With several programs in place addressing school climate, the Berkeley Unified School District had no expulsions and significantly fewer suspensions last year.
The suspension rate of middle and high schools in the district decreased from 12 percent in the 2011-12 school year to 4 percent in the past school year, according to a Berkeley Unified School District report this semester. Over that same period, Berkeley High School improved its suspension rate from 10 percent to two percent.
District officials took the numbers as a sign of success for programs such as the Vision 2020 initiative and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
“There has been an unusual collaboration between the school district, the city of Berkeley and other organizations,” said Susan Craig, the Berkeley Unified School District director of student services.
The percentage specific to African American students, who Craig said have accounted for a disproportionate amount of suspensions, decreased from 28 percent in the 2011-12 year to 13 percent in the 2015-16 year and from 21 percent to only 5 percent at Berkeley High in that time.
Mimi Pulich, member of the Parent Advisory Committee to the LCAP, said a decrease in the number of suspensions provides evidence for a good school climate, which the state considers when providing funds within LCAP.
Berkeley Unified School District and other organizations are working on programs that explore alternatives to suspending students, such as behavioral support and counselling.
Craig believes that those measures can change actual student behavior. She said suspension does not teach students different behavior, while alternative methods provide them with tools to handle conflict.
“It’s a huge change in practice and it’s … much better for the students and staff,” Craig said.
Craig and Pulich emphasized the particular impact of the Restorative Justice program, which facilitates conflict resolution in group discussions. Every middle school in the district as well as Berkeley High School has its own restorative justice counselor, Craig said.
Other than conflict resolution, other programs in place address alcohol and drug use, making positive life choices, building self-esteem and healthy relationships.
Pulich emphasizes efforts to engage students’ families in the process. Family engagement coordinators will call parents if their child is repeatedly absent, and counselors will interact with English learners and talk to their parents.
Since 2008, Berkeley Unified School District and the city of Berkeley have worked together on the Vision 2020 initiative, which aims to end disparities in academic achievement and has also helped to decrease the suspension rates, Craig said.
“The goal goes beyond the numbers,” Pulich said, “I think that from the parent perspective, we are not looking at the numbers as much as we’re looking at the programs.”