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The Answer Sheet: There Are Better Ways Than Suspension to Discipline Kids. Here Are Two Schools Doing Just That.

(This is the eleventh in a series of posts about schools named as winners in the 2015-2016 Schools of Opportunity project. There are links to all at the bottom of this post. High schools interested in being part of the 2016-17 Schools of Opportunity can apply here through May 15.)


If you have paid attention to the school reform debate in recent years, you would be forgiven for thinking that public schools across the board are failing students and that schools that are struggling can only improve if they fire all of their staff, become a charter school or let the state take them over. It’s not so.

This is clear in a project called the Schools of Opportunity, launched a few years ago by educators who sought to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through research-proven practices and not standardized test scores (which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else).

The project assesses how well schools provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Welner was just awarded with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award, an honor that awards scholars for communicating important education research to the public. Linda Molner Kelley, a former assistant dean of teacher education and Partnerships and Director for Outreach and Engagement at the University of Colorado Boulder, is now a co-director, with Welner, of the Schools of Opportunity project.

Twenty schools were named as honorees for the 2015-16 school year — eight gold winners and 12 silver — and you can see the list here. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities. Here’s a post on some of the silver winners.


By Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley

It isn’t unusual to hear of schools that use student suspensions as a catch-all discipline method, but there are consequences when schools adopt “zero tolerance” policies as a response to student infractions of school rules.

These approaches rarely inspire improved student behavior and, because students miss essential classroom time and fall behind, they unnecessarily exclude students from opportunities to learn. While suspensions and expulsions are sometimes appropriate, they also can be troubling when they disproportionately exclude students of color, special education or low socioeconomic-status students.

Fortunately, there are schools that see the value of reforming their school discipline policies in a shift from punishment-oriented responses to restorative-focused practices designed to change behavior and keep kids in school.

Quilcene School and New Vista High School are two Schools of Opportunity implementing innovative and equitable discipline approaches that improve both school climate and student learning.

(Photo provided by Quilcene School)

School: Quilcene School

City/State: Quilcene, Washington

Principal: Gary Stebbins

Superintendent: Wally Lis

Enrollment: 200 (K-12); 85 (9-12)

Economically disadvantaged: 47 percent

Quilcene School is a small K-12 school located on the east slope of the Olympic Peninsula. As a part of the school’s effort to improve climate, culture, and access to learning, Quilcene’s approach to discipline and behavior management incorporates a restorative principles model.

In a clear process geared toward addressing and healing broken or relationships when disruptions and behavior interfere with learning, the school utilizes a “response continuum” to troubling behaviors based on the severity of each infraction. School responses might include informal conferencing, justice circles, or formal conferencing with all involved.

To facilitate restorative approaches and provide resources to students and staff, Quilcene employs a disciplinary specialist trained in restorative justice principles who works closely with staff to insure that academic classwork is completed during absences.

Parents, of course, are key to the restorative process and are participate in the development of student “success plans.” Meanwhile, teachers and staff receive ongoing training in the use of restorative principles and empathy development, and school personnel also facilitate additional non-exclusionary practices such as community service learning.

The result? Quilcene has been a significant decrease in off-campus suspensions. According to principal Gary Stebbins, “When I entered the office for the first time four years ago, I was met with a roomful of suspended and excluded students! We have come a long way.”

By utilizing innovative approaches to discipline, Quilcene School is closing the opportunity gap for all of its students, which is why it deserves to be called a School of Opportunity.

(Photo provided by New Vista High School)


High School: New Vista High School

City/State: Boulder, Colorado

Principal: Kirk Quitter

Superintendent: Dr. Bruce Messinger

Enrollment: 295

Economically disadvantaged: 30 percent

New Vista High School was founded to “break the mold of public education.” Its schedule, class offerings, start times, community involvement, graduation requirements, classroom instruction, and discipline policies all provide innovative alternatives to the traditional comprehensive high school model.

Like Quilcene School, New Vista prioritizes a healthy school culture that includes respect among students and between staff and students. All are committed to conflict resolution through problem solving and negotiation, and they apply a Restorative Justice approach to discipline with a clear view toward equity.

According to Principal Kirk Quitter, “An overarching commitment is to have equitable, respectful, and student-directed discipline procedures so that students – regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, class, disability, language, etc. – feel treated as equals in our school community.”

To accomplish this, students direct the process as they work side-by-side with faculty and staff to handle behavioral issues in a non-traditional way.

Consequence-based discipline is supportive rather than punitive. The restorative process requires students to take responsibility for their actions and understand the harm their actions may have caused. Student leaders facilitate circles with open dialogues with offenders or conflicting parties. Students, staff, administrators, and community members work collaboratively to find helpful and creative ways for students to repair the harm they have caused and to make amends.

For using discipline as an opportunity to learn, New Vista High School deserves to be called a School of Opportunity.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar foun...

Linda Molner Kelley

Linda Molner Kelley, Co-director of the Schools of Opportunity project, is the former Assistant Dean of Teacher Education and Partnerships and former Director for...