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This Austin High School Reduced Suspensions by Teaching Personal Responsibility

Kate McGee, KUT News

This is the final story in a three part series about student suspensions in the Austin Independent School District. Read Part One and Part Two.

In AISD, black students make up about eight percent of the student population. But last year they accounted for nearly a quarter of the students suspended from school. The so-called discipline gap is an issue in public schools across the nation, and it's something AISD has tried to combat since former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen came to AISD in 2009.  

Addressing Racial Disparities from the Top Down

AISD Interim Chief Schools Officer Edmund Oropez admits a discipline gap exists between African-American students and their peers, but he says the district has implemented various strategies aimed at closing it. A few years ago, the district created the Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness department. Leader Angela Ward single-handedly provides cultural awareness training to all new teachers and administrators. The training asks teachers to examine their own biases – something UT Professor Richard Reddick says is key to creating trusting relationships between teachers and students.    

"How were you raised, think about that?" Ward asks new teachers. "Thinking about what you were taught growing up really colors how you view the world now. And when you walk into that classroom you view your students in a certain way. How are you viewing them?” Ward also works with AISD central office staff to initiate conversations about racial disparities through lunchtime programs, and works directly with campuses whose principals invite her to provide training. 

Ward says progress takes time; so far, she’s only worked with about 10 campuses. "This is the first year that I felt like I made real progress outside of central office," she says. The district also implemented child study groups to work directly with families to identify issues leading to disciplinary problems. 

Oropez says the district has made progress, but it still has a way to go. "We do believe it’s paying dividends – not as quickly as we would want it to be at this time –but I think we’re starting to trend in the right direction," he says. 

Oropez says the district would eventually like to move away from out-of-school suspensions altogether. Research shows suspensions increase a student's likelihood of dropping out. Home suspensions have a financial impact too: the district loses about $45 each day for every absent student.  Last year, home suspensions cost AISD at least $630,000.  


Data visualization by Roy Varney

Teaching Personal Responsibility

In many schools, students receive out-of-school suspension after multiple detentions. But Reagan Early College High School takes an extra step before sending a student home: sending that student to the Personal Responsibility Center (PRC). The center was launched in conjunction with the Harvest Foundation, which works in four AISD schools to provide support and services to students with disciplinary issues.

Administrators say the PRC is the main reason out-of-school suspensions have dropped – nearly 75 percent in one year, from 207 students in 2012 to 54 students in 2013.

The PRC differs from in-school suspension; Reagan doesn’t even have a suspension center. Instead, students spend three days in the PRC, sometimes more. If they act out within those three days, they have to start over. 

In the PRC, students receive individual attention from district tutors and Harvest Foundation employees. They begin by getting to know each other and talking about reasons they might be acting out. The second day, they focus on schoolwork. Teachers send along classwork students have missed, and tutoring is offered. Located in a family resource center, students and parents have easy access to a variety of services: counseling, financial help, assistance for those learning to speak English as a second language. 

The goal is to teach students who act out how to take personal responsibility for their actions, so when they go back to class they can use the skills to keep themselves from acting out again. At first, students are reluctant, says PRC director Kent Roberson. One student compared the PRC to prison – which he encouraged one student to express on paper:

You can’t get out There’s no freedom You can’t chew unless they say you can You can’t fart unless they say you can

"Needless to say, in three days she'd completed all her work, made up three tests and she went from a 55 in Algebra to a 70," Robertson says. "She was failing English and pulled that up too.” 

A Firm Hand, Respect, and Humor
As Reagan Principal Anabel Garza walks through the school's courtyard one afternoon, her high heels echo. She greets students, complimenting them on their hard work, or giving them knowing glances if they shouldn’t be in the hallway. Eventually a security guard calls her over. A student has been bouncing a basketball indoors; he was asked to stop, but he didn't listen. Garza handles it, but doesn’t yell at the student.
"Why’d you get in trouble?" she asks.

"Because I bounced the ball," the student answers.

"Can you bounce the ball inside?"

"I don’t know, sometimes," he says, looking away. 

"Sometimes?" Garza says, smirking. "When you want to get in trouble, yeah. Because that’s what it’s going to get you, right? We respect each other. He’s not bouncing the ball here, so he had to intentionally want to disrespect somebody."

"Yes, that’s true," he answers.

It’s impossible to know this specific student’s disciplinary history due to privacy laws, and we can’t know how the school ended up disciplining him. But Garza’s reaction is indicative of how she manages students: with a firm hand, respect, and a touch of humor.

When students leave the PRC and return to class, Roberson tells them to come back if they feel like they’re having a rough day. "I’d rather them ask to get work, come work, talk and go back [to class]," he says, "rather than going for the gusto, getting the referral and getting placed in here for a behavioral sanction."

Principal Garza says part of the job is giving students the tools to handle their emotions and social situations. "Those of us that were lucky enough to be born in a two parent, middle class home where those things taught to you on a daily basis, how long does it take a little child to learn?" Garza asks. "But if that little child never had the experience or nobody ever taught them, then that’s what you know. Give students a chance and opportunity to learn how to be socially acceptable, to be socially appropriate."  

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