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Antidote for zero tolerance: Revisiting a “reclaiming” school

Conrad D. Farner

In the spring of 1996, an article detailing the proactive discipline policies at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School was published in Reclaiming Children and Youth. Since that time, the school continues to demonstrate remarkable progress toward creating the type of reclaiming environment necessary to ensure the needs of all students are met.

From 1992-1993, an extremely high number of disciplinary problems and resulting suspensions forced the staff at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School (FLWMS) in West Allis, Wisconsin, to reevaluate their practices. The article Proactive Alternatives to School Suspension (RCY, 1996) offered a summary of the various strategies implemented over a four-year period that caused a dramatic decline in discipline problems and the need for suspensions. The school was featured in an award-winning video and many staff members and students have spoken about their endeavors at various conferences. Now six additional years have passed, and it is worth revisiting this school where the reclaiming philosophy (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990) has become a part of the school culture.

The reclaiming philosophy is a refreshing, positive, proactive alternative to “zero tolerance;” which continues to be a political and educational mantra when confronted with drugs, weapons, and violence despite little, if any, evidence that such policies are effective. If the concept of zero tolerance is to be applied appropriately, we should dedicate ourselves to the intoleration of student failure, unfriendly environments, and one-size-fits-all schools. Rather than blame the students and their families for a lack of readiness and academic success, and resort to banishment as a solution, educators need to focus on issues that they can control; specifically, how students are treated in our schools. In Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future, Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern offer four ecological hazards which serve as “seeds of discouragement” for at-risk youth: Destructive Relationships, Climates of Futility Learned Irresponsibility, and Loss of Purpose. The authors cite a philosophy for raising children, which prevents these seeds of discouragement from flourishing by providing opportunities for children to feel significant, competent, independent, and generous. Correctly interpreting the characteristic behaviors of children who are discouraged and developing strategies to meet their needs will be more effective than simply punishing and excluding students who are striving to have their basic needs met.

Concerns With Zero Tolerance
There are growing questions about the misuse of zero tolerance policies and exclusionary models of discipline for a wide variety of student behavior (Van Bockern, 1995; Cambone, 1995; Brendtro & Long, 1997; Lantieri, 1997; Skiba & Peterson, 1999; Curwin & Mendler, 1999; McCluskey, 2000; Sautner, 2001). Suspensions and expulsions typically result in extremely needy (academically, socially, and emotionally) students being unsupervised for anywhere from a few days to an entire school year. Rather than having their needs met by caring adults who are committed to educating all youth, these young people get to sleep in, watch television, and wander about the community with peers who are in similar situations. The portrayal of suspensions and expulsions as meaningful consequences is highly suspect when the supposed punishment is actually a vacation. Equally disturbing is the very notion that depriving at-risk youth of what they need most, an education in a caring environment, has somehow come to be construed as an acceptable consequence. This practice is akin to denying a cancer patient the very treatment that offers the potential for a cure. The idea that denying educational opportunities for our most needy young people is what we should not tolerate. They need more structure, more consistency, more commitment and more-not-less education. The reality of exclusionary discipline practices is that they exacerbate the problem by fueling the failure identity, learned irresponsibility, and the other seeds of discouragement that contribute to the poor decision making in the first place.

Alternatives to Zero Tolerance
Rather than focusing on “getting” students and excluding them from the conditions they need most, educators should strive to create learning communities where students can connect and gain a sense of belonging that leads to greater self-worth, higher expectations, and a willingness to risk failure in order to grow. These learning communities are characterized by positive interpersonal relationships, the true key to any successful teacher, classroom, and school. The goal is to find a way to connect with each young learner, establishing trust through care and esteem through respect. Every effort needs to be made to create a variety of programs, strategies, and opportunities so each student becomes a part of the community. Schools in which this type of effort is found embody the reclaiming philosophy described by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern (1990) and are consistent with the “Safe and Caring Schools Initiative” founded by Brenda Sautner (2001).

When students identify with and belong to a group, they acquire a sense of commitment to that group. The classroom and/or school become a team, tribe, village, nation-this form of kinship can be described numerous ways. When values, beliefs, traditions, and a sense of duty are shared to the point that they permeate the classroom and school, the building ceases to be a mere educational institution and, instead, becomes a true community where every young person feels cared for, protected, and important (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990; Sergiovanni, 1994; Sautner, 2001).

This type of community reduces the need to reactively respond to disruptive behavior and poor academic performance. Young members of the community will work to improve themselves and respect others as those behaviors are modeled continually by the adults who surround them. When resistance and reluctance are handled in nurturing, educative ways, students learn that mistakes are learning opportunities, thus avoiding the failure identity and relationship resistance that typify so many at-risk youth. Every aspect of the school community stands to be enhanced by adopting the reclaiming philosophy into the daily routine and long-term vision of the school. Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School is one example of an outstanding reclaiming school.

In a previous article (Proactive Alternatives to School Suspension, RCY, 1996), the positive impact of the reclaiming philosophy at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School was articulated after four years of implementing new strategies and procedures. The Honor Level System of Discipline was one example highlighted in the article, as well as other discipline procedures that de-emphasized punishment in order to make a concerted effort to help students learn more appropriate behaviors. Since that article, numerous other initiatives and structures have been established to reclaim all students with impressive results.

Smaller Houses
In addition to the Honor Level Program, the organizational structure of the school is continually reassessed and modified to better meet the needs of students. Smaller “houses” of around 50 to 75 students have been established to create more personalized learning. This model allows teachers to teach the same groups of students for multiple subjects (not a novel idea to elementary teachers). This enhances the relationships between students and teachers as they work together twice as long as the typical one-period-a-day routine. Teachers know the students better from working with them for multiple periods and are able to use the additional time to capitalize on students” strengths to improve weaknesses.

As part of a Comprehensive School Reform Grant awarded to Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School in 1998, the staff contracted with Co-nect Schools to implement the Co-nect model, which virtually matched the efforts previously initiated at the school. One of the major components, or Benchmarks, of the Co-nect model involves creating small teaching teams that have common planning time and enable students to stay with teachers for two years. This Benchmark directly supports another, which is an emphasis on project-based learning-projects that incorporate multiple disciplines are driven by a “big idea,” or relevant issue that is related to real problems. These projects are characterized by student inquiry resulting in learning where knowledge is constructed through experiences and both inductive and deductive reasoning. Smaller houses facilitate the integration of curriculums and the incorporation of state standards into projects such as these because the teachers teach multiple subjects and have more time with the students.

Multi-Purpose Period
Another structural change was the implementation of the Multi-Purpose Period (MPP) at the end of each day. Every student in the school is assigned to one of their “house” classrooms for eighth hour MPP All house teachers are assigned to oversee a MPP This structured, yet flexible period is an incredible opportunity to meet the needs of middle school students. The Multi-Purpose Period:

Prior to the MPP, middle school students at FLWMS experienced a more demanding day than their more mature high school counterparts. Middle school students, with all of the associated traumas of adolescence, puberty, and peer pressure, used to have to navigate eight periods every day, with just a 30-minute lunch. The fragmented nature of the houses, with a separate teacher for each subject, would often overwhelm students coming out of elementary classrooms that were typically instructed by one teacher for the majority of the day. With no opportunity for study time, incomplete homework was a major concern of staff, and learning was suffering. Since the MPP was put into place, we have seen more completed homework and increases in test scores as measured by the Wisconsin State Assessment System.

The power and importance of positive, long-term relationships with our students cannot be overstated. Most people take for granted that relationships with family members, friends, doctors, lawyers, neighbors, co-workers, mechanics, etc. tend to last many years, as a level of trust and confidence is desired for a multitude of reasons in each of these cases. It is somewhat strange, then, that teachers who are entrusted to protect, nurture, and enlighten our most prized resources would be relegated to nine-month relationships with our children and youth. The notion that our relationships with teachers should be restricted to 180 days is clearly an outgrowth of the unfortunate application of the Tayloristic industrial model to this country's schools. Anyone who argues that students should not be treated as “raw products” and force fed into an assembly line also should question the wisdom of fragmenting and isolating learning into distinct subjects, grades, and short-term relationships.

To facilitate long-term relationships and enhance learning, a concept known as “looping” has been implemented at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School (FLWMS). Looping, again not unheard of at primary levels, involves teachers and students staying together (looping from seventh to eighth grade) for more than one year. At the request of many teachers who recognized the benefits of working with the same students for two years, looping has been in effect the last two to three years for two of the houses. As of this year, all of the language arts, social studies and math teachers will be in the looping mode, as well as special education teachers. Science teachers cannot currently loop, due to certification issues.

The benefits of having teachers stay with the same group of students are powerful and numerous. When teachers expand their expertise across two grade levels, they are able to make curricular connections that previously were only conceptual. Their ability to support the mastery of standards over a two-year period is crucial to improving student proficiency levels. Looping also results in “on-the job” staff development, as teachers often learn a new curriculum the first time they loop. In effect, looping enables teachers to model the district mission to develop “life-long learners,” as they broaden their professional horizons.

Looping increases valuable instructional time, as teachers do not have to introduce themselves and their expectations during the first weeks of the year. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each student enables them to pick up where they left off the previous spring. Discipline problems decrease, as students know they are cared for, as they gain a sense of safety or security, knowing they will be with the teachers and the rest of the house for two years. In some cases, the teacher is simply able to break down the relationship resistance typically demonstrated by extremely needy students. When students recognize they are going to be with the teacher for more than one period a day and for more than one school year, they eventually realize that they are in the hands of a caring, committed adult who is not going to give up on them. Finally, looping can only enhance communication and parental involvement, as the parents know the teachers” styles and expectations and see the long-term commitment to their child.

Additional Initiatives
Many other strategies have been used over the years at FLWMS to meet the needs of students. Volunteer work experience for students, block schedules, and alternative schools, both within and outside the traditional school, have all been used or continue to be used. The latest incarnation of the school-within-a-school model is the Wright Academy, a highly specialized program for students with the greatest needs, which operates as a separate, but connected entity. Life Space Crisis Intervention training for . staff has been provided in an effort to help teachers avoid the “conflict cycle” with students. The allied arts classes required for all students have been connected to the houses, so the same students from each house cycle through a different applied arts course each trimester. This allows the applied arts teachers to plan with the house teachers and incorporate/support state standards in the core academic areas. An increasing emphasis on effective instructional and assessment strategies has been pursued as part of the other

Benchmarks of the Co-nect School reform model:

Focus on Results – The entire school community holds itself accountable for ensuring that all students perform at the highest level possible.

Comprehensive Assessment – Standards-based rubrics and other forms of assessment are used to guide continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

Technology – Modern technology is readily available to students and staff and is incorporated into the curriculum.

All of these initiatives fall under the broad umbrella of the reclaiming philosophy, as the focus is on meeting the needs of students, whether it is through more meaningful relationships or more effective instructional strategies.

While the results have been impressive, getting to this point has not been without struggle. It has taken nine years of consistent leadership, countless discussions and disagreements, heated debates, and deep soul-searching by all who take their work as public educators seriously. Not everyone buys in to all of the strategies being pursued at FLWMS, which is not surprising considering the diverse backgrounds and experiences of more than 50 staff members. Still, the collective commitment to young people is broad enough and deep enough to overcome the status quo.

The key to this Reclaiming school is the incredible dedication and shared vision of the staff. It is not the type of vision that is written down on a piece of paper and then put in a drawer or is mounted on a wall. This is a true vision that is evident in the daily interactions between community members. There is J a continual pursuit for self-improvement, minds are open to new ways of thinking, and the sense of internal accountability to every student is evident in actions and words. Rather than complain about the difficult nature and awesome responsibility of being a public educator, staff members creatively solve problems and develop new ways to connect with students. They have made the Reclaiming philosophy a reality by challenging themselves, trusting each other, and putting the needs of students above all else.

With the current debates related to zero tolerance, standardization, high-stakes testing, and various school reform initiatives, it is reassuring to know that there is an educational philosophy that continues to focus on the root of the problem by addressing the basic needs of children and youth. Everyone who has gone to school or worked in a school knows or remembers that amazing teacher who seemed to be able to get through to even the most recalcitrant student. Those master teachers know the key to inspiring students is not found in rigid, exclusionary discipline policies. The key is finding the value within our discouraged young learners, so they begin to trust and nurture relationships that will not let them down. These master teachers rarely, if ever, have to send a student out of class for any reason. When you imagine an entire school filled with that type of teacher, the need for suspensions and expulsions suddenly dissipates. All the energy and efforts within the building are channeled toward improving learning and meeting students' needs.

The staff at FLWMS has concentrated on meeting the needs of all students by making the vision a reality. “You can’t teach 'em if you can’t reach 'em” is a phrase that describes the essence of the reclaiming philosophy. While the person originally responsible for this quote is not known, there is no doubt that the FLWMS staff is reaching and reclaiming students every day.


Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

Brendtro, L. K., & Long, N. J. (1997). Punishment rituals: Superstition in an age of science. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 6(3), 130-135.

Cambone, J. (1995). Rethinking how we think about troubled children. Journal of Emotional and Behavioural Problems, 3(4),12-14.

Curwin, R. L., & Mendler, A. N. (1999). Zero tolerance for zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(2),119-120.

Lantieri, L. (1997). From punishment to prevention: Educating the heart. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 6(3),155-159.

McCluskey, K. (2000). Lines in the sand: Are students with difficulties being forced from our schools? Reaching Today’s Youth, 4(4), 28-33.

Sautner, B. (2007). Rethinking the effectiveness of suspensions. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9(4),210-214.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1994). Building community in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Skiba, R., & Peterson, R. (1999). The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 372-376, 381.

Van Bockern, S. (1995). Expelled to friendlier places. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Problems, 3(4), 2-3.

This feature: Farner, C. (2002). Antidote for zero tolerance: Revisiting a “Reclaiming” School. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 11 (1) pp.19-22

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