In 2010, Modesto City Schools got on the state’s watch list for suspending and expelling more students with disabilities than other districts, particularly students of color. Its work to dramatically reduce expulsions and suspensions since that time has earned a different kind of notice, this time from civil rights advocates.
At a daylong Equity Exchange program in Modesto earlier this month, regional advocates for school reform said Modesto’s unified approach to changing discipline strategies holds promise for other districts. In 2010, the district expelled almost 300 students; in 2014, it expelled 17.
“Organizers selected Modesto City Schools as an example of promising practices in our efforts to build a system of positive discipline for all students, using a multi-tier system of supports,” said Margit Birge of the Region IX Equity Assistance Center at WestEd.
“They are really working at a systems level, across the board,” she told other districts attending the Central Valley session.
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It is a work in progress, said Ginger Johnson, the associate superintendent who spearheaded the shift for Modesto City Schools.
“We don’t have 100 percent of staff embracing the changes and I don’t know we ever will. Change is hard. It takes repeated conversations,” Johnson said.
It’s a paradigm shift. But we find a number of the teachers are tired of the way things are. They want a change.
Marty Villa, director of Family Concern Counseling
The changes began with a California Department of Education notice in the fall of 2010 that the district would face sanctions for statistically excessive out-of-school discipline for its special education students.
“We went through all five stages of grief,” Johnson said, including denial. “We went back to the CDE three times to beg them for a different outcome.” But the numbers stood.
“Those numbers speak for themselves,” said Modesto board member Sue Zwahlen. “It’s a huge red flag to me as a human being when I hear people excuse those numbers as bad math.”
She has heard the complaints as the district shifted away from sending difficult kids home.
“They say we’re being easy on crime. We are not the criminal justice system. We are the public education system,” Zwahlen said.
Our students come with many, many issues before the day even starts.
Ginger Johnson, associate superintendent, Modesto City Schools
The district decided in 2010 to change discipline policies for all its students, not just for kids in special education.
“Special ed is a microcosm of the whole district,” Johnson said.
The board eased zero-tolerance policies in favor of positive intervention plans. Teachers got training on proactive measures. Schools got other options besides sending kids home when they misbehaved. A shotgun approach, with dozens of school-specific incentives, became a district-led effort to find what worked and replicate it, and discard the rest.
“Be extremely sure to not sugarcoat the data,” Johnson said.
The recession made finding money for training difficult, so the district prioritized the need by the numbers, said Mark Herbst, senior director of elementary educational services.
“The training went first to the schools with the highest rates,” he said. With the help of a community partner, all elementary campuses got the Peace Builders program, with its say-something-nice, do-what’s-right focus.
“(Peace Builders) flows beautifully into restorative justice,” Herbst said, programs that work in the long run, “but you have to invest that time as it starts.”
While all the positive, proactive programs took hold, the district realized there were daily struggles to get through.
“We found the sites didn’t have the resources to handle their tougher kids,” Herbst said. More flexibility for sites returned, but with standards laid out for how to gauge what discipline was warranted.
When you change culture, it’s not check a box and you’re done. You have to keep the momentum going.
Sara Mariano, Enochs High teacher
At Enochs High School, a campus-wide push to change culture was instituted by teachers. “We saw it as a change to make life simpler,” said work experience instructor Jimme Sevick. “We had so many random incentive programs – there was so much, our teachers began ignoring all of it.”
The motto “Be safe. Be responsible. Be respectful.” appears on T-shirts around the school. Tickets for good deeds are entered in Fun Friday raffles each quarter. The Enochs Care Center offers counseling help and will add peer counseling next semester.
At Fairview Elementary School in west Modesto, a focus on talking through student conflicts is paying off, said Principal Christina Romero.
“We used to get 90 bus (bad behavior reports) a week,” she said. “This week, I’ve had no bus referrals.”
It takes far more time to listen to kids and help them reflect on what they did, think about what could be done to make it right, Romero said.
“Those are the conversations that take the time. But it’s those conversations that are making the difference,” she said – not that fights never happen.
Our parents are incredibly appreciative of what we do. They really feel the school is doing something above and beyond. They see that caring more.
Christina Romero, Fairview Elementary principal
“It’s ‘righting the wrongs’ behavior. But some things can’t be fixed. You can’t take back hitting a person, and ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough,” she said.
When kids have a conflict, they are often assigned to do a supervised task together as a way to move forward. “We develop an activity, even if we have to make them up. It decreases the bullying component,” she said.
But nothing works for every child, every time.
“Repeat offenders – that’s a whole mindset issue. It’s a difficult conversation with teachers, but our kids are struggling, so we know they need to be in school,” she said.
Another part of the Modesto solution is bringing in mental health professionals to help reduce bullying and fights, and train the staff to deal with them in better ways when they happen.
“It’s a shift away from thinking about laws being broken, who broke the law and how we punish the people who broke the law,” said Marty Villa, director of Family Concern Counseling.
“There’s conflict and how do we repair the harm,” Villa said. “It’s accountability equals punishment, vs. understanding impact and repairing harm – making things as right as possible.”
“Our students come with many, many issues before the day even starts,” she said. But schools need to help the kids they have, she added. “I don’t know any doctor that says, ‘I’m only going to see kids who are 100 percent healthy today.’ ”