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Metro Nashville Schools kicks off school discipline reform, hopes to be model for state, nation

Tracy Bruno, a middle school principal in Nashville, leads a group discussion on school discipline as part of a new initiative to address racism in Metro Nashville Schools.
Tracy Bruno, a middle school principal in Nashville, leads a group discussion on school discipline as part of a new initiative to address racism in Metro Nashville Schools.
G. Tatter

District officials, educators, and community members came together today in Nashville to kick off an initiative aimed at reducing racial disparities in school discipline. Their ambitions were not merely local.

District leaders and the national organizations backing the initiative, called PASSAGE, hope Nashville can help Tennessee and the nation change a status quo that President Barack Obama has called unacceptable. Across the country, students of color are suspended and expelled at a far higher rate than white students.

The same is true in Nashville. Nearly 70 percent of students expelled in the district in 2011-2012 were black, even though black students made up only 45 percent of the student population.

PASSAGE, which stands for Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity, aims to harness educators’ and community members’ insights to understand and reduce those disparities. The Atlantic Philanthropies and Annenberg Center for School Reform at Brown University are organizing the initiative, which includes Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City in addition to Nashville.

At the kickoff meeting, Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register said the district was chosen because of its capacity for improvement. Last year, Nashville began using data about absences, academic performance, and misbehavior to refer middle schoolers who would be likely candidates for suspensions to social workers instead. The district had 300 fewer middle school expulsions, while the number of expulsions in other schools rose.

“For areas to which we’re paying attention, that we’re leveraging effort and resources, we’re seeing positive outcomes,” said Tony Majors, the district’s director of support services.

Majors said changing the way students are disciplined is an obvious strategy in the district’s push for academic improvement. He noted that not a single elementary school student who had received in-school suspension in Nashville last year achieved proficiency on the TCAP, the state’s standardized tests.

Over the next two years, the steering committee will come up with a model for addressing school discipline that tries to both prevent behavioral infractions from occurring by pairing students with more support services, as well as making sure disciplinary responses are fair when infractions do occur. The district will be sharing their findings with the other cities in PASSAGE. If successful, the Annenberg Institute, which districts from across the country consult about education reform, will promote the models the cities come up with over the coming months.

Despite the reforms Nashville has already undertaken, there’s more to be done, said keynote speaker Allison Brown said. Brown is a former civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and a leader of the school discipline reform movement.

“I don’t usually get to address folks who have done it right,” Brown said. But, she continued, “I want you to push yourselves.”

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