For Schools to Reform: Discipline and Structure First – Then Programs

The issue of discipline and structure is a highly sensitive one in our community given that few campuses in the Territory have been spared the ravages of violence and chronic disciplinary infractions. According to a USVI Department of Education’s St. Croix District Discipline Report issued in 2008, there were 1,232 discipline infractions among our junior high schools and 814 in our high schools during the 2007-2008 school year. Combine this with the total number of days junior high and high school students were suspended, 3187, and two things were very clear: 1) our teachers and administrators were being distracted from the business of teaching with a focus shifted from instruction to behavioral management; and 2) far too many of our students were spending too much time out of the classroom.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development confirms that programs and a rigorous curriculum alone won’t raise academic achievement, and in fact, classroom management cannot be removed from the equation when determining the effectiveness of a teacher. The data and the research show that before we can improve academics, we must first create an environment that is conducive to learning!

We learned this lesson first-hand back in 2005, at the inception of our partnership with several public schools. At first, we naively made the decision to focus our effort solely on academic-based supports. However, in light of our first tumultuous and violent year, which saw ongoing unrest and several school-wide riots at one school, we quickly recognized that not focusing on structure and student discipline was indeed shortsighted. This was reinforced by our primary stateside public school partner, Principal Truett Abbott. We were first introduced to Mr. Abbott by way of a CNN news segment about schools that were succeeding against all odds. In that interview he related how he led his students at Warren County Middle School (WCMS) in rural Georgia to staggering academic success. Mr. Abbott not only shared his successes but also spoke frankly about his challenges and the sheer will it took to turn his school around. During the first year of his reform efforts, he had to abort a comprehensive push to institute large-scale academic reforms in order to first focus on discipline and structure.

Mr. Abbott instituted policies that ensured teachers were always supervising and interacting with students beyond classroom instructional time, including before school, between classes, at lunchtime, and after school. He took aggressive steps to create a structured environment to ensure that everyone stayed on task all day, every day. Only after he had established the level of structure that he envisioned for his campus did he begin implementing comprehensive literacy-based programs. Nationally recognized success soon followed as students’ reading scores soared from the 23rd to the 88th in less than three years.

Since that time Mr. Abbott’s message has continued to ring true as structure has proven to be a critical factor in all successful reform efforts we have studied. Over the past 10 years, the Foundation has traveled with Virgin Islands stakeholders and policy makers to visit a number of model schools abroad like Robinson Elementary School in Houston and the Harlem Children’s Zone, where every aspect of the school day is consistently and uniformly structured. We’ve also witnessed structure like that right here at home when we worked with public school teachers and administrators to implement comprehensive Classroom Management Resource procedures. Watching our partner school transform from a chaotic environment with the most disciplinary infractions in the District to an organized institution of learning with the least discipline infractions was inspiring. Our Classroom Management Binder, built in concert with teachers, consisted of system-wide behavioral management policies and outlined procedures for every aspect of the school day—from how to walk between classrooms and assemble in the auditorium to how to turn in homework. It is available on the Foundation’s website for any educator or administrator.

For the Foundation, the bottom line is this: schools work best when rules are consistent from classroom to classroom as well as outside of class, such that students are not playing guessing games nor testing boundaries. Procedures have to be communicated, rehearsed, and reinforced from the very first day of school to the last, so that students know what to expect and what is expected of them—always. Dr. Harry Wong, America’s greatest guru on classroom management emphasizes in his nationally endorsed book, “First Days of School,” that teaching students procedures for even the simplest of request, like how to ask for a pencil in the middle of a class lecture, is not an insignificant detail since it typically requires many teachers to stop their lessons to deal with one student’s small request.

As the new school year begins, we encourage our policy makers and administrators to outline the specific policies they will support and enforce so that our educators and students, at every school and across classrooms, can get down to the business of teaching and learning.

Sources & Suggested Reading

 Behavior Management & Academic Performance

Teacher Resources & Models