Category Archives: In-School Suspension Inquiry

“That is a nice big target, especially if I can see it.”

I really enjoy my subscription to Scientific American Mind.  I stumbled upon a small article from July/August 2011 about a visualization experiment conducted by researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam.

The experiment was really simple:

–         Ask three different groups to putt a golf ball at a target 5 feet away.

–         Let each group see the target first, but then change the landscape for two of the groups:

  • Make one group putt under a curtain so that they cannot see the target.
  • Make one group put through a small obstacle enroute to the target.

–         Allow the last group to see the target with no obstacles.

After each group putted the golf ball, they were asked to estimate the size of the target on a computer screen.  The group that was able to have an unobstructed view of the target during the task described a bigger target.  This outcome is interesting, especially considering that each group was allowed to see the target first.

It is obvious that golfers in the first two groups clearly understood that the path to the target had changed.  Most surprising however, is that it would appear that barriers to a target negatively change people’s perception of the nature of the target itself.

Perhaps our students would perceive learning targets to be more attainable if they had a clear idea not only what these targets were, but if the targets were in clear view any time they needed them.

Something to think about…

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Poverty and the Grading of Homework

The conversation around how schools can react to poverty typically centers around reduced breakfast and lunch programs.  On a few occasions I have heard people express concern as to the access that poverty-affected students have to sports programs, band and other extra-curricular activities.  I have never heard people discuss specifically how the grading of standardized homework is but one more hurdle for students living with poverty.  I think the time has come.

I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids and what schools can do about it”.  In the first three chapters alone, Jensen dumps upon the reader a stifling pile of challenges faced by students living with poverty.  Here is a small sample:

Students living with poverty…

–       are more likely to live in a crowded home

–       inherit low self-esteem

–       own fewer books

–       watch more tv

–       inherit negative views of school

–       have a 50% chance of dealing with evictions, utility disconnection, overcrowding or lack a fridge

–       have mentally adapted to suboptimal conditions

–       have higher tardiness and absentee rates

It should be clear to just about anyone that this litany of hurdles would make completing homework difficult, if not impossible.  To subject students to the grading of standardized, impersonal homework is questionable on so many levels, and I would argue that poverty-related challenges should be at the top of the list.  When any student arrives with incomplete homework, we as educators can never be certain of the reasons.   We should never assume that it is due to a lack of effort, but perhaps a safe assumption is that our most financially-challenged students have faced negative factors well beyond their control.

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Why are we doing this? (Part II)

How We Designed our In-School Suspension System

In my last post I detailed the process that saw a number of us at Pen Hi arrive at wanting an alternative to the traditional method of sending a student home for a drug suspension.  As stated, there were a number of reasons why we wanted to initiate a new system, and in this post I will describe the process we have implemented.

We had a number of  goals in structuring our In-School Suspension (ISS) System, most of which surrounded the desire to remove the student from his/her normal social circle, while adding interventions designed to help him/her address the problem of drug use.  Perhaps as the most important side-effect, wewanted to see the student return to class in a better position academically than when he/she had left.

With this in mind, we wanted…

  1. to find places in our building where the suspended student could work in ‘supported isolation’.
  2. to efficiently and effectively notify the student’s teachers of the suspension and collect work from them.
  3. to connect the student to adults in the building who could address the issue of drug use.
  4. to connect the student with academic supports that would last for the duration of the ISS and beyond.

Locations

We identified places in our building that could serve as appropriate locations to place ISS students.  The obvious rooms to use were our Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) rooms, both of which had teachers on hand at all times who had experience in assisting at-risk students.  It was nice to have the option between two of these rooms for a number of reasons:

  • If the student had friends working in one room, we could select the other location.
  • If one room was full or some other conflict arose, we could direct the student to the preferred environment.
  • We could make strategic decisions as to which LAC instructor might be better matched to the student.

If both LAC rooms were unavailable or considered to be in contrast to our stated goals, other locations were also considered, if even for a temporary period.  Some of these places included the counselling area, the front office waiting area, our conference room or a classroom.

Notification

One of our counsellors designed a table that came pre-loaded with information fields and a checklist for all appropriate information such as the date, student name, location of ISS, duration of ISS, etc.  As well, the table was embedded in an email that was preloaded with all of the addresses for the counselling staff, administration, youth worker and front office staff. All the administrator issuing the suspension had to do was select ‘reply to all’ and add the emails of the classroom teachers of the student serving the ISS.  Once this email was sent out, every adult in the building who needed to know about the ISS was informed.  The table also indicated where the teacher could send work for the student to complete.

Drug and Alcohol Support

We have benefitted greatly from our association with Rob McGirr from the Surrey School District.  Todd Manuel, one of the leaders of our ISS inquiry, had previously worked with Rob and knew about the fantastic work he did around drug use. The scope of Rob’s work in this area is too broad to share in this blog post, but in essence he directed us in three significant areas:

  1. He shared with us how to administer a drug self-assessment to a student found to be using drugs or alcohol.
  2. He has modeled for us the process of facilitating a group meeting of drug-impacted students.
  3. He has been able to address the most common concerns and general challenges in working with drug-impacted youth.

Results

We have been using this model for over a year and personally I could not imagine going back to our previous system.  While there are still isolated situations that call for us to send a student off-campus, we probably administer about 90% of our suspensions on an ISS format.

In talking with any of the adults that are a part of the ISS system, it is clear that all of us have recognized the increased connectedness with our most at-risk students.  Following a 3-day in-school suspension, it is common to hear a staff member comment on how he/she has a clearer idea on the interests and character of the suspended student.

About a year ago we started writing down anecdotal comments from our ISS students and the staff members who worked with them.  Many of these comments not only entrenched our existing views of the ISS system, but they highlighted benefits we had not considered before.  Here is a sampling of a few of these comments:

  • ‘This in-school suspension system sucks, but it works!  I mean i got all caught up in my homework and I have never had that before.’ (male student, gr.9)
  • Man I am caught up!  Seriously, I don’t know if you know how big a deal this is, but I am caught up on my homework and that hasn’t happened since…what…grade 6?’  (male student, grade 9)

From a staff member who worked in one of the LAC rooms:

It was a very positive experience, I think for both of us, in many ways.  John* was able to get caught up on all of his homework. He worked very hard both days. It also provided a great opportunity for him and me to connect on a much stronger level. I hadn’t realized how very at risk he is before these two days as his marks and attendance are quite strong. He’s not one who would have stood out to me as needing a tremendous amount of support. Now, he stops and chats with me in the hallway about things like basketball, novels we’re reading, assignments he’s working on. Because of this ISS model, he has now made 4 significant, strong adult connections in the school: his counsellor, the youth worker, his vice principal, and his LAC teacher. If we had opted to send this boy home for his suspension instead, I think we would have risked beginning that push out the door when school is the one stable, positive force in his life.

* the student’s name has been changed to protect anonymity

Conclusions

We are into our second school year of developing and implementing an ISS system.  It has been incredible to see the way in which we have transformed the manner in which we react to situations that traditionally have resulted in us ostracizing students.  We are building stronger relationships, improving academic success and connecting with students least likely to be connected.  Above all, personally I have dramatically reduced the number of times I have had to walk students to the door and say goodbye for a 3-5 days – especially at a time in which they can least afford it.

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Why Are We Doing This? (Part I)

Our experience in implementing an in-school suspension system.

The Problem

When I first filled the role as Vice-Principal of Penticton Secondary, few decisions were clearer than what to do with students caught using or possessing drugs at school.  A student caught in such an offence was given a 3-day suspension of they agreed to visit an outside drug counselling agency and was administered a 5-day suspension if they declined to seek counselling.  I followed a fairly simple routine: bust student for drug use, question him or her, call parent, write suspension letter, and wait for the parent to pick the drug-impacted student.  Those steps were pretty easy to follow, but the part that became increasingly difficult, was when I walked the student to the door to meet the disgruntled parent.  I found myself saying something like:

‘I really hate saying this, and it is the least favorite part of my job, but you cannot be on our school property for the next 3 days.’

The problem was, I really did hate it.  Too often I handed the student off to a parent who was not in a great frame of mind or position to deal with the situation. Too often the parent was heading straight back to work and I knew the student would be alone.  Too often the student lamented the fact he or she would be missing class and would be even further behind when he or she returned. Too often I feared a violent or critical incident might  ensue at the parent hand-off, or worse, after the parent and student had left the grounds.   Simply stated, it did not feel right, and the more times I went through this process, the more I felt resigned that we [the school] were somehow missing the mark.

On days when I would send a student away for 3 to 5 days, I heard myself  debriefing to my wife things like:

‘Every bone in my body tells me this is not the right course of action.’

‘I hope (Michael) is ok for the next 3 days.’

‘I wonder how we will every get (Susan) caught up after her suspension is over.’


The Solution

One of the best days I can recall from my first year as a high school vp, was when I realised that I was not the only one questioning our suspension system as it related to drug-impacted and affected youth.  The teachers who worked most closely with some of the students I suspended would cringe at the thought of losing contact with them, especially when they worked so hard to keep these students caught up.  One day a few of us who had been questioning this practice went for lunch  and began to share our frustrations.  It became clear very quickly that there were obvious reasons why conventional, out-of-school suspension systems, were failing our most at-risk, drug-impacted and affected teens.

The moment an out-of-school suspension was given, the teen…

  1. fell further behind in his classes and was left in a position of returning with even less understanding of the material
  2. felt even more isolated from the school the longer she was ostracised
  3. was separated from the adults he most needed…at the time he most needed them
  4. ran the risk of being further stigmatized and labeled as a  ‘drug kid’
  5. was able to partake in, or further entrench himself in, the very behaviours that led to the suspension (smoke up in a vacant house!)
  6. often set into motion plans to pull other students from class during the suspension period

Once we were able to articulate and isolate the reasons we had questioned our practice, we began to shift our paradigm around what we did with our at-risk sector – we were able to get around to building a new system.  No matter which direction we took, our conversation seemed to come back to relationships.  Our most drug-impacted students needed to be linked to positive adults in our school community and it was incumbent upon us to build a process accordingly.

We started with an inquiry question:

“If we introduced and implemented an in-school suspension system, would we see an increased level of school connectedness with some of our most at-risk students?”

Todd Manuel, a Special Education teacher at Penticton Secondary, took over the helm and has been absolutely instrumental in the design and implementation of this inquiry.  Along with a team of focused educators we now are feeling that we are supporting our drug-impacted students like never before.
The results were amazing…
(Next post: How we built the system and the results.)

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