“Are the children well?”

That is the question that keeps University City Schools Superintendent Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley up at night. In addition to planning for their academic success, she and her team focus on all aspects of student health and well-being.

A career educator, Hardin-Bartley recognizes that a child’s school experience can determine the trajectory of his or her entire life. She believes that we must “reimagine learning” to create a better future for all of today’s children.

“Every student comes with his or her own special talents and gifts and it’s up to us, as educators, to help recognize and develop these gifts to the fullest,” Hardin-Bartley said. “It’s also true that at some point each child encounters challenges along the way. Working together with parents and school community, we can help find solutions.”

Hardin-Bartley’s district encompasses eight schools located within the boundaries of the University City.  The district is a culturally rich, public school network of 2,800 students diverse in background, race, ethnicity, religion and socio-economics.

At University City Schools, Hardin-Bartley makes sure that each student, no matter the situation, has equal access to all District resources and opportunities in order to achieve at the highest levels. “It’s difficult to achieve academic success when a student struggles with overall health or wellness issues,” said Hardin-Bartley.  As a team, we have developed a three-pillar process for ensuring the success of the student as a whole.  We are personalizing instruction; humanizing interactions and building relationships; and problematizing or, finding solutions to real world issues.”

Hardin-Bartley calls this, “Reimagining Education: Creating a Modern Learning Experience for Today’s Students.” At its core, is the understanding that in order to access these opportunities, students must be in school every day. Therefore, we must reimagine school discipline.

The district is now partnering with the ACLU of Missouri in an effort to “humanize” the approach to suspensions by exploring avenues for interventions as alternatives. The partnership will focus on starting a community discussion on implicit and explicit biases in school discipline, reversing inequities in the discipline process, supporting the district’s initiative to reduce the overall number of suspensions and retooling the Discipline Handbook.

Research tells us that even a few days out of school can have a dramatic impact on a child’s chances for success.  As an example, in Texas, 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled from school repeated a grade. That’s in comparison to five percent of other students.

This combination of missed class time and lowered self-esteem creates a cycle that can result in classroom disengagement and higher dropout rates. The consequences of excessive discipline extend far beyond the classroom, perpetuating cycles of poverty, low-education attainment and structural inequalities that span generations.

When the children are not well, it impacts every part of our society. It’s important to engage community members, organizations, teachers, parents and students in the effort to reexamine and reimagine our current education system and practices.

Hardin-Bartley says targeted professional development now prompts staff to ask more effective questions like, “What has happened to you?” rather than, “What’s wrong with you?” Rephrasing these questions in a more caring manner can potentially lead to different solutions and different outcomes.

Hardin-Bartley remembers, in particular, one young man who was repeatedly in trouble for fighting. At his fourth disciplinary hearing, Hardin-Bartley asked, “Why do we keep suspending this student?” The reason for his behavior soon became clear; he couldn’t read. The altercations he started with other students would happen when he was expected to read aloud in class.

This was an isolated incident, specific to this teen whose family had been constantly moving. To add to the struggle, this big kid with “the purest heart” was responsible for caring for his sick mom and siblings.

“Young people don’t have the skills to navigate community and school separately. It’s one world for them,” Hardin-Bartley says. “Often, the discipline infractions that you see at school are the results of other challenges to student is facing on his or her own.”                 

“In University City, we are working to understand how our implicit and explicit biases show up at work,” Hardin-Bartley says. “Bias is a human condition and present among people in all professions. As educators, however, we are entrusted with growing minds and developing character, so it is extremely important that we work harder to treat all children fairly. To that end, we are providing our staff with support solutions that help recognize and address bias in the classroom.” 

In October, the ACLU of Missouri released a report entitled, “From School to Prison: Missouri’s Pipeline of Injustice.” The analysis of school discipline data in Missouri found that African-American students were 4.5 times more likely to be suspended than others.

Before the report was released, the District had already been working to reduce suspensions (the district hasn’t had an expulsion in more than five years). Now, with the ACLU, administrators and staff will continue to work with parents, students and the community about changing lives by changing the outcome for students.

Hardin-Bartley says, “Sometimes when we talk about the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ people automatically think, ‘Oh, you’re giving kids a pass.’ I don’t view it that way. I believe we need to expand the conversation and consider all options.”

Reimagining school discipline also means giving educators different tools to address how they interact with children. “I need to support you differently. I may need to give you access to different tools.”

Hardin-Bartley continued, “I may need to refer you to counseling or establish restorative circles. You may need to see a therapist. Perhaps you would benefit from a cool-down time. I may need to teach you yoga, or other means of de-escalation to give you time to regain self-control.” This is where the ACLU can help. “Some people were skeptical of the partnership – but at the end of the day, I am for children,” says Hardin-Bartley. “You can’t have this conversation without being brutally honest about where we are. We can do better by black and brown children, and those are the children that are most adversely impacted by our discipline decisions.”

Hardin-Bartley hopes the ACLU and its resources will help raise awareness, identify practices that need to change and learn about what’s happening across the country so that The School District of University City and the State of Missouri can be leaders in creating brighter futures for children.

“Our educators are committed to every student’s success but, as a community, we all have moral and ethical responsibilities to make sure our children are well in every aspects of their lives,” says Hardin-Bartley. “When it comes to their success, we must all work together.”