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City Heights School Sets Bar For School Discipline Reform

Cherokee Point Elementary School Principal Godwin Higa walks with a student on the playground in 2012.
Megan Burks
Cherokee Point Elementary School Principal Godwin Higa walks with a student on the playground in 2012.

At first, Ricardo Castillo didn’t realize a laptop was missing from his fourth grade classroom at Cherokee Point Elementary School. It was a tip from one of his students that led school officials to the bedroom of another 9-year-old boy.

There, the boy pulled his headboard away from the wall to reveal a hole burrowed into the drywall. The computer was placed inside for safekeeping.

Principal Godwin Higa, elected not to pursue the traditional punishment: out-of-school suspension. Instead, Higa sat with the boy in his office day after day, chatting and helping him finish assignments.


It had to be in-school suspension.

If he were sent home, the boy would have missed the free breakfasts and lunches the school offers to low-income students. Besides, he had the sense to hide the computer from his mother, who Castillo alleged might have sold it for drugs.

“He wanted that computer because he wanted to read,” Castillo said. “I let him take books, but he wanted more.”

For teachers and administrators at Cherokee Point, more school is always the solution. Last year, it had no out-of-school suspensions. Instead, Saturday school was more common for troublemakers.

Cherokee Point, like most elementary schools, doesn’t see the same kind of crowding and adolescent behaviors that boost suspension and expulsion rates at middle and high schools. But parents, teachers and administrators there are determined to change attitudes about discipline that will see their children through to graduation.


The City Heights campus is on the cutting edge of a national movement to make school discipline more productive and less punitive. Staff and parents meet regularly and pore over resources to create a guidebook for discipline that actually works. Their goal is to take their results to the San Diego Unified school board to advocate for district-wide change.

“We have to go way further than sending them home to watch cartoons,” Higa said. “We have to get into their hearts.”

“If the students miss school, they’re not going to learn and they’re going to get worse. Parents who work can’t take care of them,” said Christina Márquez, a parent who attended some of the meetings. She said her neighbors agree.

A recent study by The Council of State Governments in Texas implicated harsh school discipline in what community health advocates call the “prison pipeline.” It concluded that students who experience suspension or expulsion are more likely to drop out of school and become incarcerated. The trend, the council found, is especially pronounced for African Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities.

State data show California schools handed down more than 750,000 suspensions during the 2009-2010 school year. Six California students were thrown out of school every minute that year, usually for minor or vague offenses such as a dress code violation or acting out, according to a California Endowment analysis of comparable federal data.

Californians have reacted strongly to those numbers. A survey commissioned by the California Endowment found four out of five California voters calling for school discipline reform.

San Diego Unified Updates Its School Discipline Policy

San Diego Unified began revamping its school discipline policy this year in ways that parallel what Cherokee Point is doing. It will encourage restorative practices like counseling and working to repair relationships between sparring children.

Chief Student Services Officer Joe Fulcher said the bulk of the changes focus on more clearly defining offenses and the duration of punishments.

Federal data suggest the work to be done in San Diego is minimal. The district ranks 273rd out of 490 California school districts for suspension risk. In 2009, just five percent of the district’s students were pulled out of the classroom for behavior issues, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The district is even doing well in City Heights, where poverty—97 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches, according to the district—is expected to complicate classroom behavior.

Despite its good overall marks, San Diego’s numbers reflect a nationwide trend of suspending more students of color. In 2009, white students in San Diego Unified outnumbered blacks two to one, but blacks were five times more likely to be suspended. Similarly, Latino students outnumbered white students two to one, but they were three times as likely to be suspended.

Fulcher said he hopes the new policy, which he plans to have ready by fall, will begin to eliminate such disparities.

But whether the new policy is sensitive to disadvantaged students depends a lot on who’s applying it. And Fulcher admitted budget constraints will slash the number of professionals best equipped to implement the plan next year: counselors and resource staff.

The school board approved pink slips for nearly 1,600 employees, including 68 of its 233 counselors and 9 of its 139 school psychologists. The notices were precautionary and some staff will likely be asked back in the fall.

Higa said he’s having trouble finding room in next year’s budget for Cherokee Point’s already-limited counseling services. Currently, a counselor comes just once a week; a psychologist comes three times a week. He also said the district sent layoff notices to 10 of his 26 teachers. If they leave, class sizes will balloon and heighten the need for support staff.

What It Takes for Meaningful Reform

Still, Cherokee Point is fortunate among elementary schools in San Diego because it receives outside help. The meetings among administrators, teachers and parents on the discipline policy are possible thanks to a $684,000 California Endowment grant it’s sharing with other projects in the Cherokee Point neighborhood.

The school also has help from some 60 student teachers and counseling, nursing and psychology interns. Several area nonprofits give the students fresh produce, shoes and bicycles.

And then there’s Higa’s energy.

Walking through the playground with Higa feels like a perpetual group hug. One kid after another visits with the principal, who in turn, remembers his or her name and at least two personal details. That’s how you treat family, Higa says.

Castillo, the fourth grade teacher, prefers to call his students “shipmates.” He joined the Navy when he was 17.

“To me, this is what the school year is. We get on the ship and we leave port for 180 days.”

For both the principal and the teacher, effective school discipline requires a meaningful understanding of their students’ home lives and community. In City Heights, many kids come from poor households, families broken by incarceration or deportation, and families that fled civil war abroad. Sending them back to an empty or tense home could worsen their behavior.

“I’ve lived here since 1993 and I’ve seen this neighborhood change a lot, but I’ve never seen it as crowded and as tense and as needy as it is now. The amount of young people has soared. You have the dynamic of multiple families living in a small, 600-square-foot apartment,” Castillo said. “You have those tensions—tension for attention, tension for space, competition for these human needs.

“They bring it all here,” Castillo continued, pointing to his classroom.

Castillo can handle the chaos. He’s been a teacher in the community for decades and speaks Spanish like many of his students. He also came from a chaotic household; his father was an alcoholic.

Castillo said he worries about the inexperienced teachers and administrators who are too overwhelmed by testing requirements and a lack of resources to think about restorative school discipline. They’re the ones who could use extra help from counselors and resource staff.

“Does this young teacher know how to interact with someone who comes from another country, another language or a rural background? I don’t see anything being put in place by the school district and community to close that gap,” Castillo said. “This [grant] is giving us the opportunity to do that.”

Kelsey Zeran, a credential candidate at San Diego State University who was a student teacher in City Heights, said her classes have prepared her for working in diverse, low-income communities. She said strategies for working with disenfranchised youth were discussed in every course.

Her classmate and fellow City Heights student teacher, Christian Martin, however, said their program didn’t do enough. He said teaching candidates need more time in classrooms and less time in college lecture halls.

Both said they’ve learned to identify underlying issues and reject classroom management tools that disenfranchise troubled students—think red or sad-face labels on the whiteboard for children who misbehave.

But Castillo said those management tools are still common and perpetuate poor behaviors that lead to suspensions.

Changing how schools discipline students is going to take a cultural shift among teachers, administrators and parents. Rolling out a new policy isn’t enough, Castillo said.

The school plans to spend two years training its teachers to bring restorative practices into the classroom and document the effects. Then it will take its recommendations to the school board, no matter how the district’s new discipline policy turns out.

Fulcher said the district will be ready with open ears.

“Part of having a quality school in every neighborhood,” he said, “is making sure kids are in class and ready to learn; not suspended disproportionately or wrongly.”