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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. 


Read more at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Public Schools optimistic about reducing student suspensions