Minnesota Nursing magazine

Addressing problems on the spot

School leads evaluation of new St. Paul Public Schools program
Barb Schlaefer

Barb McMorris and team
Associate Professor Barbara McMorris, PhD, center, with Research Assistant Sung Tae Jang, MA, PhD(c), and Senior Evaluator Kara Beckman, MA.

When St. Paul Public Schools introduced a restorative practices program at six schools last year, the district turned to the School of Nursing to help it evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot program. If results are positive, the district may expand it to more of its 58 schools.

The district and teachers’ union launched the program, in response to teachers’ concerns that the learning environment in the district was challenging because of an increasingly negative and unsafe climate combined with uneven discipline practices.

With a grant from the National Education Association and a major funding commitment by the district, school officials are equipping teachers, students and administrators at the pilot schools with new methods for building positive relationships with and among students. The practices introduced involve building community through sharing circles, with all students sharing their perspectives to talk through problems more intentionally and reflectively than in the past. All affected parties then come up with solutions. The program is being tested, in part, as an alternative to suspensions.

Associate Professor Barbara McMorris, PhD, and her team lead the program’s evaluation, with funding from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. McMorris, a sociologist by training, and her colleagues will conduct interviews with principals and site leads and then analyze quantitative data on school climate, discipline and attendance.

“There is a lot of public scrutiny about funding spent by schools on initiatives to improve school climate,” said McMorris. “Working with a third party evaluator lends credibility and objectivity to the project, in addition to technical expertise in research methodologies and analysis. In particular, our team can focus on evaluation tasks, which allows district and school staff the time to focus on effective implementation of restorative practice plans.”

District and teachers’ union leaders hope they can reduce suspensions, boost attendance and academic achievement by addressing problems when they occur, in the community in which they occur. The program has already expanded to three additional schools in fall 2017.