Appearing in the Democrat & Chronicle
Rosemary Rivera & Mercedes Phelan, Guest Essayists
With controversies claiming most of the headlines, it’s easy to overlook successes in the Rochester City School District. Last month, the Children’s Agenda, in collaboration with Citizen Action and the Alliance for Quality Education, released a major report on the impact of our school climate work on academic performance. The recommendations presented in this report offer a clear path forward for a district in crisis.
When faced with a deteriorating school climate, members of our community stepped up and formed a task force that led to major reforms in the district, including a new code of conduct, restorative justice training in over 20 schools, the establishment of Help Zones for students, and the Victorious Minds Academy anti-racism initiative.
It’s no coincidence that Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino lifted up school climate as one of the key success stories in the district. Community leaders worked collaboratively with the district for years to achieve and implement these reforms.
What we didn’t anticipate was the significant impact these reforms would have on academics. After passing the new code of conduct in 2016, there were 3,032 fewer suspensions in the district—a 27 percent drop. During that same period, course failures decreased by 28 percent among suspended students, with the biggest improvement among students who were suspended for ten days or more.
It’s not hard to understand how being removed from the classroom for a week or more can disrupt a student’s education. Even after returning, it can be difficult for students to get back on track.
We have an opportunity to build on strength and turn our schools into the joyful spaces we know they can be. That starts with building strong, healthy relationships in the school community, which is why we need a district-wide implementation of restorative practices and increased staffing for the Roc Restorative Team.
This doesn’t mean eliminating suspensions outright, but instead emphasizing alternatives that aim to repair and reduce harm caused to students, parents, and teachers.
We also need to ban suspensions for K-2 students and cap long-term suspensions at 20 days. Suspending young learners hurts their development and sets them up to struggle as they move up to the next grade.
Lastly, we must adopt the recommendations made by the School Climate Advisory Committee, which were presented to the board of education in the fall.
Change won’t happen overnight. But creating supportive learning spaces that recognize the long-term effects of poverty, trauma, and racism can go a long way toward transforming our district.
Rosemary Rivera is co-executive director and Mercedes Phelan is Rochester lead organizer of Citizen Action of New York.