New program helps decrease suspension rate in Hamilton schools

The Hamilton City School District approved a pilot program last year that uses “restorative practices” to help change at-risk student behavior in the three schools with the highest suspension rates: Crawford Woods Elementary, Garfield Middle School and the Hamilton Freshman School. All staff members of the school, from the administration down to the custodial staff, underwent two full days of training over the summer to help promote better communication and understanding for students in all areas of their school life.

“The goals of the program are to increase student achievability, build community within the schools, and prepare students for life,” said Matt Tudor, district director of student services in a Feb. 10 presentation to the Board of Education.

Restorative practices involve several elements of leadership, psychology, education, and other disciplines to help promote positive environments and decrease negative, antisocial or criminal behaviors, Tudor said. He said the idea for a Hamilton program started after he read an article in National Education Association (NEA) Today magazine detailing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which cited research stating that suspension, not poverty, is the number-one predictor of a child dropping out of school and being subject to unemployment, reliance on social welfare programs, and incarceration.

“I think kids in general at this young age, they struggle with where they fit into the larger community,” Tudor said. “And I think this (program) puts their role into a bigger perspective.”

The results so far have been positive enough to encourage the spread to nearly every other school in the district next year. Tudor said that thanks to the program, suspension rates were down in all three schools in the first semester of the 2014-2015 school year, as compared to the same time period last school year.

Crawford Woods had 29 suspensions in the fall semester of the 2013-2014 school year, and reported 13 last semester. Garfield and the Freshman School had 35 and 71 suspensions in the 2013-2014 semester, respectively, and reported 30 and 34 suspensions respectively last semester.

The Hamilton City School District allocated about $50,000 to fund trainers from the International Institute of Restorative Practices to educate the over 200 staff members of the three schools and district administration last summer. Tudor is currently working on a proposal to fund training for staff in the rest of the district’s schools, and said the cost to the district is approximately $3,000 per trainer per day plus travel expenses.

Training every member of the school building helps teach the student how their behavior affects everyone around them, Tudor said. By using the same sort of positive language when communicating with the student — instead of saying “Don’t do that,” saying “It makes me sad when you do that” — the impact of their behavior is reinforced. And by having common language in the schools, they can then work with parents to implement this same language at home.

Garfield Middle School Principal Brandon Stanfill credited his staff for working hard to implement the training.

“We’ve been struggling for years with how to help parents be better partners in education,” he said.

New family and support specialists in each of the elementary schools benefits that communication as well, Tudor said.

“We are putting more supports in place for students now than before to sustain the change in behavior,” Tudor said. “This is evident based on the significant drop in students who have been suspended multiple times this school year.”

Board Vice President Steve Isgro praised the “amazing and impressive work” of the district, and said he hoped that more schools will be able to follow along next year.