Case Study: Student Discipline and School Climate in Charter Schools

24 Jun, 2016

Students need a safe and supportive school environment to maximize their academic and social-emotional learning potential. A school’s discipline policies and practices directly impact school climate and student achievement.[i] Together, discipline policies and positive school climate efforts can reinforce behavioral expectations and ensure student safety. However, exclusionary discipline practices, which include out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, can hinder student progress. A number of charter school leaders have successfully leveraged charter school autonomy to rethink approaches to discipline.

This case study from the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) features profiles of four charter schools. These schools were nominated by experts specializing in student discipline from academia and major charter organizations for their declining or historically low suspension and expulsion rates, sustained or improved academic performance, and innovative and intentional approaches to school discipline. These four schools are:

  • Health Sciences High and Middle College (San Diego, CA)
  • KIPP Bay Area Schools (San Lorenzo, CA)
  • New Orleans College Prep Network (New Orleans, LA)
  • Rowe Elementary School (Chicago, IL).

All of the profiled schools are in varying stages of developing, implementing, and revising their student discipline and school climate approaches. This case study demonstrates that charter schools can honor their mission and vision, while also making significant changes to their discipline policies and practices that make their schools more inclusive and foster academic and social-emotional skills development. This case study was developed in conjunction with a toolkit of resources and a report with concrete examples of how other charter schools are rethinking discipline. Please see here for the toolkit and report.

1: Introduction: The Urgency of Improving Discipline Policies and School Climate in Charter Schools 

Disciplinary actions deeply impact students’ academic and social experiences and outcomes. This segment discusses the need for charter schools to evaluate discipline data, policies, and practices, and the connection between a school’s discipline approach and its school climate. It briefly introduces the case study schools’ context and the evolution of their discipline philosophies and approaches. 


2: The Approach to Building a Positive School Climate: The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of Shaping Fair and Effective Policies and Practices

In this segment, school leaders discuss the decision-making process for implementing their school’s discipline policies and practices. All of the profiled charter schools chose to focus on research-based, alternative discipline models—often utilizing aspects of multiple programs to improve students’ academic and non-academic skills and outcomes. The video includes an overview of the specific features of each school’s discipline and school climate approaches, along with a discussion of the budgetary concerns that come with implementing alternative discipline systems.


3: Laying the Right Foundation: Getting Buy-in Around Discipline and School Climate Approaches

A strong school culture, including student discipline policies, requires buy-in from everyone in the school. This segment explores how schools gain consensus with charter school boards, school leadership teams, teachers, students, parents, and the community around discipline. It also looks at related supports, such as training and professional development, that promote cultural mind shift. These supports include school climate surveys for students and teachers, professional development for teachers on differentiating alternative discipline approaches for diverse learners, including English Learners and students with disabilities, and training parents on how to support alternative discipline with their children.

4: Conclusion: The Future of Student Discipline and School Climate  

This segment will highlight some of the academic and non-academic results the schools experienced after implementing alternative discipline approaches. We asked school leaders to discuss how they see their discipline policies and practices continuing to evolve, to identify areas that are “works in progress,” and to set goals for the future. Importantly, school leaders give advice, based on their experiences, to other charter schools that are working to improve their student discipline and school climate. Evolving a charter school’s approach to discipline is a time-intensive process that requires work to set a vision for school climate, implement changes while keeping the needs of students and families as the top priority, and engage in continuous improvement efforts to sustain impact. However, the process is important to ensure a strong school climate that enables all students to thrive.


The content of this case study does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), nor does any mention of curricula, trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsements by the U.S. government. This case study does not constitute a formal statement of federal law, legal requirements, or ED policy and should not be construed as creating or articulating the legal requirements or policy from ED.

[i] Steinberg, M. P., Allensworth, E., & Johnson, D. W. (in press). What conditions jeopardize and support safety in urban schools? The influence of community characteristics, school composition and school organizational practices on student and teacher reports of safety in Chicago. In D. J. Losen (Ed.), Closing the school discipline gap: Research for policymakers. New York: Teachers College Press. 8.


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