Since 2012, the Oakland Unified School District has decreased suspensions by 47 percent — a dramatic drop that has drawn attention from those who wonder whether Seattle Public Schools can do the same.
On Friday, four leaders of Oakland’s efforts came to Seattle to explain what they’ve done, and why.
At a noontime meeting at Seattle City Hall, they spoke to a packed room, with city council members and Seattle Public School board members in the audience. (They also spoke later at Seattle’s South Shore PK-8 School.)
At City Hall, they told the crowd that they launched four main initiatives, all aimed at finding ways to handle misbehavior other than suspensions or arrests, and by training teachers and administrators to think about how they respond to escalated situations between students.
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The district’s Office of African American Male Achievement also took on a weightier role, working to change misconceptions of African American students held not just by school staff, but by the students themselves.
One key message: It’s not very expensive to do.
“You can do it with the resources that you have available, because you probably have more than we did,” said Barbara McClung, who directs the school district’s Behavioral Health Initiatives.
But it does take time — McClung said an average of three years to put changes in place so they work properly.
And it takes training, the panelists said, with coordinators and counselors hired to make sure restorative justice is properly performed and schools are held accountable.
They also stressed that the changes they’ve made all rely one thing: a shared mindset on what it means to discipline. And that, they said, needs to start with top leadership.
That’s what helped Oakland’s public schools to reduce the number of on-site arrests from 43 in 2012-2013 to just 8 in 2013-2014, said Sgt. Antonio Fregoso of the Oakland School Police.
The panelists emphasized that Oakland’s progress in the last few years followed a very organic growth, based on a common goal.
“We can pay for (students) to go to college or we can pay for them to go to jail,” McClung said. “We had to decide that for ourselves.”
“It’s about bringing people together and making a commitment to implement… It sounds like you have a lot of the elements in place already.”