Efforts to reduce out-of-school student suspensions working in McCracken Co., Paducah Ind.; administrators in both districts stress positive reinforcement works

Paducah Sun, March 28, 2016

Schools limit student suspensions

More than 900 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in Louisville's Jefferson County public schools have been sent home on suspension at least once this school year, some of them too young to spell "suspension."

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported this nearly 68 percent jump in elementary-age suspensions.

While suspension rates in Jefferson County schools have been climbing, suspensions in McCracken County and Paducah Public schools have remained relatively low and seem on track to be even lower by the end of this school year.

In the 2012-13 school year, 7.9 percent of Jefferson County's 95,475 students were suspended at least once. The following year it was 13.5 percent, and last year 15.4 percent of Jefferson County students had been suspended.

Those figures are far higher than suspension rates in McCracken (4 percent in 2012-13, 1.6 percent in 2013-14, 2.7 percent in 2014-15) and Paducah (3.5 percent in 2012-13, 2.1 percent in 2013-14, 3.8 percent in 2014-15).

As the Courier-Journal article noted, the high suspension numbers in Jefferson County are not the norm. In fact, some states and individual school districts have tried in recent years to limit out-of-school suspensions as much as possible. McCracken County and Paducah Public are two such districts.

"In all of our schools, we have dramatically reduced the number of suspensions," said Troy Brock, director of pupil personnel for Paducah Public Schools. "We try to not suspend children from that regular classroom environment. It's not productive. It doesn't help the child to suspend them, and a lot of times the child is spending that time at home doing whatever they want. That's not much of a punishment."

Suspension or expulsion are used in only the most extreme circumstances or after all other intervention options have been exhausted, Brock said.

Suspension alternatives

Most behavioral issues can be handled in the classroom, through in-school suspension, detention, or placement in the district's alternative school. These suspension alternatives allow schools to address problematic behavior while keeping kids in school.

"We actually stand to see a continued reduction in school removals," Brock said. Districtwide only 63 Paducah students have been suspended this year, the bulk of them from the district's alternative school, CHOICES.

"I think a lot of that improvement has come from the middle school," Brock noted. "The culture change that has taken place there this year is profound. You walk in and you can see the difference."

By the numbers, "behavior events" in Paducah Public schools seem to spike in sixth-grade when students are transitioning from elementary to middle school. Middle school is a trying time for many kids, and it sometimes shows. This year is Paducah Middle's first implementing the Leader in Me program, a confidence and character-building initiative aimed at improving learning environments and reducing behaviors like bullying.

"I feel like we have a happier building this year," said Stacey Overlin, principal at Paducah Middle. "The adults are happier. The kids are happier. There's not as much tension. Relationships are improving. It's just calmer. My hallways are calmer. You can tell the difference, even just from last year."

Overlin said he recently bumped into a retired, longtime Paducah Middle School teacher, got to chatting and asked her to guess how many sixth-graders he's had to send to CHOICES so far this year. She guessed about 21.

"I told her there's only been one," Overlin said, "and she came up and gave me a big hug. She just said, that's fantastic."

Positive reinforcement

The best thing schools can do for kids is provide positive reinforcement, Overlin said. Disruptive behavior can't be ignored, of course, but good behavior shouldn't be taken for granted, either.

"When a student does something right, we want to recognize it and give them some sort of positive feedback," Overlin said. "And when they do cross a line or break a rule, really our goal is to correct the behavior. The goal is not to punish the child. You try to keep it positive, try to get the behavior corrected, and then try not to interrupt student learning."

At McCracken County High School, Principal Michael Ceglinski's approach to discipline is almost identical to Overlin's.

In McCracken County schools, "behavior events" seem to spike in ninth-grade when students are transitioning from middle to high school. Helping students get through that first year while making as few mistakes as possible takes much more than the threat of punishment for bad behavior, Ceglinski said.

The high school's "golden tickets" were one example Ceglinski gave of emphasizing the positive. Throughout the week teachers and staff give out golden tickets to students "caught doing wonderful things in the school," Ceglinski said. Every Friday students get to enter those tickets into a drawing for prizes and gift certificates from local businesses.

"It really takes balance," Ceglinski said. "We've made a concerted effort to only suspend kids when we truly have to. It's a last resort. We want to make sure we can discipline kids while still providing instruction. We don't want these kids to fall behind. And we try to recognize when kids do great things. We can tend to focus on the negative too much sometimes."

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