Behavior Referrals Plummeted While Attendance Skyrocketed in This District. Here’s Why …

Big changes = big gains.

Elementary students standing in front of lockers - - Alternative to Suspension

When a high school student at New Britain Transitional Center deliberately destroyed his social studies textbook, staff members were angry and frustrated. Textbooks, after all, cost a lot of money, and this incident was not the first time this student had lost his temper. But rather than kicking him out of school, staff tried an alternative to suspension.

“We looked up the cost of the textbook, and then looked up minimum wage,” says Susan Girolomoni, principal of New Britain Transitional Center, an alternative academic setting for students in grades K–12. “Then we created a work time sheet, and the student had to do some jobs in our building to make up for the cost of the book.”

Looking for alternatives to suspension

In the past, destruction of a textbook would have earned the student an out-of-school suspension. “We didn’t know what else to do,” Girolomoni says. On some level, staff knew that suspensions didn’t work; students were spending a lot of time out of class, and most spent their out-of-school suspension time at home, playing video games or hanging out. When students returned post-suspension, absolutely nothing had changed. Whatever had been destroyed was still destroyed. Staff members were still frustrated, and students remained quick to anger. New Britain needed an alternative to suspension.

Chronic absenteeism, student fights, and disciplinary referrals were common throughout the Consolidated School District of New Britain, a district of eighteen schools that serves New Britain, Connecticut, a city located approximately nine miles southwest of Hartford. Poverty is a persistent problem; most of New Britain’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Exposure to trauma is also prevalent; many students arrive at school with significant barriers to learning.

Despite these challenges, educators in New Britain are committed to helping children learn and grow. They care deeply about their students and willingly work long hours. But compassion and dedication weren’t creating positive results. So New Britain decided to try another way.

An eye-opening realization

In 2014, New Britain educators “realized [they] were missing a step,” says Ryan Langer, the district’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students project manager. “Our curriculum lacked a space where we explicitly teach our expectations to our children. We were just quickly moving them into the disciplinary process.”

That realization was eye-opening because it suggested room for improvement. Perhaps students weren’t simply misbehaving; perhaps they lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to regulate their behavior and emotions. And perhaps teachers and staff needed some extra support and instruction as well.

The district’s middle school had some experience (and success) with the Well-Managed Schools program, a Boys Town Training initiative that helps educators create a positive school culture and calm classrooms, so the Consolidated School District of New Britain reached out to Boys Town.

“New Britain was really committed to finding an evidence-based program,” says Amy Perhamus, a National Training Consultant with Boys Town. Courtney Dealy, a Boys Town National Senior Training Consultant, traveled to New Britain and immediately began getting to know the teachers and students.

“She really listened to their goals and what they wanted to accomplish,” Perhamus said. “Rather than coming in and saying, ‘Do it our way,’ Courtney was able to say, ‘Absolutely. We can help the New Britain way.’”

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Rolling out changes

In 2015, after extensive training, the Consolidated School District of New Britain rolled out the Well-Managed Schools program in five of their 10 elementary schools. The effort was intense. Teachers and staff attended a two-day training before the school year started, and Dealy also helped the district train in-district consultants and trainers.

“The research in education says that if you just provide an initial training and then don’t support it, anything the teachers learned is typically gone after the first year,” Perhamus says. “With this approach, the district can sustain it without needing outside people to come in constantly.”

In-house consultants supported their peers as the district made changes. “They could observe in classrooms and provide specific feedback on things like the praise-to-correction ratio,” Perhamus says. “They also share tips with their colleagues and answer questions.”

Such peer-to-peer support was essential. “Giving people the ability to hone their craft and then share what they learned with their colleagues was a big reason why people became passionate about this process,” Langer says.

Big changes = big gains

Within a year, the district saw significant improvement. Suspensions and expulsions declined. Chamberlain Elementary, a school of 500 students, suspended 57 students in 2015–2016; in 2016–2017, only 26 students were suspended. Sixteen students were expelled from Gaffney Elementary School in 2015–2016; in 2016–2017, no students were expelled from Gaffney. The alternative to suspension strategy was working.

The difference was striking—so striking that New Britain decided to expand the Well-Managed Schools program to the district’s other five elementary schools. Even chronic absenteeism rates at the elementary level declined by up to seven percent in some schools. District staff also asked if Boys Town could help them better meet the needs of students with severe behavioral issues. The answer was yes. Specialized Classroom Management, a comprehensive social skills curriculum and multitiered motivation system that uses the same vocabulary and approach as Well-Managed Schools, was instituted. 

“For me, it was such an easy fit because, philosophically, it fits in with what I believe in,” says Girolomoni.

Exposure to and experience with Well-Managed Schools and Specialized Classroom Management inspired Girolomoni to try a different approach when the student destroyed the textbook.

“Now students have to think about their mistakes and learn. They have to make an apology and restore the relationship,” Girolomoni says. This is an alternative to suspension, and as a result, suspensions at New Britain Transitional Center are down to zero. Time-outs have decreased as well.

“Just this year, we had a 23 percent decrease in students going to time-out. That’s essentially a 67 percent increase in students staying in class,” Girolomoni says. “Much more learning is happening, and when I look at our academic data, I see increases across the board.”

What’s next?

Next, the district plans to implement Boys Town’s Safe and Healthy Secondary in their middle schools. “Our vision is to pursue excellence one student at a time,” Langer says. “Our big hope is that partnering with Boys Town will help us prepare our students to succeed.”

Get your free printable Classroom Culture Checklist. Use it during quick classroom walk-throughs to get a snapshot of your school’s culture.

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Posted by Jennifer Fink

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who specializes in education, health & parenting. She's also the founder of BuildingBoys.net.

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