Miami-Dade schools make discipline beneficial, not punitive, for students

In 2015, Maxie Graham, site coordinator at a Success Center in Miami, talks with a student while going over his class assignment.
In 2015, Maxie Graham, site coordinator at a Success Center in Miami, talks with a student while going over his class assignment. mhalper@miamiherald.com

It is quite simple. If children are not in school they cannot learn. There is no substitute for consistent and structured classroom instruction, which is why creating alternatives to outdoor suspension is critical. While teachers, parents and education stakeholders all agree that school discipline and a structured learning environment are fundamental to instruction and classroom management, keeping children who exhibit disruptive behaviors out of school, thus depriving them the opportunity to grow academically, is never an option.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, of the 49 million students enrolled in public schools in 2011-12, 3.5 million were suspended in-school and 3.45 million were suspended out-of-school. Not as stark, but just as troubling, 130,000 students were expelled from school during the same year. Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) is doing its part to reverse these staggering numbers.

The school district has taken bold, aggressive steps to “Rethink Discipline,” restructuring the disciplinary process by eliminating traditional outdoor suspension. Embracing a holistic approach to address the causes of inappropriate student behavior while also addressing the emotional, social, health, personal and career development needs of all students has been at the heart of the district’s education priorities. Through district-operated Student Success Centers, M-DCPS has transitioned to a system that has moved from penalizing students to helping them understand the consequences of disruptive behavior, while also ensuring that they are not denied valuable classroom interaction and instructional time.

Rethinking discipline requires the school community to look beyond unacceptable student behaviors and understand the reasons for and root causes of these behaviors. It is meticulous work that can be difficult and time-consuming, often requiring cross-agency collaboration, resource investment and community and parent engagement. For its part, the school district has created the One Stop Educational and Community Service Centers to provide access to wrap-around services to children and families in need, including those students referred to our Student Success Centers.

Student Success Centers provide all students, regardless of behavioral challenges, uninterrupted instruction in a safe and structured learning environment. Under the purview of the Division of Educational Opportunity and Access, the 11 centers are fully staffed with certified teachers and a Success Coach who assists with group and individual social and emotional learning.

The centers are a viable and moral option to outdoor suspension. More important, they are a concept that works: In 2014-15, more than 20,000 students were referred to outdoor suspensions. The following year in 2015-16, there were approximately 4,530 referrals to Student Success Centers and zero traditional school referrals to outdoor suspensions. Additionally, the percentage of juvenile arrests dropped by 44 percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16.

In addition to success centers, M-DCPS has instituted a number of prevention and intervention programs to keep children on track both academically and behaviorally. Initiatives such as iAttend urge students to get to school every day and encourage the support of parents as partners with the district in this effort. Civic Engagement through Service Learning is another innovative option provided for high-promise middle school students who may be exhibiting delinquent behaviors. Students engage in hands-on service learning and youth engagement experiences through this unique social-emotional elective course. The district’s Values Matter campaign encourages students to embrace and practice the principles of respect, honesty, fairness, citizenship, cooperation, responsibility, integrity and kindness. Each month students are recognized for exhibiting behaviors and conduct aligned to these values.

It’s a hard truth: Traditional outdoor suspensions do not work. In fact, these measures often place children on a downward trajectory from which they barely, or never, recover. Student Success Centers allow for continuity in education while also addressing recalcitrant conduct. While we readily acknowledge that the success center concept may not be a cure-all for chronic student misbehavior, it is difficult to dispute its immediate impact and effectiveness in transforming the student discipline culture. Miami-Dade County Public Schools will continue to refine options that Rethink Discipline in order to serve all students and ensure every child has an opportunity to succeed.

Valtena G. Brown is deputy superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools.