The Wichita, Kansas school district is launching a new “Opportunity Academy” for misbehaving students that will focus more extensively on developing character – an effort to address increasing disciplinary problems in recent years.
The number of suspensions, detentions and trips to the principal’s office in Wichita elementary schools increased from 8,762 four years ago to13,500 incidents last year, despite the fact that district enrollment decreased.
District wide, discipline issues are up 11 percent, and teachers union officials have complained about chaos in the classroom, according to The Wichita Eagle.
“We’ve been looking at areas of need, both academically and in terms of behavior,” district spokesman Terrell Davis said. “And one of those areas is kids who just need additional structure and a hands-on approach.” School board members unanimously approved a new Bryant Opportunity Academy at a recent meeting to help students “who need a more highly structured, controlled environment,” Davis said.
The Academy will serve 100 kindergarten through sixth grade students who have struggled at other schools by offering smaller class sizes, additional counselors and social workers, and a strong focus on character development, according to the news site.
The effort is part of a broader push to address disciplinary problems that started with daily lessons on character and social and emotional skills at all elementary schools last year.
“We’re looking at school differently for a group of kids who … may not have learned how to play school,” Davis said. “This is a way to think outside of the box to serve those kids.”
The school will open in what was previously Bryant Elementary, one of five schools closed by the district in 2012. A new school funding formula directs additional money to “at-risk” students, though Davis said officials are describing troubled students in terms of “opportunity.”
“We don’t like to use the term ‘at-risk’ to describe our students. We use the term ‘opportunity,’” he said. “We really believe every child has the opportunity for greatness and success … They may come from different places and have different needs, and we just need to meet them wherever they are.”
Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia are cautious about instances where claims that shifts in vocabulary will reframe the experiences students will have once the new vocabulary are in effect. Also, in instances where school authorities segregate disruptive students, it places an emphasis on fixing the individual student rather than addressing the deficits in the wider school culture of the previous school. Character is foremost a communal problem not simply an individual one. Moreover, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture sociologist James Hunter in his book, The Death of Character, warns, “Neologisms from the moral education establishment, like ‘prosocial’ are only the most overt and self-conscious attempts to avoid the awkwardness of words like ‘good’ and ‘evil.’” “Troubled students” may well see through the shift in terminology from “at-risk” to “opportunity.” While well intentioned, sometimes it may be necessary start by naming the problem in stark moral terms.
Teachers and principals interested in strengthening the moral ecology of their school will find information and strategies at the UK’s The Jubilee Centre.