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How One District Improved 'Conditions for Learning'

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After a Cleveland, Ohio, teenager walked into a district high school more than five years ago and opened fire on the school, hitting two students and two adults before killing himself, the district responded by spending more than $6 million on metal detectors and new school security officers.

But after about another year passed by, the 41,000-student school district took a very different approach to improving safety and behavior at its schools.

By adding a strong social-emotional learning program at all elementary schools, student support teams that intervene based on early warning signs, and replacing out-of-school suspension with discipline methods that keep students in school, the Cleveland, Ohio, school district made dramatic improvements in the conditions for student learning over the last few years, new research finds.

Those "conditions for learning" include improvements to students' feelings of safety and support, says the analysis, from the American Institutes for Research.

In practical terms, that meant Cleveland schools—where 100 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches at school—from 2008 to 2012:


  • cut out-of-school suspensions over three years by 60 percent;

  • improved student attendance districtwide;

  • cut referrals for fighting and violence among students by 20 percentage points; and

  • improved student behavior in other categories, too, including disruptive behavior and harassment.

To get these results, the district made some comprehensive, far-reaching changes. (Note that the title of the analysis of Cleveland's work is "Avoid Simple Solutions and Quick Fixes....")

Perhaps its worthy of note that Asa Coon, the student who opened fire on his school back in 2007, had been bullied at school and was failing at least one class—and one of his targets was that world history teacher. Even before Coon's shooting spree, parents had asked for more security measures at the school. And Coon had been suspended from school for several days before the shooting.

The district put into place a social and emotional learning program in all elementary schools called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS, which helps students understand, regulate, and express emotions. Student support teams were established to intervene when students exhibited early warning signs, including poor attendance and misbehavior. And the district replaced in-school suspension with so-called planning centers, where students worked on their academic work and their self-discipline skills.

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