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Paul Knox Middle Using Consistent Messaging, Restorative Framework to Reduce Referrals and Build School Culture

Paul Knox Middle School Principal Dr. Jason Holt says a collaborative effort on the part of faculty, staff and students to implement a school-wide goal of consistent messaging and the application of a restorative lens to school discipline has improved school culture and driven down daily discipline referrals.

A comparison of daily school discipline referrals (commonly called “write-ups” for student misbehavior) at Paul Knox Middle School (PKMS) between September of the 2017-18 school year and September of the current 2018-19 school year shows a stark difference. The school generated 7.48 discipline referrals per day in September of the 2017-18 school year, and just 2.40 discipline referrals per day through the same time during the current school year.

Dr. Holt is a member of the District and community team that annually reviews disciplinary data in a district-wide commitment to rehabilitative disciplinary practices and a framework for disciplinary consequences that creates more consistency in implementation. Holt and members of his leadership team at Paul Knox gave a presentation on their experience to members of the Aiken County Board of Education during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

“This has not been an overnight result by any means, but there is definitely a different feeling in the building now,” stated Holt. “We knew as a school community that we could do more to help students change their behavior and we knew that we had to try something different. It has been an organic process, while maintaining and supporting the integrity of the District code of conduct.”

Those different approaches have included consistent, highly visible messaging throughout the entire school highlighting student expectations at Paul Knox Middle; and an approach to discipline through a restorative rather than punitive lens. The posters in every hallway and classroom allow teachers across grade levels to be in alignment with their colleague across the hall, and the students in their classrooms. When students change classes, they receive the same messaging and reinforcement in the next classroom. Meanwhile, students who have broken classroom rules, are allowed, with teacher approval, to present projects and speak about their offenses in a group setting, or participate in a group mediation in exchange for removal of a portion of their suspension from the classroom.

This approach reduces the amount of time the student is not receiving direct instruction, and allows offending students who participate in the program the opportunity to be received openly and genuinely by teachers and their peers back into the school community with no lingering stigma or shame.

Last year, Holt presented his ideas on messaging and discipline to the school’s Leadership Team and teachers at all three grade levels. Students were also included, and encouraged to share their thoughts.

“Nothing happens in a bubble here,” he says. “We strive to be open and transparent in our processes.”

Still, some were skeptical. Christine Liner is an Aiken County Lead Teacher at Paul Knox Middle School, and she counted herself among those who doubted that the changes in the approach to discipline at the school could work and would work – until she saw them working right in front of her.

She watched a student who had previously been disruptive and who had received numerous referrals give a presentation in front of the school’s teachers on the importance of not using foul language. The student received immediate positive feedback from the teachers and has not received an additional referral since. 

“One thing I have seen over the last year that has changed my feelings and opinion in reference to the restorative justice efforts at Paul Knox Middle is that students still receive the consequences, but instead of stopping there, the additional restorative piece is also reducing the number of repeat offenders for the same incident,” Liner stated. “When I started seeing things like that happening, it really changed my mind on the approach we were taking and convinced me that we were on the right track.”

Holt is quick to point out that not every student takes, or is even offered, a restorative path. It remains a choice for them, but it is a choice they receive with the support of their teachers. Teacher authority in the classroom is an important part of the great things taking place at Paul Knox Middle. If a student’s offense is such that a teacher feels the full disciplinary range of the District’s code of conduct is valid and necessary in that situation, it is certainly available and has been utilized. At Paul Knox, just as in all Aiken County schools, disciplinary consequences apply to all students and no single student is exempt. From the newest sixth-grader, to a special needs student, and the eighth-grade student preparing to leave Paul Knox Middle for high school, expectations are clear and consistent.

However, before a student ever reaches that point, as they walk down each school hallway they are reminded of exactly who they are and what is expected of them as a Paul Knox Middle School student. The huge signs are everywhere. They list the student attributes of a Paul Knox Middle student as they relate to academics, behavior, and communication, and when a student performs contrary to one of the attributes, their teacher immediately refers to the student attributes hanging on the wall in class.

Paul Knox Middle School sixth-grade teacher Laura Lusk says the consistent messaging and constant reinforcement of the student attributes across all grade levels has been a game-changer.

“A lot of it has been the consistency across the board,” Lusk stated. “This year we really made it very clear for students what we expected of them. We made it clear to teachers that they had to hold students accountable as well.”

“There is a unity across the board and all of us are on the same page on how things are supposed to be handled, on anything from missing assignments to discipline and behaviors,” Lusk added. “We didn’t just introduce all of these things at the beginning of the year and then move on. We talk about it all the time and incorporate the student attributes into everything we do in the classroom.”

Students, who also have key focus areas at each grade level such as Organization (6th Grade), Community and Citizenship (7th Grade), and Collaboration and Advocacy (8th Grade), agree the attributes are important discussion points and learning opportunities.

“Behavior and being respectful is very important,” commented PKMS seventh-grader Genny Beavers. “Some people may not think it is important to be respectful, but it is the most important thing (on the list of student attributes). If you have that, your communication with your teacher will be better and your grades will be better too. Behavior really wraps all these things together.”

Beavers’ classmate, seventh-grader Chance Price, says communication is essential.

“I think communication is most important because we work together with one another a good bit and you can make friends and you have fewer problems,” Chance added.

No matter which individual attribute each student gravitates toward, they are aware of the importance of all of them, and that is helping keep classroom time focused on instruction rather than disruptions.

For seventh-grade social studies teacher Katie Brown, the awareness the students have, combined with consistent reinforcement has led to a smoother teaching and learning experience at Paul Knox Middle.

“It is a lot easier with the signs in every classroom to have individual conversations with students who are not acting as they should about how they can be a better student,” stated Brown. “I have seen fewer repeat instances of those types of behaviors once you point it out to them. Students are face to face with the attributes and their grade-level focus every single day. Teachers refer to them all the time and the students see how we are trying to make it a better place for them.”

For additional facts and information related to discipline and disciplinary data in Aiken County Public Schools, click HERE.