This is what's next

James M. Ludes, Ph.D.

Vice President for Public Research and Initiatives
Executive Director, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy
Salve Regina University

Over the last several years, a new style of leadership has taken root in several Rhode Island communities. These public leaders rely on practiced skills like systems thinking, facilitative leadership, and performance measures, and they engage their constituencies and their workforces to achieve goals important to the entire community.

Take the example of Pawtucket Public Schools. Superintendent Patti DiCenso came into the job determined not just to be the best urban school district in the state, but one of the top school districts in the state. One of the grave challenges she faced was the high number of suspensions used as a disciplinary tool from kindergarten through high school. In the 2014-2015 academic year, students lost 2,167 days to suspension out of a population of about 9,200 students.

The problem with suspension as a punishment is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater. Kids who aren’t in school aren’t being educated. If they are home alone, any manner of mischief may ensue. Worse, a parent who has to take time off from work to stay home with a misbehaving child may have trouble keeping her or his job. At minimum, parents in this situation risk disrupting their employer’s business by missing work. The consequences of suspension are more than simply removing a troublemaker from the classroom. There can be real economic and social consequences for the community.

Armed with this knowledge, and committed to a vision of excellence in Pawtucket Public Schools, DiCenso went to work building the partnerships across her district needed to change the end of this story. Teams of principals, social workers, and teachers met and planned a new approach—not changing whether a student was disciplined, but rather how and where. Now, instead of sending students out of the school system, alternative disciplinary measures hold students accountable—but without the same level of disruption to their education or their family.

The results have been remarkable. DiCenso and her team have succeeded in reducing suspensions from the high school by 58%; from middle schools by 68%; and from the elementary schools by a jaw-dropping 94%.

DiCenso’s secret was that she created a clear vision and outcome for the entire school department: “no suspensions.” She trained 100 of her people with new skills and then empowered them to make the changes necessary to produce such remarkable results, all the while encouraging them to ask for help when it was needed.

Leadership matters—but it’s not the top-down, directive style of leadership popularized in old war movies. Leadership today—and ever more so in the future—requires a commitment to service, a recognition that people depend on you for things big and small, and a willingness to see yourself in the lives of others—whether that’s your employee, your boss, or a single parent whose child has just been suspended from school. If, as a society, we find and reward leaders like that, the future will be brighter for all of us.

Pawtucket Public Schools is a participant in Leadership Matters—a partnership for leadership development between the Pell Center at Salve Regina University and the Public Sector Consortium.


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