When Lorenzo Russell walked into West Garfield Park’s Ryerson Elementary School in 2007, the impeccably dressed, soft-spoken man got a sinking feeling. The walls were pale beige and had no bulletin boards. The hallways were noisy and chaotic. Stretched across one wall were old class pictures in wood frames, many showing boys with bowl cuts and girls with blond ponytails. The pictures were an obvious disconnect from the students—most of them black, save for one or two Latinos.

Those were the surface impressions. When he sat down to look at the data, Russell was struck by deeper problems. Most other elementary schools were making academic gains, but Ryerson was not. Just 40 percent of the students met or exceeded state academic standards. Russell found another sign of dysfunction: The former principal had suspended and expelled black boys at three times the district average.

So Russell set two goals: “To offer a good education and to eliminate the extra drama of the fighting and the stealing and the behavior issues.”

Elementary principals, in particular, have received little guidance on how to reverse the trend of tough discipline. In 2006, the district scrapped zero tolerance and shifted toward support of restorative justice, a strategy that relies on teaching students what they did wrong and how they should make amends for misbehavior. But restorative justice—to the degree that it is being used at all—is found mainly in high schools.

For elementary schools, district administrators have said they want to bring in more social and emotional programs to help students improve their behavior. But so far, these programs are mostly pilot initiatives.

Even savvy principals have found that lowering suspensions is a complex, difficult task that entails balancing the need for order against the desire to help children who may be acting out because they are hurt or frustrated.

Russell has had some success on this front by improving the school environment and prodding teachers to change their mindset about how they relate to students. Suspensions of African-American boys at Ryerson have declined about 20 percent.

Russell’s main experiment—and the focus of his doctoral dissertation—is taking place on the third floor at Ryerson. Here, Yvonne German’s 6th-graders are going over their morning essay. The twist: The class is all boys. Russell believes that boys tend to act out more as they get to middle school, and is betting that giving them a place all their own, where they don’t have to impress girls, might help curb misbehavior.

Initially, Russell wanted a male teacher for the class, preferably a black male whom the boys could identify with and look up to. But staffing issues made that impossible, and Russell concluded that as long as other black men—including himself and his assistant principal—were around to serve as positive role models, a good woman teacher could do the job. Cultural understanding, Russell says, is more important than a teacher’s race or gender.

So he approached German to take on the class, thinking that her personal style—she’s a hyperactive woman, half-drill sergeant and half-cheerleader, and the mother of a teenage boy—would be a good fit. On this spring day, Russell’s hypothesis appears to be on the mark.

“Captains, you have nine seconds to collect the papers,” German’s voice rings loudly, above the din of scraping chair legs and boys shifting in their seats. She directs the lesson along swiftly, in seconds rather than minutes, to keep the boys engaged and give them little or no time to misbehave. Research has shown that boys tend to learn better in fast-paced, dynamic classrooms.

German has also set up pods, groups of four to five students led by a “captain” who is responsible for collecting papers, choosing a group member to answer questions out loud and making sure that everyone stays on task. The pods compete against each other for points, and the winners periodically get rewards, like pizza parties or field trips. The strategy picks up on other research that shows giving boys leadership roles and having them monitor each other is a good tactic for learning.

German tried the setup at the beginning of the year, but the boys were too excitable to sit closely together. By mid-year, they had gotten used to her and to each other and had calmed down. “I tried it again and it is working beautifully,” German says.

Today, the captains pass out magazines and German asks the class to look at an article. “What do you think this article is about? What is the skill we are learning this week?” she asks, ignoring any twisting and turning in the seats. “We are learning how to make predictions.”

When two girls walk in to deliver a note to German, the boys move around more and talk. German rolls her eyes and responds swiftly. “The minute girls walk into the room, you get off track,” she says. “Now come on. I want to hear some predictions. Group One, impress me.”

“Impress me, don’t depress me,” is German’s motto. At the suggestion of an article that Russell gave her, she first tried using a commonly heard phrase, “Man up,” but scrapped it—it didn’t sound quite right coming from a woman. She relies on male staff in other areas. The gym teacher talks weekly to the class, and a male counselor recently held a series of sessions on becoming a man.

Children in 6th grade are normally at all stages of development, and this is especially true in German’s class because four of the boys have been retained. One of them, Arthur, is stocky and tall, and looks awkward as he tries to stretch his legs underneath the squat student desk. German says she has seen positive changes in him. Last year he was suspended three times, but this year, he doesn’t get angry as quickly and is more willing to participate in class.

Although German has not had specific training on teaching boys, Russell sent her to a conference on differentiated instruction, figuring that it would help her come up with ideas for teaching boys at a wide range of skill levels. He’s also quick to pass along articles on how teachers have been successful with low-income youngsters. In fact, German teases Russell about all the articles that wind up in her mailbox. “They help,” she says.

Still, the job is not easy. “Some days, they try my nerves,” she says of her class. “Some days I lose my cool.” And some days she has to drink Red Bull to keep her energy as high as that of her students.

German hesitates to declare the class a success until there is evidence of academic improvement. There’s a steep hill to climb on this front. As 5th-graders, fewer than 40 percent of the boys performed at grade level. And more than half—15 of 26 students—are either repeating a grade, in special education or in school-based problem solving, a stopgap measure in which teachers document steps they have taken to help students before referring them to be tested for learning disabilities. 

But she and Russell note some positive results. At the start of the school year, there were a few fights, but it has been months since she’s had to break one up. She now rarely sends students to the office. And a certain level of trust has built up. One boy whispers to her that he is in a bad mood today and doesn’t feel like working with anyone, so German allows him to move his desk and sit by himself.

German has settled into her role and appears perfectly in charge of the class this day. When she asks about predictions, the groups talk among themselves to come up with the answer, looking at the title and pictures for clues. “I predict this story will be about people, lemons and oranges,” one student offers. “He gets a point for that,” German says. “Who wants to add to it?” Other hands go up quickly.

Next, German has the boys read the story out loud. Some boys who are not strong readers were reluctant to read in front of their classmates at the start of the year. But now all the boys get right to it. When one of them stumbles on a word, someone else in his pod quietly tells him what it is. No one stutters. No one laughs.

A classroom like German’s, with a high tolerance for noise and activity, is one strategy for bringing down the suspension rate for boys.

Russell also has told teachers that part of their job is good classroom management, and he expects them to understand that acting out may be a reflection of a student having a bad day at home. Russell adds that he inherited a lot of veteran teachers who initially resisted this idea.

“We had to change the mindset to let teachers know it is a new day at Ryerson,” he says.
Russell’s other strategies are more touchy-feely, though he would say just as important. He had a mural painted in the front entrance. He had bulletin boards mounted near each classroom, and the boards are covered with students’ work. He gave the upper-grade students their own uniform, to show that they were on their way to high school. And he mandated that teachers take their children on field trips.
“Our students need to see the world outside this community,” says Russell, who grew up in Austin.

Extracurricular activities are an important part of the mix. The building bubbles with activity once school is out. In the library, guitar lessons are taking place. Down the hall, the choir sings and the praise dance team practices. In the gym, the basketball team shoots free throws. Students can only participate in these activities if they earn a 2.0 GPA and stay out of trouble.

Arthur says the school is much different now. The halls are quieter and the students are more serious, he says.

“Ever since Mr. Russell got here, we have been more disciplined,” he says. “Students used to think they could do whatever they want. Now the principal does something about it. They call the house and put you in detention or suspension.” Russell has set clear boundaries and does not waver from suspending students for serious infractions, such as injuring another student in a fight.

At first, Arthur says he was upset at being in an all-boys class. But now, he says he’s less distracted and takes education seriously. This year, he got an A in math, but still struggles in science, social studies and reading.

But the real change is that he no longer gets in as much trouble. In the past, Arthur says, he was suspended so many times he lost count. “Mostly for stupid stuff, talking back, playing, yelling in the halls,” he says.

Now, Arthur says, he’s found something he enjoys and doesn’t want to have it taken from him. For some boys, that might be football or basketball. But for Arthur, it’s the choir that Russell started. Arthur loves to sing.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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