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Federal Way school district tackles discipline ‘disproportionality’

Federal Way Public Schools - Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools
Federal Way Public Schools
— image credit: Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools

A new theme in educational circles trickling down from the federal government is the idea of discipline “disproportionality,” the statistical phenomena that certain groups of students face discipline more than others over any given period of time.

Here in Federal Way, the trend holds true, according to a number of district administrators, who, along with district personnel, have been working on the problem in the last couple of years.

“We have compared our demographic data going back to 2000-01 with 2012-13, and it enables us, of course, to determine if there’s a disproportionality among our sub-populations,” said Deputy Superintendent Mark Davidson at the Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) board meeting on April 22. “Which of course there is. Our discipline data helps us identify populations in need of support, (helps us) ensure a safe learning environment for all students, and allows us to intervene with appropriate intervention structures.”

One of the most noticeable trends within FWPS is that males tend to make up a bulk of disciplinary actions, which range from short-term suspensions, to long-term suspensions to outright expulsions. According to the district’s data, white, black and Hispanic males are about equal in terms of short-term suspensions during middle school, with that trend holding mostly true for high school as well.

One significant jump that happens, though, according to FWPS’ data, comes with expulsions in high schools. Black male students’ expulsion rates shoot past their peers, something that Davidson and FWPS administrators and staff recognize.

“Some of the ongoing themes we have is, of course, disproportionality, particularly for our African American and Latino/a students, as well as male students,” Davidson said. “(It’s) very heavily weighted towards males.”

Those days lost to suspension and/or expulsion have a significant impact on students success, which is why the district has been implementing a system known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS). The program is aimed at improving students’ “social/emotional learning issues.” This framework has been being implemented across 25 FWPS schools so far, according to Wanda Billingsly, director of Title I and Learning Assistance Programs for FWPS.

“A lot of our students, because of social/emotional learning issues, it impedes their academic achievement,” she said. “We’re looking to address both hand-in-hand. Addressing the whole child is the emphasis based on some recent conversations going on at the national level, as well as the state and local level. We’re really beginning to look at the connection between academic achievement and discipline.”

Billingsly reviewed the district’s overall demographics, noting that the male/female split is 48.4 percent female and 51.6 percent male. Overall, the district is composed of a “77.2 percent ethnic minority concentration and growing.”

Along with that increase, Billingsly noted the district’s poverty rate “is growing by leaps and bounds,” with the number of students below the poverty line or on free and reduced lunch making up 57.4 percent of the district’s overall student population.

Julia Zigarelli, school psychologist at Illahee Middle School and the district point person for implementation of PBIS, also reviewed the suspension/expulsion data. She said some of the increases in the most recent years are likely due to changed legislation, which requires the district to report such issues more often and more accurately. One positive in some of the more recent changes, she noted, is a reduction in expulsions because of state-level legislation.

“It has changed the legislation, requiring now that we have re-engagement plans, which we did not have to have last year. It requires people to be much more thoughtful before they’re expelling students,” Zigarelli noted.

Billingsly then revisited PBIS, noting that one of its aims is to essentially standardize discipline across the district.

“(PBIS) is a framework, a structure, it’s a way to get buy-in and consensus in buildings to support kids’ behavior and what they need,” she said. “PBIS include(s) a focus on prevention, home/school partnerships, established leadership teams and acknowledging positive behaviors. Creating a culture where kids can feel acknowledged when they are doing the right thing. (It has) a continuum of strategic group interventions, (it) defines and teaches positive social expectations, (and is also a) continuum of intensive, individual interventions. (It) arrange(s) for consistent consequences for problem behavior.”

Billingsly added that oftentimes students are confronted with behavior expectations in classroom “x” that don’t conform to the behavior expectations in classroom “y,” which “creates a lot of discontinuity for kids.” Continued implementation of PBIS will hopefully address those kinds of issues, she noted.

“We have a lot of data that shows when these structures are put in place, the dividends are big on the academic side,” she added. “If kids are getting the support they need, they feel really good about going to school every day.”

“We are moving forward and building momentum,” Billingsly concluded.

 

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