By Kristen Taketa St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS • If students curse, fight or show other bad behaviors at Carver Elementary School, they aren’t suspended.
More likely, they’ll have to do mindfulness yoga.
That’s the kind of mindset toward student discipline that St. Louis Public Schools is working to foster across the district. It’s a mindset that’s largely driven by a vow made nine months ago to end out-of-school suspensions for children in preschool through second grade.
Carver, like many district schools, is working through how to meet that goal. Instead of punishing students, Carver is seeking to tend to students’ emotions, which are often the source of bad behavior.
“It’s about, how do we proactively create environments where kids are happy, versus going down this road by reactively dealing with their misbehaviors,” said David Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent for academics.
For example, misbehaving students at Carver are taken to a “reflection room” with a staff member who is trained to de-escalate tense situations and cater to the student’s needs, rather than simply doling out punishment. The staff member, Deontrel Brownlee, asks students to reflect on their actions and role plays with them to help them understand empathy. On Fridays, these students do yoga-like mindfulness exercises, focusing on their feelings and thoughts.
“It’s been a fundamental kind of shift in how we approach consequences. School culture is what we call it,” said Principal Anna Westlund.
St. Louis is the first district in the region to ban suspensions for some students. But schools statewide are facing pressure from community members to reduce punitive discipline, which disproportionately affects students of color. Several area school districts have been adding counselors and social workers to reduce the need for discipline.
So far, St. Louis has issued 13 out-of-school suspensions this academic year for preschoolers through second-graders, according to district numbers. That’s far behind the pace for last school year, when there were 367 total. Meanwhile, there were 954 for students in all other grades this year, down from the pace last school year, when there were 2,837 for the year.
Reducing suspensions and changing school culture hasn’t been easy, administrators say. The district has financial limitations when it comes to hiring and training staff such as social workers and counselors.
“The biggest challenge is it’s a mindset shift,” Hardy said. “We also realize we want to grow as fast as we can, but as slow as we must.”
A space to reboot
On one recent day at Carver, in the Grand Center neighborhood, Brownlee was keeping busy. One minute, he was taking care of a crying boy in the front office. Another minute, he was supervising about half a dozen students in the reflection room. While some students go there to address their misbehavior, others go there when they’re emotionally overwhelmed or need a space to reboot.
Some students are naturally defiant of authority, Brownlee said. Some haven’t been taught how to properly interact with others. Many are upset because of troubles at home — a parent is in jail, they have no permanent home or their parents have no jobs.
Brownlee greets students in the morning. If a student doesn’t respond to him, and he knows that student is high-risk, he’ll pull him or her aside and address the problem. Sometimes it’s “as simple as talking to them, really talking to them, seeing them as a person. Some of the kids really need that,” Brownlee said.
Carver was founded three years ago to absorb students from the former Imagine charter schools, which were forced to close by the state in 2012 for financial mismanagement and failing academic performance.
When Carver opened, fights and office referrals for misbehavior were part of the norm. The school was seeing 250 referrals every week, “which was completely overwhelming,” Westlund said. “We were not where we wanted to be.”
One of the keys to fixing that problem is a data system called Kickboard, which comes from a company based in New Orleans.
Students — or “scholars,” as Westlund calls them — earn virtual dollars in Kickboard every day if they perform certain good behaviors. They earn credits for behaviors like sitting up straight and listening, using kind words, wearing their uniforms and coming to school on time.
Teachers assign Kickboard dollars to students every day on an iPad, and the principal can check their progress.
Students who earn enough dollars can turn them in for incentives like a college T-shirt, a book or lunch with a teacher or the principal.
If a student curses, gets in a fight, or acts out so badly that a parent needs to be called, Westlund and a team including Brownlee, the school nurse and a lead teacher worker know right away through a Kickboard phone alert dispatched by a staff member.
Every Friday, during the last hour of school, students who earned a certain number of dollars get to go to “college majors,” or elective classes. Some of the majors this year include computer coding, animation and engineering.
Students who don’t earn enough dollars go to the reflection room for mindfulness instead.
In addition to using Kickboard, teachers at Carver have created “safe spaces” or “cool-out corners” in their classrooms, which are stocked with pillows, blankets, books and stress-relieving fidget toys like squishy balls. If a student is struggling with anxiety or life at home, he or she can spend some minutes in the space to cry or sleep.
Brownlee said he sees how this time away from instruction can be exploited as free time.
“Don’t get me wrong, it can be manipulated, but some of our kids really need that,” he said. “Some of them really need that time to isolate themselves and get themselves back to a level they can function at.”
Carver’s efforts to change school climate have paid off. Instead of 250 office referrals every week, there are now about 35, Westlund said.
Other district schools using Kickboard have seen similar decreases in referrals. About 25 district schools are using Kickboard, at a cost to the district capped at about $165,000.
“We’re not perfect,” Westlund said, “but the general goal is to put things in place ahead of time so that for the student who we know might struggle at 10 a.m. – and I just got a text about this, right – there’s already a system in place.”