Michaela’s best friend knows why she used to get in so much trouble at school. “Running her mouth,” said Raven Spears.
After Michaela Hines’ participation in East St. Louis District 189’s Behavior Attendance Grades program, that changed.
“When she came back, she would walk away instead of running her mouth off as usual,” Raven said to a small group, including a laughing Michaela, talking about the program.
The Behavior Attendance Grades program went district-wide last school year, says Curtese Howard-Holmes, who had been a School Improvement Grant officer but will be the ninth-grade assistant principal at East St. Louis High School in the fall. She is more apt to call it a “leadership program” because, as she tells the students, “you’re either going to be a leader in a positive way, or in a negative way.”
“Leadership” is more accurate and more acceptable to the students tapped for the program, Howard-Holmes said.
District officials said the program has cut in half the percentage of suspensions, but did not provide specifics.
The Illinois State Board of Education shows the district had 29.1 percent of its students suspended at least once in 2014 and 15.3 percent suspended more than once. Numbers prior to 2014 were not available. The average length of a suspension was three days.
In 2014, 44 students were expelled and moved to alternative placement, according to ISBE; that number was up from 33 in 2013. ISBE did not provide school years, but instead calendar years.
The Behavior Attendance Grades program was implemented at every school in the district last school year, but not every student participates. District 189 officials did not provide how many students attended the program.
Howard-Holmes said students considered for the program are given an assessment gauging, in part, how much support they had in the community. Questions included, “Do you have an adult to confide in?”
She said a student who answered positively to more than 20 of the 41 questions would be unlikely to cause problems in school. Howard-Holmes said many students accepted into the program scored five on the assessment, and teacher recommendations were also given consideration.
Before the class, Michaela said she was quick to react negatively to what others said but the class taught her to think before she would say anything.
Her father, Michael Hines, has noticed a difference at home.
“There’s been a total improvement with her, and myself also,” he said. “Instead of disciplining her all the time, (I’ve learned) to slow it down.”
The class has the potential to go far beyond the school’s walls and the schools are depending on the community to reinforce the lessons, Howard-Holmes said.
“It’s a lot of work to rebuilding the families, community and culture,” she said. Students are learning that “they can have relationships with teachers and leaders.”
Howard-Holmes said the program has some similarities to the character education programs other schools have, but it’s geared more to the climate and culture of the students and the immediate community.
“We’re trying to get into the minds of the students to change the culture of the school,” she said.
In addition to the reduced suspension numbers the administrators tout, there’s Raven and Michaela as testimonial.
Raven attended the program last year at Mason-Clark Middle School, where she and Michaela will be in eighth grade in August. Raven graduated from the program after 12 weeks and returned to an elective class.
“She didn’t think I needed to be in it,” Raven said of her teacher.
Michaela said the class has really helped her learn to think before she speaks, although the patience is still hard to practice at times. It’s also teaching her empathy, but she’s willing to go only so far. She said if faced with a student who she did not like or get along with, and the other student was being “emotional,” she has learned the importance of stopping to ask “are you OK?”
“But I’m not going to ask them to talk about it,” she said.