|DiCenso at Milken Award ceremony. (photo courtesy of Milken)
Superintendent Patti DiCenso made a commitment to changing the way her district of Pawtucket, Rhode Island does discipline; more specifically, the out of school suspensions for non egregious actions needed to stop.
“Suspensions Became The Tool” – Patti DiCenso, Superintendent
DiCenso is open about how bad the numbers were and while the data concerned her at all levels, she believes the problem was greatest at the elementary level. During the 2014-2015 school year from September to February, there were 259 suspensions at the elementary school level a number that, just one year later, has dropped 97 percent to just 9. (Pawtucket Schools
serve 9,022 students throughout sixteen schools.)
Getting leaders into classrooms and engaged with learning was a move away from a school culture that really had never looked at changing the way suspensions were doled out, said DiCenso. One 1st-grader had been suspended 25 times during kindergarten because he wasn’t able to control himself and staff didn’t feel like he could conform, she said. During those out-of-school suspensions, no work was sent home with the student, meaning he was getting no instruction. “How did it help in terms of him being ready for 1st grade?” she said. (Excerpted from The Valley Breeze, 4/19/20160)
The middle and high school numbers are also impressive with the middle school suspensions dropping 66 percent from 486 to 163 and the high school showing a decrease of 63 percent from 444 to 63.
DiCenso readily acknowledges that keeping more students in the building does put a strain on the system if buildings are not adequately staffed to manage the defiance and unruly behavior that was previously being sent out of the building in the way of suspension. And adequate isn’t just about numbers of adults; my own experience confirms the need to ensure the right adults are in place, those who are skilled and/or have been trained to defuse and deescalate kids when they need it. They are also people who cultivate relationships with students that are based on mutual trust and respect.
The numbers don’t lie and that’s true of budgets which often shed light on where priorities really lie. DiCenso’s proposed budget is further evidence that getting things right on suspensions and student discipline is a top priority. Of the $600,000 increase in the proposed budget for next year, half is targeted to “support staff in keeping kids in school.”
Superintendent DiCenso and her team have made remarkable progress in just six months. Perhaps at the end of the year, when the final numbers are in, this little city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island can serve as a model about how to reduce suspensions while also providing needed training and support to staff so that they have the tools they need to keep more kids in school with the goal of helping students to de-escalate or modulate their behavior so that they can turn their “bad” day around and continue to learn with their peers. And their friends. And their teachers.
Bravo Pawtucket Public Schools!