When Jonathan Brice was hired to tackle school discipline reform in the Baltimore public schools in 2008, about one in five students was being suspended out of school in the 85,000-student district each year.
Brice, fresh off a stint in Jacksonville, Fla., where he also oversaw discipline districtwide, rolled up his sleeves and got to it.
“It was: ‘Walk in. Let’s get to work,’ ” Brice says of his early days of work in Baltimore, where he had grown up and attended school.
And so he did.
The vision for overhauling the way students were disciplined—out-of-school-suspensions were contributing to the district’s dropout rate and undermining students’ academic achievement—was that of the district’s nationally known schools chief, Andrés A. Alonso. But it was Brice who was tasked with turning vision into reality.
The community was ready for a change, says Brice, 44, but not everyone in the school district was. He and Alonso hoped revamping the district’s code of conduct would be a major driver for cutting out-of-school suspensions.
“What was difficult was getting our principals and staff to understand that changing the code of conduct did not mean we were not going to hold students accountable,” Brice says. Part of his work was to convince school-based leaders that they could maintain safe, orderly environments while also keeping students in school who traditionally would have been suspended.
What we did well was change the conversation. The conversation wasn’t about suspensions. It was, ‘What are the alternatives?’ Reducing suspensions keeps more kids in school and actually leads to more student learning.
So he and others in the district reworked the code of conduct to give Baltimore principals alternatives to suspension. Now, before resorting to out-of-school suspension as punishment for both minor and major offenses, principals can and must take intermediate steps.
“What was critical to the work that we did was identifying alternatives to suspension,” Brice says.
Parent conferences, mediation, referral to a student-support team, development of behavioral-intervention plans, or use of “restorative justice” solutions are among the options principals now have available to them. At the same time, the code of conduct makes clear to school administrators that students who commit the most serious offenses won’t be just slapped on the wrist and allowed to stay in school.
“Students have maybe participated in a fight, attacked another student or staff member, brought a weapon to school—we had to be very clear: We will not allow those [behaviors] to go on without removal,” Brice says. But, because of work by Brice and others, even those students aren’t just kicked out of class.
“We developed learning environments to put those students in, instead of just putting them on the street,” Brice says.
One of those alternative learning environments is called Success Academy, which Brice says he spent just 90 days creating from scratch.
“That’s how we spent our summer,” says Brice of how he and other staff members set up the school in the days leading up to the 2008-09 school year.
Based at district headquarters, Success Academy is an alternative setting for the most serious offenders. In the past, such students would have been sent home with some schoolwork, which they may or may not have done. Success Academy provides a full day of instruction, wraparound services, counseling, and a place where students can keep from getting into more trouble.
“The time lost would have been detrimental to students. It would have meant that students are sitting at home,” Brice says. “They clearly need consequences, yet what you don’t want to do is deny them an opportunity to learn how to conduct themselves differently.”
The district’s chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, labels Brice’s work “instrumental” in revamping student discipline and expanding alternatives for students who break rules.
“He really believes, as does [Alonso], there are kids that make bad decisions all the time, and as a school community, those are teachable moments,” Edwards says.
“We were signaling through our actions that we didn’t want the kids in our school; they were behaving accordingly. Expanding the services available to kids who were struggling, who were making bad decisions, who weren’t fitting in—Jonathan was a real advocate for making sure the district had services in traditional schools and outside that could meet the needs of our kids,” Edwards adds.
Brice has since been promoted to head the office of school support networks, a position he’s had for about a year and a half. He recently earned a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s urban-superintendents program. He also holds two master’s degrees and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Baltimore.
“Working for the students and families of Baltimore I think is one of the professional dreams of a lifetime,” Brice says. Since his work began, the rate of out-of-school suspensions has dropped to one in eight students. Meanwhile, the district’s dropout rate has fallen from 7.9 percent in 2008 to 4.2 percent in 2011, state education records show. In his new role, Brice continues to oversee student discipline, among other responsibilities.
“Our children have tremendous potential,” he says. “The sense of urgency that we’ve brought to the work, the amount of change we’ve been able to implement, to grow over these five years is something that really signals to me what can be done if you build a great team, hold high expectations, and are not willing to be passive in the work.”