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Published February 06, 2013, 03:02 PM

Minnesota Schools Find Alternative to Sending Students to Principal

State education officials are training teachers to better help students understand how to behave in school and encouraging principals to come up with alternatives to suspension. It's all part of a Minnesota Department of Education initiative called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS.

By: Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio News

Often the last resort of frustrated teachers, the command "Go to the principal's office" is dreaded by students.

But Minnesota schools are trying new ways to keep students in the classroom and out of trouble.

State education officials are training teachers to better help students understand how to behave in school and encouraging principals to come up with alternatives to suspension. It's all part of a Minnesota Department of Education initiative called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS.

For a small group of sixth graders at Rice Lake Elementary School in Maple Grove, Minn., for example, an afternoon literature lesson is about more than just reading.

Teacher Kathleen Kennedy-Budge weaves the school's mantra "Respect, Learning, Responsibility" into a discussion on "Black Star, Bright Dawn." The book is about an Eskimo girl who takes her father's place in the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska.

"So let's think about respect," Kennedy-Budget said. "How did she show respect in the race to the Iditarod?"

"She didn't cheat," answered one of her students.

Throughout the day, Kennedy-Budge scatters lessons about respect in her special education classes.

Other teachers at Rice Lake Elementary also work respect and responsibility into their lessons.

Reinforcing such messages are the signs that remind students how to behave in the classroom, at lunch and on the playground — from "Keep your hands to yourself" to "Use kind words." They're plastered all over the school.

PBIS teaches students proper behavior in school before they get in trouble, said Maple Grove Jr. High Interim Principal Wendy Loberg. She trains teachers to follow the PBIS model.

"If kids don't know how to do math, we teach them. If they don't know how to read, we teach them. If they don't know how to shoot a basketball, we teach them," Loberg said. "But traditionally, if they don't know how to behave what do we do? We punish them."

The goal of PBIS is to cut down on the number of students visiting the principal's office.

Launched by the state Department of Education in 2005, the program accepts only a few dozen schools each year. So far, 366 of the state's nearly 2,000 schools have signed on. To join the initiative, 80 percent of a school's teachers and staff need to agree to implement a more positive approach to discipline.

Rice Lake Elementary School has been in the program for two years, and Principal Mark French said he's already seen improvement.

"At this time last year I had six suspensions," French said. "This year at this time one."

Other schools in the program report similar changes.

The St. Paul school district saw disciplinary incidents drop by 700, or 14 percent, over a two-year period, from 4,830 in 2008-2009 to 4,130 in 2011-2012.

Officials in the Bloomington school district reported a 42-percent decline in suspensions last year compared to four years before.

In part, the decline stems from principals using better judgment about when suspensions are necessary, and when it's better to keep students in school, said Joe Meuwissen, the district's psychologist.

"We used to be very absolute," he said. "It was zero tolerance for certain kinds of behaviors, and I think we've realized that was overkill."

Increasingly, students who need to be removed from class for disciplinary reasons are placed in in-school suspension, where they're still expected to keep up with their school work, Meuwissen said.

"It's a consequence for the behavior, but yet they continue to receive direct instruction in whatever the subject matter might be," he said. "So they're not missing instruction."

Minnesota's efforts at more positive school discipline have caught the attention of those concerned about the number of students of color who are suspended.

The Minnesota Minority Education Partnership released a report in 2008 showing that African American students, while only a quarter of student enrollment in Hennepin County, made up 63 percent of suspensions.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, the partnership’s executive director, applauds the effort to reduce suspensions statewide. But Mariani, a DFL-St. Paul, said educators need to concentrate specifically on reducing suspensions among students of color.

"Targeted mandates to lower the rates of suspension and to really quantify that, who chairs a House committee on education. "To just set a certain level, that is not acceptable."

State education officials say the PBIS initiative is intended to reduce suspensions among all students, not target students of color.

But they say it helps schools better track data on which students are being suspended, and that could help schools develop plans to make discipline more equitable.

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