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A couple years ago, Riverside Elementary School added a school-wide breakfast program. Now about 75 percent of students eat breakfast in their classrooms each morning.

"If they're hungry at 9 a.m., they're not going to stop worrying about it throughout the day," said Riverside Principal Jacque Peterson.

Collecting data on students has revealed patterns like this — sometimes they act out at certain times of day because they're hungry and can't focus. The idea behind providing breakfast is to meet students' basic needs so they can focus on learning.

Peterson said since the program began, they've seen fewer discipline issues, especially in the morning. Districtwide, the breakfast program has expanded to 12 schools, Superintendent Michael Muñoz said at the May 3 school board meeting.

While discipline problems have always existed in schools, district officials are looking for answers in a new way — through collecting data.

Many think this type of data tracking will provide answers and allow educators to start identifying and addressing the root problem for students who have behavioral issues.

According to a 2016 Minnesota Department of Education report, Black and American Indian students were disproportionately disciplined in the state's public schools schools. Black students make up 12 percent of the population, but are involved in 38 percent of disciplinary actions taken — that's about three times their population.

American Indian students are overrepresented by four times their population. They make up 2 percent of the population, but account for 8 percent of disciplinary actions.

Weekly data review

It's this trend that is apparent statewide, and in Rochester, that caused RPS to hire Principal Afolabi Runsewe following the OCR agreement. Runsewe oversees PBIS efforts and tracks and reviews student discipline with each of the district's schools.

At weekly meetings district leaders discuss trends in behavior, where those behaviors occur, like the physical rooms and spaces and what behaviors look like in different locations, especially for categories that are considered subjective. For example, what does defiance look like — does it happen in the classroom? Does it happen in the hallways?

Districts are required to track and report data through the Minnesota Department of Education, through a system called disciplinary incident reporting system, or DIRS. The district reports the behavior, the action taken by the district and demographic information of the student.

"We are in a new era of looking towards the data to improve our systems, specifically our public education systems," said Josh Crosson, an advocacy manager with MinnCAN, a state education advocacy group.

Data review groups meet weekly at all of Rochester's public schools to talk about specific students, but also to address overall issues like discipline disparities. This is a major component of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and a growing trend statewide.

The hope is that the data will lead to answers — answers that show in what types of classes and environments students are misbehaving, or what times of day they're having problems.

"The best way is to look at the data and see where resources are required," Crosson said.

More data collection?

Statewide, groups like MinnCAN advocated for bills that would require an increase in data collection this legislative session, on the specifics of day-to-day student behavior, but also on suspensions, expulsions and other classroom removals. While many districts collect and report this information back to the state now, MinnCAN hopes the data will be further broken down to have schools report things like foster care status and whether or not a student is homeless.

In Rochester, 30-year-veteran teacher Kelly Wright-Glynn said the data collection process allows teachers to look at the bigger picture, at factors they might not have previously considered, and for trends like the types of environments students struggle in.

"School districts have data coming out of their ears, but they need to understand what kind of information the data will tell you," Gibbons said.

Factors examined could be, for example, classrooms with male teachers or in classes that are less hands on.

Eric Kloos, a statewide PBIS coordinator who works with the Minnesota Department of Education, said collecting data reveals patterns to educators at certain times of day, or in certain environments — and recognizing those has transformed how people think about discipline.

"You have the tools and processes to get deep into the conversation," Kloos said. "PBIS really gives the system and tools to help find (problems) earlier and really orient people's attention to problem-solving around that"

The last five years, there's been a decrease statewide in the total number of days for out-of-school suspensions. Expulsions also decreased, marginally.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act — a federal education bill that replaced No Child Left Behind — federal regulations shifted slightly in what will be required of districts. Currently districts only need to report in-school suspensions for special education students, and that will extend to all students. It will also require the foster care, military family and homelessness status to be reported.

Currently, the state is required to track disciplinary actions by districts, like out-of-school suspensions that last more than one day, as well as incidents involving dangerous weapons. Next year, districts around the state will be required to report in-school suspensions as well, under new federal rules.

Another issue, highlighted earlier this year in a report released by MinnCAN, is that school districts don't further break down race/ethnicity data. For example, the category "Black" would include an African-American student and a student that's a Somali immigrant. State organizations say breaking that down further and reviewing data could provide more answers overall and for teachers.

It won't provide all the answers

All this data is great, but it doesn't always tell the whole story.

Many districts struggle to wade through it. Often districts don't have the capacity to use the data yet, whether it be academic or behavioral data, said Kim Gibbons, associate director with the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

"Despite substantial motivations and efforts to use data, most districts lack the capacity to meet their own needs for data-based decision-making, in part due to a lack of qualified personnel," concluded a 2016 CAREI needs assessment. Gibbons said while the report focuses primarily on collecting data for academic achievement purposes, Gibbons said that the concepts extend to disciplinary actions as well.

Gibbons said there is a huge need for data literacy, and districts need to understand how the types of data they're collecting can answer their questions and present solutions. Many said their capacity to use that data was poor, and districts need to work on that.

It's also sometimes difficult to capture social-emotional behavior issues.

"If you're just relying on behavioral data that is infractions that annoy teachers — not following directions, annoying teachers — that'll capture one group of kids, but there's a lot more attention given lately to school-based mental health," Gibbons.

But despite shortcomings, education leaders say its time to shift how we look at discipline, and data is the place to start.

"I think as a nation, we're staring to see data as a need — to create a solution," Crosson said. "We're all coming together to change the narrative on school discipline."


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