This is a guest post by Douglass Lobo, who asked readers to “note that this article contains my personal thoughts and impressions as a citizen and an educator, and is not reflective of the official position of the school board of Miami-Dade, Florida.”
The 2015–2016 academic year in Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) ushered in many changes, and perhaps none bigger or having more impact than the groundbreaking announcement by Alberto Carvalho, the charismatic superintendent of M-DCPs, that his district, the fourth largest in the nation, would no longer utilize outdoor suspension as a form of progressive discipline.
Many did not necessarily agree with the decision to implement this intervention in one fell swoop. Several individuals would rather have seen this policy phased in over several years by reducing the number of suspensions over a three-year period, in order to eventually arrive at zero-level suspensions, while at the same time introducing new supports to aid in this paradigm shift.
In hindsight, those questioning the superintendent’s decision now have to admit that it sent a clear and unequivocal message to all stakeholders: there was going to be a new way of doing business in Miami-Dade County, and keeping students in school through aggressive attendance monitoring and interventions, along with a zero-outdoor suspension policy, was the new landscape in M-DCPS.
In his many years as M-DCPS superintendent, Mr. Carvalho has moved the district from being one that was in disarray to being one that is the envy of many in the country. He has done this by being bold, decisive, and ahead of the curve. I think it is fair to say that he has become one of the foremost leaders of school district innovation. In terms of addressing school attendance, and especially how it relates to outdoor suspensions, he has become the trendsetter. It would be easy to criticize this decision as moving too fast; however, after having worked in the zero-suspension environment for almost a full academic year, I can speak to the benefits of this policy.
Perhaps the greatest benefit has been the way it has pushed teachers and administrators to be more creative with their strategies and interventions as they looked for more engaging ways to teach and to support students’ learning, as opposed to merely imposing and administering punishment or discipline.
While this has not been an easy process, it has been a worthwhile one. The new and creative strategies that I have seen are too numerous to list; however, perhaps the most promising artifact of this new policy that I have personally witnessed is the more connected relationships between students and teachers.
I have seen many examples of teachers becoming more connected with their students and forming those caring and positive relationships with students that, in turn, has allowed them to understand them better, to be more patient and tolerant, and ultimately to be more effective—not only with challenging students, but with all students.
You are probably wondering what M-DCPS does with those students who just aren’t amenable to all of these new and creative interventions and strategies.
The district has created multiple Student Success Centers. These are school centers staffed by M-DCPS teachers, administrators, counselors, and social workers that provide ongoing education, counseling, and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Students are referred to these centers for a time-limited period. While there, they receive their daily instruction, attend counseling sessions, and are taught SEL skills, especially focusing on the reasons (anger, problem-solving, decision-making, healthy relationships, judgment and other areas) for them being referred to the Student Success Center. Coordination between the Student Success Centers and the referring schools is an important aspect in order for the student to successfully transition and return to their schools.
While our Student Success Centers are an integral part of the zero-outdoor-suspension policy, they are not the most critical facet. The most important element in this policy, which may or may not have been intentional, is certainly without question the creativity that it has promoted and the recognition (reawakening) by many of our educators of the power of the positive student-teacher relationship. One person really can make a difference.
Please don’t assume that M-DCPS has it all figured out—we don’t. We struggle . . . we shake our collective heads . . . but in the end, I think we all realize that suspending students is not the answer, and really, it never has been. In actuality it is a short-sighted approach that has led to many long-term issues that currently plague our nation.
We are currently looking at ways to expand the capacity and knowledge-base of our staff in terms of trauma-informed care, emotional intelligence, and Social and Emotional Learning through workshops, professional development, and support/discussion groups. This type of information and training will make our staff more knowledgeable and skilled in dealing with all students. In conjunction with this staff approach, we are also working with our students to build their social skills and emotional intelligence. We are extremely hopeful that this two-pronged strategy will lead to more positive school climates and a chance for even greater student learning for all.
Doug Lobo is a licensed mental health professional and doctoral candidate with extensive experience in the mental health and educational field. He currently works in an administrative capacity within Miami-Dade County Public Schools.