why students act badly, as was the case with my son’s classmate. Many teachers don’t live in the neighborhoods where they are working and don’t understand what their students’ lives are like. Gang violence is rampant and so is drug use and poverty. A lot of younger kids might not have eaten before they come to school because their parents have sold their food stamps to buy drugs. For these kids, school might be a safe haven from the turmoil outside, but not if they aren’t treated with respect and understanding.
School-wide Positive Behavior Support is slowly being implemented in L.A. schools and we need for the process to speed up. Stories of success from schools that have now embraced this approach are very encouraging and there is some early evidence that this new approach is causing a drop in the number of suspensions, which have skyrocketed in recent years.

In District 7, for example, there were more than 8,000 suspensions in the 2006-2007 school year out of a student enrollment of about 72,000. Every suspension means missed class time, lost opportunity and another reason for that student to feel unwanted at school.

If we are serious about turning our schools around, keeping our children in school where they can learn and be safe, School-Wide Positive Behavior Support is a policy that can make the difference. It’s on the books, but now, we need to make it a reality for all LAUSD students. Let’s not flunk this test of our collective commitment to their future.

You can read more about the School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) program on the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs website.

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