Schools Hope Changes in Policy Will Bridge the ‘Discipline Gap’

U.S. News

“Welcome to the pride of the city, Peoria High School,” the answering machine message in Principal Brett Elliott’s office says.

It’s not only a play on the school’s nickname, the Lions, but a constant reminder to Elliott of where the school has been, where it is now and where it is going.

In 2009, Peoria High’s students scored among the worst in Illinois on standardized reading, math and science exams. Kids were suspended and expelled by the dozens, a trend seen across the country.

Now, though, the school is the fastest-improving one in the city. And changing the way they handle discipline, not just boosting academics, may be the key to their success.

Two years after Peoria High was forced to apply for a federal School Improvement Grant and completely turn over its administration. The superintendent tapped the Elliott, now 43, who never applied for the job and was working as an assistant principal at a nearby middle school, to lead the turnaround.

Elliott’s first goal was to change the punitive culture at the school and create an atmosphere for learning and cooperation. Discipline policies weren’t working – there was no trust between staff and students, leading to high numbers of referrals to law enforcement and out-of-school suspensions, especially for minority students, Elliott said. Looking for alternatives, Elliott first enrolled his staff in the Why Try Program to help teachers build positive, meaningful relationships with students. Soon after, they started applying what they learned...

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