#SxSWedu: 4 Must-See Sessions

Hard truth: America’s schools aren’t always known for being on the cutting edge.

That’s not to say there aren’t great schools doing really innovative work. But as an institution, the U.S. education system isn’t one to quickly turn its back on tradition.

Take a look at ongoing discussions about school schedules (i.e. are summer breaks outdated?), or ideas about classroom transformation, or the integration of education technology. K12 schools have a reputation for moving at their own pace.

But faced with competition from charter schools and other alternatives, more school leaders are embracing the need for change in a variety of areas, from the classroom to the front office—and some really innovative thinking is emerging as a result.

Take student discipline.

Last month, the New York City Public Schools unveiled a controversial plan to end suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. New York City is not the first district to try this approach, but given its size—NYCPS is the largest district in the nation—the decision is turning a lot of heads.

Roadmap to safety
As reported by Education Week, the change is part of a “roadmap” to safer schools implemented by administrators after a string of violent incidents in the district.

In place of suspensions, NYC schools are required to use alternative, positive, age-appropriate discipline methods. School principals will document their approaches and move to support students with positive reinforcement and timely interventions instead of suspension or expulsion, unless absolutely necessary.

The thinking: supporting behavioral changes and learning at a younger age will reduce instances of violence and discipline across the district over time.

“Students feel safest when lines of responsibility and rules are crystal clear,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his announcement of the new plan. “Today’s reforms ensure that school environments are safe and structured.”

The plan has met with criticism from both teachers’ unions and charter school advocates who say the experiment could result in an increase in school and classroom disruptions. The same groups also question whether the approach will get to the root of the problem: student behavior.

As United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote in a letter to NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: “It is easy to ban suspensions. It is much harder to do the real work so suspensions are no longer necessary.”

Support, not punishment
The district’s new roadmap to school discipline isn’t limited to policy changes, reports Ed Week.

The school district has also partnered with the NYPD to improve reporting and data collection around student arrests, citations, and incidences of handcuffing in schools. Police will also be examining the appropriate use of scanners and metal detectors in city schools. In an effort to improve the student experience, the district recently announced $47 million to support student mental health and improve school climate.

The details of these programs are still unclear. But the investment couldn’t have come at a more prescient time.

With passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act late last year, states are in need of non-academic measures of school and student success. School climate is one such metric. Student discipline is another. Given its status as a bellwether school district, NYCPS could provide a tremendous example of how non-academic indicators can be used to shape and evaluate the full public school experience.

Will other districts follow suit? Time will tell.

Does your school or district approach student discipline in a new or nontraditional way? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to develop a more effective approach to student discipline? Before you make any changes, consider asking your community what ideas it thinks might work best.