Pittsburgh schools to try talking, listening as response to misbehavior
For the next two school years, 23 Pittsburgh schools will be testing whether talking and listening to students who misbehave is more effective than suspending them.
Another 23 schools with comparable demographics will follow current practices.
At the end of the study, funded by a $3 million federal grant, researchers will look at whether the program, known as SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change, actually works.
Pittsburgh Public Schools sought the grant because it recognizes the importance of graduating students with real-life and academic skills, Superintendent Linda Lane said.
“We all have to learn how to work with others,” she said.
The “restorative practices” program developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, seeks to keep misbehaving students connected to the school community and lead them to confront and accept responsibility for their actions.
By comparison, suspensions are considered “exclusionary practices” that separate students from peers and teachers.
The grant will pay to train teachers and school officials in executing the program and the data gathering and analysis to gauge its effectiveness, Lane said.
Although the program builds on concepts from a related discipline known as “restorative justice,” it goes beyond mediating disputes and tries to build a community structure, she said.
Some students could still be suspended from the test schools during the next two years, but the hope is that having students talk out situations will keep problems from continuing and produce better outcomes when they occur, she said.
Suspensions don't do that.
“If all we do is suspend, we're going to have to suspend again,” Lane said during a news conference at Minadeo PreK-5 in Squirrel Hill.
The approach doesn't come naturally to people used to thinking of punishment as the only way to respond to disciplinary problems, said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania. Schools have to find a better way, he said, because students who get repeatedly suspended fall out of the main education system.
“The chance that they're then going to end up on my desk is extremely high,” he said.
Schools need to produce “students and graduates instead of defendants and convicts,” Hickton said.
Other districts have praised the program.
The Pittsburgh study and one under way in Maine will subject it to scientific scrutiny, said Catherine Augustine, senior policy researcher for Rand Corp., which is working with the district to conduct the study.
The Maine study involves six schools, so it's a dry run for the larger Pittsburgh study, she said.
Researchers will compare suspension rates, attendance rates and student and teacher answers to annual surveys to gauge whether there's a statistically significant difference in the outcomes at the 23 Pittsburgh test schools versus their 23 counterparts, Augustine said.
While suspension rates will be the main measure, attendance is also important because it tracks improvements in school conditions.
“If the school culture improves, students are more likely to attend,” Augustine said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 at email@example.com.