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Pittsburgh Public Schools Optimistic About Reducing Student Suspensions

Leaders in Pittsburgh Public Schools are hopeful that a newly-released, long-awaited study of a new strategy aimed at reducing student suspensions in the district could be an asset for others across the country.

The two-year, federally funded study released last week by the RAND Corporation showed that the use of “restorative practices,” a proactive strategy being adopted by schools across the nation and that focuses on improving school culture and building relationships rather than pushing students out of the classroom, had a positive effect on student suspension rates and the disparity between black and white students. 

The report marks one of the first comprehensive studies of restorative practices. Pittsburgh district leaders and proponents of the change said the results have national significance, and that they hope it can be a “roadmap” for other urban schools.

“It’s really validating to see the outcome data associated with this work,” said Christine Cray, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ director of student services reforms.

 

 

RAND began its research shortly after the district was awarded a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014. Teachers at 22 schools were trained by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, and those schools were paired with and compared to 22 “control” schools with certain similarities, like suspension rates. Researchers also surveyed the teachers, to gauge their use and understanding of the new program.

The results overall were positive, and showed that they could be maintained on a large scale, said Keith Hickman, the IIRP’s director of continuing education. But the study also had some limitations, and showed areas where leaders could improve and explore further.

“We’ve been waiting for this a long time,” Mr. Hickman said. “It's affirming to hear of the positive effect of school climate upon student discipline. It's an important challenge that our nation is concerned with in K through 12 (education).”

Among the findings of the study were: 

• Suspensions in PPS overall decreased during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, from about 16 percent of students suspended to about 13 percent. But in the schools that used restorative practices during the study period, the suspension rates dropped twice as much as in the control group.

• Prior to implementation, black students were suspended four times as often as white students, and that rate dropped slightly to 3.5 times as often as white students in the schools that used restorative practices.

• Overall, restorative practices did not have a significant effect on the number of student arrests or absences.

 
 

• During the study period, there was a negative effect on math test scores for students in third through eighth grade, particularly for students in middle-school grades and for black students. 

About 73 percent of the staff at the pilot schools reported that they felt confident they could use restorative practices in their classrooms in year two of the study, according to the report. Elementary school teachers reported using them more than high school teachers, although generally restorative practices were used “often” throughout the course of the study. Generally, most teachers reported having high “buy-in” to use and sustain restorative practices in their buildings. 

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said the results of the use of restorative practices vary from school to school, and they are more successful at schools where teachers have the time and support to use them effectively. Pittsburgh teachers, she said, are expected to balance several behavioral programs and strategies at the same time in their classes. 

“No teacher wants any student to be suspended, but I want to make sure all the students are learning,” Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said. “If students aren’t being suspended, what supports are in place for teachers to make it a positive environment for all students? I would hope that (the district) would listen to the voices of teachers who are the experts on their students and listen to their requests to take some things off their plate so they have the time and the ability to focus on what is best for students and to focus on what they need to provide the best possible and most effective supports and learning environments.”

Overall, administrators found the results to be promising. Ms. Cray said the district is working to provide more customized support to individual schools, now that the program has been expanded district-wide. She hopes that the outcomes will continue to be positive as restorative practices are used more and they are given more time to take effect in the classrooms.

“I feel like it's that nice combination of showing that educators rally do ‘buy in’ and support this and also that it gets positive outcomes,” she said.

“While restorative practices is still a relatively new program in our schools, it's encouraging that the findings show that it has reduced suspensions and the racial disparity associated with suspensions, especially among our elementary school students,” board president Lynda Wrenn wrote in an email.

“We've also seen improved attendance in our elementary students and those student who have IEPs. As we know, attendance is important for academic achievement. As our schools become more familiar with using restorative practices and it becomes the norm, I hope to see this trend continue and grow.”