Austin Achieve: Breaking the disciplinary mold

This blog is the fifth in a series about how organizations across Central Texas are working to help improve graduation rates for low-income students. Among all Texas metros, Austin’s low-income students have the lowest post-secondary outcomes – only eight percent of low-income students obtain a college degree. We know that a higher education degree is a pathway out of poverty, so our partners in Austin are creating new models to address the complex combination of challenges that students face on their journey to a degree. This blog series will feature student stories and share the new models our partners are using to create pathways to success for students. Read the whole series here.

Meet Kam’bria, a current student of Austin Achieve Public Schools (AAPS) in her junior year. Three years ago, Kam’bria became part of a cohort of scholar-mentors, called the Student Ambassadors. As part of this small group of leaders, Kam’bria works to ensure AAPS scholars are never suspended or expelled from school. Student Ambassadors are integral to Austin Achieve’s Restorative Justice Center where, instead of serving at-home suspensions or being processed through a punitive system, students work with teachers, our social work team and scholar ambassadors to pinpoint what went wrong, reflect on their actions and focus on the big picture. Ambassadors like Kam’bria help their peers take ownership of her actions so they can gain re-entry into the traditional school setting and continue their progress toward high school graduation and college.

Meeting students where they are

At AAPS, our goal is to break the cycle of failing schools, unemployment, and poverty that has inhibited East Austin from capitalizing on the vibrant growth our city has experienced over the past decade. Our role in disrupting this pattern is to provide residents of East Austin with one of the cornerstones of a successful community: quality education options. However, even if with top teaching talent and state-of-the-art tools and facilities, our efforts are wasted if we aren’t keeping kids in school and engaging them in meaningful ways for the better part of their day. That is why AAPS has adopted a zero-suspension policy which is backed by a comprehensive restorative program.

It’s easy to assume that students who are suspended have behaved in a way that merits removal from school to mitigate harm to themselves and other students. This is not always the case. In many schools, children are suspended for a variety of offenses including minor student code of conduct violations. These behavioral issues are deeply rooted in academic performance and success. Statistics show that low academic achievement rates can result in higher instances of behavioral problems in the classroom, which in turn lead to suspensions, further exacerbating students’ ability to elevate their academic standing.

Through our restorative practice initiatives and the Restorative Justice Center (RJC), an onsite blended learning alternative classroom, students who would otherwise be suspended for disciplinary issues receive one-on-one academic support and mental health services. Additionally, students work with peer ambassadors to develop reflective proposals for transition back into the traditional classroom, empowering students to take responsibility for and own their decisions and behavior. We’re fighting alongside students for their futures, and so far, it’s working. During the 2016-17 school year, only four percent of students who were enrolled in the RJC had to return after completing the program. During that same time, the cumulative percent change in GPA from RJC entry to exit was up by six percent.

Adoption of this new model required staff, scholars and families to shift their mindsets about how we handle behavioral issues. This shift has had surprising campus-wide effects that extend beyond those scholars directly enrolled in the RJC. But it’s not enough to intervene once problems arise. Currently, 6th grade scholars arrive at Austin Achieve an average of three grade levels behind in reading, which affects academic performance across all subject areas. As we said earlier, poor academic performance can set into motion a domino effect that can derail students’ track to graduation.

In an effort to reach more students and set them up for success from the outset, AAPS is expanding our restorative practices and opening an elementary program in August. We are set to reach an additional 1,050 children, getting us one step closer to achieving our goal of providing pathways to prosperity for low-income families through quality school options.