Reflections on Anne Arundel County Public Schools' Supportive School Discipline Reform Journey

Dr. Shawn Ashworth has served in Anne Arundel County for more than 15 years as a school counselor, assistant principal, and pupil personnel worker; as Special Assistant for Discipline, Principal of Arundel Middle School and J. Albert Adams Academy, and Senior Manager of Discipline & Disproportionality in the Office of Equity and Human Relations. Dr. Ashworth currently works in the Office of Safe and Orderly Schools as a program specialist for discipline.  In her role as a program specialist, Shawn served on an expert panel with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and facilitated a youth panel on school-based disciplinary practices. Dr. Ashworth is the proud mother of Brandon and Taylor Ashworth. 


Q: What prompted your district to embark upon its current reform journey?

A: Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) began its reform back in academic year 2004–2005 because of a memorandum of agreement that was generated as a result of the Anne Arundel County Chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), community faith-based organizations, and community stakeholders bringing a lawsuit against AACPS for inequitable outcomes for African American students in the areas of special education, discipline, and enrollment in advanced coursework. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) became involved and, as a result, instead of a lawsuit a memorandum of agreement (MOA) was developed.

Q: What is your district/school doing to improve school climate and what was the motivation for taking this approach?

A: We began to operate under the lenses of structures, practices, leadership, and culture. Schools were asked to develop school improvement plans that addressed how schools would meet goals related to academic achievement, community engagement, and ensuring a safe school. Districtwide and school-based professional development also focused on these areas.

Q: Who are the key partners involved and how did you bring them to the table?

A: Many stakeholders were involved. Community forums were initiated two times a year as a part of the OCR MOA. These forums served as an opportunity to inform and educate community stakeholders and families on how the district was doing in the areas of academic achievement, community engagement, and ensuring safe school environments. It was also an opportunity to get community members’ buy-in to new programs and initiatives. School communities created partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club, community- and faith-based organizations, the health department, consultants, and fraternities and sororities.

We reviewed data from all of the schools in the county and assessed them according to the county’s indicators of success. Based on data, schools were identified as needing support.

We developed what we call “critical features” for each indicator for schools to use as guides to assess their progress on the indicator. The school board voted to include five early dismissal days on the academic calendar so that laser-focused professional development could be implemented in every building on the same day at the same time throughout the district. In addition, professional development was developed and implemented in specific schools based on data-driven needs. We identified some schools as needing assistance in the academic areas (instruction and execution of program initiatives), and other schools as needing assistance with creating equitable practices in school discipline and decision making as it relates to alternatives to suspension options. District leadership brought in consultants to work with clusters of schools on practices related to leadership, culture, classroom management, and working with African American and Latino boys.

Restorative practices and community conferencing trainings were conducted and implemented and piloted in identified schools. The district also brought in national experts for consultation and speaking engagements. Our educators went to New York to attend a conference hosted by Dr. Pedro Noguera, a highly respected researcher and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University. They also participated in school visits to observe specialized reading programs in action. Educators also attended other conferences that focused on strategies and best practices for addressing equity, discipline, and working with underrepresented student groups.

Q: What were the most important planning, development, and initial implementation steps?

A: District- and site-level leaders conducted an analysis of school data based on the county’s indicators of success and other school-specific data, and developed a rubric for identifying schools in need of improvement. Support teams were established. Support teams include central office staff, curriculum specialists, coordinators, and teacher specialists, representing different departments within the system. We also sought outside partners to collaborate with in our efforts to establish multitiered systems of support.

Monthly Executive Oversight Committee meetings were held with principals, which provided opportunities to review status of improvement, challenges, and continued need for support. The district created an early warning system that now requires schools to identify students who are at risk for failure based on attendance, GPA, and discipline referrals. Schools are then asked to develop structures and identify practices and programs that they will initiate to address students who are struggling in these areas. Schools must identify this group of students by October 30 of each school year.

Q: What trainings were necessary for specific stakeholder groups?

A: District leadership provided professional development focused on topics such as: how to analyze data; using a laser-focused approach and effectively using data to make school-based decisions to ensure growth and achievement; successfully implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Framework (PBIS); how to create and implement effective multitiered systems of support to address students identified in the green, yellow, and red zones, building teacher capacity for effective classroom management; use of differentiated instruction, teacher collaboration (e.g., common planning opportunities), and other training related to locally selected curricula and districtwide initiatives.

Q: What strategies are you implementing to change the mindset of adults, students, and families?

A: The focus for changing the mindsets of all stakeholders has been one that looks at being more preventive as opposed to reactive. Beginning with our student code of conduct, the focus is on being restorative in nature by creating and identifying more opportunities for schools to look at alternatives to suspension and opportunities for students to demonstrate success.

Carol Dweck’s book continues to be a resource for helping all stakeholders understand the difference between a fixed and growth mindset, and how that looks in planning for learning, teaching for learning, and assessing for learning in improving student achievement and creating a positive school culture. There is a focus on changing the language, for example, not accepting, “I can’t”, but focusing on “not yet.” In addition, we created Room 203s (taken from the movie “Freedom Writers”).  Students are encouraged and placed in advanced coursework with support, and parents are encouraged to support school initiatives through Parent University programs at schools.

Q: Are there indicators of success and what data points do you use to measure progress?

A: Yes. The district established goals for referrals and suspensions for all student subgroups at the secondary level, specifically:

  • Eighty percent of all secondary students in each student group will receive fewer than two referrals;
  • Ninety percent of all secondary students in each student group will receive fewer than six referrals; and,
  • Ninety percent of all secondary students in each student group will not be suspended from school.

Q: What are the key obstacles to establishing long-term change? Strategies to address them?

A: Changing teachers’ mindsets to handle discipline in a more proactive manner is a difficult process. Some teachers perceive our new code of conduct as a watered-down document that allows students to misbehave. Funding is needed to address the need for additional support in staffing in buildings that have been identified as a “school in need.” Schools have to repurpose staff, which means something else is taken away. Data show success in some schools; however, as a district, we still are disproportionate among our student groups, specifically among African Americans, special education students, and low socioeconomic students. Overall, however, discipline referrals are down. Again, we are using an Executive Oversight Committee structure to address schools struggling to meet District Strategic Plan indicators.

Overall, we are learning to be more collaborative, and have the collective intentions to make sure that all departments and offices in the district work together, seeing the value in the individual departments, and more importantly the value and benefit of everyone coming together to tackle the tasks of raising achievement for all student groups, providing a safe, positive school environment, creating positive school cultures, and decreasing the need for school discipline, recidivism, and out-of-school suspensions.

Q: What are the major lessons learned thus far (i.e., if you knew then what you know now)?

Do you have any other advice for those who are about to embark upon similar journeys?

A: Initially the district did not do a good job in “laser-focusing” our collective efforts to address specific needs of student groups. We also struggled with the “how” to address the massive issue of inequity among student groups. We have done a better job in drilling down into the data. It is not just about numbers, but putting faces with numbers and drilling down into the necessary supports based on student group, gender, poverty, etc.: Knowing how to use the data to make effective and impactful decisions for ensuring improvement. Providing the time for teachers to learn and practice strategies for working with underperforming students. Developing teachers’ capacities and students’ motivation, effort, and ability to perform with change in mind. Most importantly of all practicing consistency and accountability.



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