Last year 20 percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ students received an out-of-school suspension. For Black male students the number was 28 percent.
Numbers like those prompted the district to seek a Comprehensive School Safety Initiative grant from Department of Justice grant to address the issue, which it won in October.
On April 22, during a press event at Minadeo PreK-5 in Squirrel Hill, district officials announced that 23 schools will test whether a “restorative practices” initiative can improve safety and educational outcomes, and reduce suspensions.
Joined by U.S. Attorney David Hickton, Superintendent Linda Lane and other district officials said the $3 million dollar grant will be used to initiate a program that enables students and teachers to talk over and address circumstances and behaviors rather than automatically suspending students.
The “restorative practices” program developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pa., seeks to keep disruptive students connected to the schools and allow them to confront, correct and accept responsibility for their actions, rather than simply excluding them. Discipline, said Lane, does not equal punishment.
“It’s about learning how to get along, to forgive and have the other person make it right and moving forward together,” she said. “Kids will still get suspended, we know that. But if it happens, we want to only happen once.”
Hickton called the grant “an investment in our most precious asset.”
“If we don’t do this, if we only have a hammer, suspended students go from at-risk to drop outs and can quickly wind up on my desk,” he said. “We need to produce students and graduates rather than defendants and convicts.”
In addition to paying to train teachers and staff in implementing the program protocols, and gathering data, the grant will fund a two-year research project, conducted by the RAND Corp. that will analyze the program and determine its effectiveness.
This will be done by matching the 23 program schools with 23 others that employ standard district practices. Both the study and control groups of schools have been matched using a variety of criteria including, size, student age, grade configuration, and racial demographics.
RAND Senior Policy Researcher Catherine Augustine said the study will look at suspension rates, attendance rates and student and teacher answers to annual surveys for both groups of schools.
“That way, if we find a statistically significant difference, we’ll be able to attribute it to the program’s effectiveness,” she said.
The study will begin with the 2015-2016 school year, and the result should be available by fall 2017. If the program proves successful, Lane said it would then be expanded throughout the district.
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