By Tracy Sherman, LEV Policy Analyst

The team tours a school in Baltimore. (Tracy Sherman on the far left.)
The team tours a school in Baltimore. (Tracy Sherman on the far left.)

Representatives from League of Education Voters and community-based organizations recently traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, to learn more about the discipline reforms that have been implemented by Baltimore City Public Schools with great success. This is the second in the series, Lessons from Baltimore: Transforming School Discipline.

In October 2013 I was part of a group that visited Baltimore to learn about Baltimore City Public Schools’ work to improve school discipline and keep students in school. While the discipline policy on paper matters, Baltimore’s success also depends on people and relationships.

After meeting with Baltimore City Schools’ Interim Chief Executive Officer, Tisha Edwards, it was clear that the CEO’s office has made discipline a high priority. Baltimore’s work started with a leader (former CEO Andrés Alonso) saying that the district would begin keeping students in school instead of suspending and expelling them. CEO Edwards said, “We take children as they are,” meaning we educate all children.

When giving advice to other school districts that are considering doing similar work, Edwards said that leadership must demonstrate that discipline is a priority. For example, when Edwards visits a school, she doesn’t ask the principal about how the school is implementing common core; instead she asks, “Where is your in-school suspension room?”

Baltimore City Public Schools also works to help principals and teachers relate to, and form relationships with, their students. Like many school districts around the country, teachers who work in Baltimore schools often don’t live in the same neighborhoods or areas as their students and often struggle to relate to them. To counter this lack of understanding, the district has coordinated activities such as taking teachers and principals on tours of the neighborhoods in which their students live, so that they can better understand each and every student. The goal is to have teachers and principals better understand their students and form a positive relationship with them.

In addition to these tours, many schools now have a homeroom period, which is a time when teachers can check in with students, see how they are feeling, and learn more about their activities outside of school or on the weekend. Many teachers also take time at the beginning of the school year or beginning of each class to have these types of informal conversations with their students. The purpose of such conversations is to continue building relationships with students. When teachers take the time to develop relationships with their students, those students are more engaged and less likely to misbehave. This translates to academic gains.

While changing discipline policies and practices to keep students in school was the critical first step, forming relationships with students has been just as crucial in Baltimore, and it shows in the results. Out-of-school suspensions have dropped from one out of every five students to one in eight students. In addition, the dropout rate has fallen from 7.9 percent (2008) to 4.2 percent (2011). Baltimore’s success serves as an example that is possible to fairly discipline students, keep them in school, and improve academic outcomes.

Tracy Sherman is a Policy Analyst at the League of Education Voters. She has been with LEV since 2011 and got her start in education policy working for several members of Congress.

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