How to Improve School Attendance

A Practical Guide for Schools and School Districts
A Project of the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council

Module 2: Student Discipline and Positive Behavioral Support — 5

The Story of Garfield High55

In 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District began requiring schools to implement schoolwide positive behavior interventions and support programs as an alternative to the existing disciplinary framework of suspensions and expulsions. James A. Garfield Senior High School, a multitrack campus serving about 2,500 students from low-income families, had routinely been issuing 600 suspensions a year. The year before instituting school-wide PBIS, 510 suspensions were ordered. Two years later, in the 2010–2011 school year, suspensions had reduced to a single one.

It wasn't an easy process. All through the preceding decade, Garfield had had a deeply embedded gang problem and serious drug issues on campus. Fights and violent incidents were common, and buildings and property were continually defaced by graffiti. As might be imagined, school administrators were hesitant about PBIS and the district-mandated trainings, but visits to other schools implementing the program persuaded them that it was worth the campus- and communitywide commitment it would take to be successful.

In the spring of the 2008–2009 school year, administrators placed a moratorium on suspensions for the rest of that year. In 2009–2010, the school implemented a computer-based referral system to replace the dysfunctional paper-based method through which discipline-related referrals had been only sporadically tracked, thus becoming a data-centered school. During the summer of 2009, teachers had been trained on the online referral procedures and learned how assistance would be provided to students and staff who needed help. A progressive discipline policy was put in place, making it clear that safety and discipline were everyone's responsibility, and outlining the graduated interventions necessary before a teacher could send a student to the office. Three PBIS rules—Be Safe, Be Responsible, Be Respectful—were incorporated into the existing three expected school-wide learning results: persons of character, communicators, and critical thinkers.

Students became involved in governance, incorporating school rules into motivational posters. Administrators reached out to parents, letting them know about the program and engaging them as volunteers to welcome students to school in the mornings and roam the grounds to talk to them during the day. "Presence prevents problems," administrators believe, and the popular Garfield volunteer polo shirts provided—at a cost of about $500—helped generate interest among parents, yielding thousands of dollars in free supervision.

Gradually, the culture at Garfield shifted. Its main focus now is on student academic achievement, with teachers, staff, administrators, and students all on board with that concept. Students are confident they can compete with any high school in the district, and incoming staff is screened for their ability to connect with, care about, and respect students. Particularly because of the volunteer presence on campus—monitoring student behavior and adherence to the dress code—safety issues and gang problems are mostly a thing of the past. Parents regularly meet with administrators to brainstorm concerns and suggestions for improvement, and the overall school culture makes it clear that Garfield High is an institution for learning, not for mischief.

In the 2009–2010 school year, Garfield suspensions fell to 150. In 2010–2011, a single suspension occurred—mandatory under the state education code—when a student brought a knife to school. Another single suspension was ordered in 2011–2012, again mandatory (when a male student with a disability grabbed a female student inappropriately). So far during 2012–2013, no violent incidents have occurred and zero suspensions have been ordered. Even better, the school's Academic Performance Index (API) scores have climbed by 115 points over those three years, and many students are now being accepted at Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities.

55 Narrative adapted from an interview with Principal Jose Huerta, Assistant Principal Rose Anne Ruiz, Dean of
Students Aurora Mellado, Pupil Services Worker Gelber Orellano, and former Assistant Principal Ramiro
Rubalcaba, available at

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