Laying the groundwork for safe, welcoming schools

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Although schemes abound these days to divide and degrade public education, they were nowhere to be found when teams of educators, union leaders, administrators, and community leaders gathered in New York City on Jan. 26-29 to explore ways they could effectively work together to transform schools into the safe, welcoming environments that every student deserves.

The venue was the 2017 Center for School Improvement Leadership Institute, a deep dive into strategies and skills for effective collaboration at the school and district levels. The AFT and the Teachers Center at the United Federation of Teachers co-sponsor the annual event, and the emphasis this year was on developing and identifying the tactics, training, resources and rich community connections needed to move away from zero tolerance discipline policies and establish a positive, inclusive tone in classrooms—a topic much on the minds of educators around the country and a focus that helped draw standing-room-only crowds and CSI teams from more than 20 school systems nationwide.

Randi Weingarten at CSI

"Despite the fact that we're in a different climate, our work doesn't change," AFT President Randi Weingarten told CSI participants, some from as far away as California, Florida and Texas. "If we are willing to find ways to work together, that's infectious and communities see that," regardless of the new administration and its attacks on public education.

"We are working on helping student outcomes and working on helping to make sure that kids get a great education—this is an act of resistance."

This year's CSI theme sprang in part from conversations about racial justice at the 2016 AFT Human, Civil and Women's Rights Conference. School climate is also commanding greater national attention under the Every Student Succeeds Act as groups work to include school discipline practices and other measures that can help make new ESSA accountability systems more accurate, robust and reflective of the daily challenges and opportunities in education. 

When it comes to social and emotional needs that factor into school climate, students "are bringing more to us" than ever before, AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker told a CSI general session, and that includes "threats targeted directly at them" in today's political climate. "Students and their families need us now more than ever. They have to know that we are there for them in a hundred different ways. You— being here for them today— is one of those ways."

Daly City team

The institute featured sessions and demonstrations about restorative justice, as well as practices that encourage responsibility and can reduce discriminatory discipline. It was one of the major draws for the team of educators, administrators and community partners from Daly City, Calif., (pictured above) explained Sergio Robledo-Maderazo, president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.

The AFT local, together with the Jefferson Elementary Federation of Teachers, is working to create a corridor of three community schools spanning elementary through high school, and one of the features will be implementing restorative justice practices that use positive behavioral interventions as a key to addressing discipline issues and disproportionate suspension rates among student groups. The work is being supported by a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund.

"People can be wary of trying new things. CSI allowed us to have all the partners come in and see that this is a national issue, and that there are existing providers we can look to for support," Robledo-Maderazo said. CSI benefited from an expanded role for national partners and from the presence of student and youth leaders, who offered compelling, firsthand accounts about school climate as a paramount education issue. Contributing as partners for CSI teamwork sessions were: the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Dignity in Schools Campaign, the Institute for Educational Leadership, The Conciliation Project, and the Schlechty Center. Community partner organizations, including the Dignity in Schools Campaign, led challenging and relevant CSI discussions on the role of school police and on law enforcement and its disproportionate impact on youth of color.

Youth panelists

"There was also plenty of 'team time' to reflect on an action plan, and it's important that community partners are there to be part of that, rather than added after the fact," said Robledo-Maderazo. To help build that sense of shared purpose and effective collaboration, CSI also featured several signature training sessions, led by UFT Teacher Center staff, that focused on team building, communications, data-informed decision-making and professional development to support student achievement.

CSI also highlighted ways to deepen and enrich the home-school connection. Education Minnesota Vice President and St. Paul public school teacher Nick Faber conducted a workshop to introduce participants to St. Paul's Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, a nonprofit collaboration jointly governed by union, district and community members. Teachers who choose to participate in the project visit students' homes in pairs twice in the school year; the at-home interactions have helped increase parent involvement as well as student achievement in the public schools. The project also has helped reduce disciplinary problems and improve attendance, but the overarching goal is "about building relationships, not targeting kids," Faber stressed at a CSI session.

When it comes to disproportionate discipline and children of color, one sphere of growing concern is early education. Federal data show that black boys, who constitute 18 percent of preschool enrollment, now represent 48 percent of all preschoolers suspended more than once. The ramifications of that trend— and a strong call for policies and practices that foster early learning—were the focus of one CSI session featuring Brooklyn, N.Y. kindergarten teacher Sandra Fajgier; parent advocate Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice NOW! in Ohio and St. Louis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Services Stacy Clay, who joined the discussion by Skype.

This school year, St. Louis Public Schools barred out-of-school suspensions for children in preschool through second grade, said Clay, adding that the school system recognizes the intervention as clearly inappropriate and in conflict with a young child's long-term growth. The district is continuing a process of identifying and implementing tools for positive reinforcement and classroom management techniques appropriate to young learners, he noted, and a big part of that is a growing "recognition that a lot of students come to us suffering from trauma" from the home and from the general instability of living in poverty.

Better home-school communication and training that gives educators excellent in-the-moment classroom options are also vital for ending inappropriate suspensions, Faigier observed. "Asking a child to go somewhere else," she said, "is not going to solve the problem. Make them accountable in the moment, talk through what happened and bring parents into the classroom."

Session on early childhood

The disturbing data surrounding early suspension and expulsion, particularly in terms of children of color, must be used as a moment for candid self-examination, said Sankara-Jabar, explaining to the CSI audience that her young son had been subjected to inappropriate discipline in early learning. "When you look at a 3-year- old and want to reject a baby, that's the time for some self reflection."

School systems participating in the institute came from: ABC Unified (Calif.); Austin, Texas; Caddo Parish, La.; Cleveland; Daly City, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Hempstead, N.Y.; Houston; Jefferson Parish, La.; Lynn, Mass.; North Syracuse, N.Y.; Osseo, Minn.; Pasco County, Fla.; Pinellas County, Fla.; Pottstown, Pa.; Roseville, Minn.; San Antonio, Texas; Solvay, N.Y.; St. Tammany Parish, La.; Toledo, Ohio; and Palm Beach County, Fla.

[Mike Rose]