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How Do You Make an Invisible Problem Visible? Advocacy Strategy for School Discipline Reform

This chapter first appeared in Advocacy for Impact courtesy of The Atlantic Philanthropies. 

Lessons for the Field

There is no shortage of lessons that funders and advocates can take from Atlantic’s work on school discipline reform:

  1. Authentic messengers, especially youth, were critical
  2. Local activists were essential
  3. Changing the narrative is particularly necessary when decision-making is decentralized
  4. Funder collaboration is key
  5. Big systems change can happen with a relatively small investment

 

 

Full Chapter

 

Between 2009 and 2016, Atlantic invested $47 million in efforts aimed at ending unfair and excessively punitive discipline policies in U.S. schools that put many students—especially children of color—at risk of ending up on a pathway to prison. Atlantic focused on raising awareness of the problem of excessive expulsions and suspensions and advocated for alternative practices that would keep vulnerable children in school and on track to graduation and college. An evaluation conducted by Philliber Research & Evaluation for Atlantic found that the foundation’s reform efforts “experienced success beyond the initial hopes.”

An evaluation found that the foundation’s reform efforts “experienced success beyond the initial hopes.

 

In 2009, as Atlantic was exploring work to undertake in its final years of grantmaking, the problem of unfair and excessively punitive school didn’t automatically present itself as an obvious choice for the foundation. For one, the problem was little-known or understood, and not yet seen by many as a major issue. In addition, policies about school discipline are largely decided by school districts, and there are more than 14,000 in the country. Attempting to change policies in so many venues seemed like a tall order, especially for a foundation with only a limited amount of time to accomplish so much.

If successful, the campaign would keep vulnerable children in school and on track to high school graduation and college, rather than on the path to prison.

 

Finally, conditions were not particularly conducive to success. In late 2009, the country was caught up in a get-tough policy toward school discipline. A decade and a half earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed the Federal GunFree Schools Act of 1994, which required schools that received federal funds to expel any student for at least one year if they were found in possession of a gun. This so-called “zero-tolerance” approach to school discipline might seem on its face rational, given the obvious danger presented by guns in school. The concept of zero tolerance took off far beyond its apparent original intent, however. Soon schools were suspending students for infractions far less serious than possession of firearms. These offenses included profanity, shoving in the hallway, and even dress code violations.

The effects of zero-tolerance discipline policies have been devastating. Students who have been suspended are far more likely to drop out of school, and students who drop out of school are far more likely to be arrested.

Despite the fact that the school-discipline issue hadn’t yet become a topic of national concern or conversation, the more Atlantic looked into it, the more it came to realize it should devote significant resources to tackling the problem. Among the factors that proved persuasive to Atlantic:

• Zero-tolerance discipline policies have been particularly harmful to African American K–12 students who are suspended at a rate three times higher than white students. The effect of this form of punishment is devastating. Students who have been suspended are far more likely to drop out of school, and students who drop out of school are far more likely to be arrested. This vicious cycle came to be known as the “schoolto-prison pipeline.”

• Underlying the growing number of suspensions and expulsions is a deeper, perhaps even more challenging truth—that our nation’s system of school discipline is emblematic of inequity in the distribution of resources and supports to help children succeed. There is an even greater inequality with regard to how our schools and our courts administer punishment along racial lines.

Ultimately, Atlantic saw that an initiative to promote school discipline reform would align with its core mission: to improve the opportunities and life trajectory of vulnerable, marginalized people and communities. In taking on this work, Atlantic saw an opportunity to promote changes in public school policies and practice that would keep vulnerable children in school and on track to high school graduation and college, rather than on the path to prison.

A BROAD SET OF GOALS

After concluding that it could play a meaningful role in helping to solve the problem of harsh and excessive school discipline policies, Atlantic identified a set of ambitious but, it felt, achievable goals. In early 2010, Donna Lawrence, who was then head of Atlantic’s Global Children & Youth Program, outlined the following short- and long-term goals:

Short-term goals:

1. Reduce national suspension and expulsion rates by 30 percent by 2016, as measured against their 2010 rates.

2. Reduce discipline disparities by 15 percent.

Long-term goals:

3. Return the United States from the 2006 suspension rates of 7 percent overall and 15 percent for African American students to pre-zero tolerance era discipline rates (roughly 3 percent).

4.Eliminate racial disparities in disciplinary actions, thereby improving the educational and employment prospects of millions of U.S. public school students.

This work included a set of sub-goals: cutting in half the number of suspensions of black children to 6 percent, which was the level that existed before zero-tolerance policies were put in place; and improving school attendance and ultimately, graduation rates.

There is real inequality with regard to how our schools and our courts administer punishment along racial lines.

THE GRANTMAKING STRATEGY: INSIDE/OUTSIDE*—*BOTTOM UP/ TOP DOWN

Achieving its school discipline goals would require a grantmaking strategy that depended upon a high level of coordination among funders and grantees, and an aggressive advocacy strategy. The central strategic challenge was to create a nationwide policy shift on an issue as highly decentralized as school discipline policies. With decisions being made in thousands of school districts, it was necessary to mobilize local grassroots activity in specific areas to create a critical mass for change. Since a number of districts were already demonstrating the benefits of reform, the question became how to build on and accelerate that work to drive toward a tipping point. This pressure would be coupled with greater awareness among national leaders and decision makers about the need for change, supported by active funding and oversight by the Federal government.

Rolling back the punitive zero-tolerance policies and practices would rely heavily on advocacy pressure from grassroots and legal advocates.

To monitor progress, anybody involved in school discipline—from superintendents to teachers to judges to advocates—would need solid data that kept track of how students were being disciplined, and that paid careful attention to important issues like racial disparity.

The central strategic challenge was to create a nationwide policy shift on an issue as highly decentralized as school discipline policies.

There were two other important pillars to the strategy. Educators needed to understand the problem and how reform alternatives could help them to achieve core goals for student educational success. Judges were an important ally, as they could use their convening power to help persuade reluctant districts to come to the table with advocates to examine data, learn about solutions, and craft reform plans together.

Finally, there wasn’t enough information about the relationship between exclusionary discipline to school climate and student academic success. There was also not enough information on what could be done to address disparities in discipline.

A FRAMEWORK FOR ADVOCACY

Kavitha Mediratta joined Atlantic in fall 2010 to lead the foundation’s school discipline work. Together with Tanya Coke, a senior consultant with extensive experience in criminal justice and human rights, she began shaping the core elements of the foundation’s grantmaking strategy. Mediratta and Coke sought to infuse a social movement approach in which a wide array of voices would need to be engaged in order to bring about change on the scale the foundation sought. Thus, the grantmaking strategy focused on the following framework:

• Build public demand for local and state reform.

• Strengthen federal mandates and incentives for reform.

• Engage educators and judicial leaders in promoting positive discipline.

• Spread knowledge about school discipline reform and disparity reduction.

Rolling back the punitive zero-tolerance policies and practices would rely heavily on advocacy pressure from grassroots and legal advocates. They would use a wide range of tactics that paid special attention to strategic communications to change the way people thought about school discipline. These organizations would build demand for reform that would lead to changes in policies and practices at all levels of decision-making—schools, districts, courts, states, Congress, and the executive branch. In addition to effective, targeted messages, advocates would need the resources to produce and deliver useful, accurate, trusted information that would highlight why current practices were harmful, and they would need to be able to point to better, more effective alternatives.

Grassroots youth, parent, and community organizing provided a foundation for the so-called “tipping point” strategy, in which change would occur in important places and inspire change elsewhere.

Build public demand for local and state reform

Moving districts to action required strong public pressure and thus a pillar of the grantmaking strategy became funding local grassroots organizations to build demand for reform. Putting parents and youth most affected by damaging policies at the core of this grassroots strategy was also important for other reasons. Their direct experience brought important insight into the problem that could inform the work, and it provided a moral authority in their advocacy. Their direct engagement allowed them to monitor district actions and push for effective implementation when policies changed.

With more than 14,000 school districts nationwide, Atlantic had to be selective about where it could provide funding.

 

With more than 14,000 school districts, Atlantic would have to be selective about where it could provide funding. The foundation soon identified organizations working in 16 states. These included groups with a history of work on this issue and that were located in districts where prior advocacy had already shifted policy. The focus in these places, including Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles, was to advance implementation and use the success of the local work to press for statewide reform. The cohort also included groups working in districts where there had been little awareness of the problem, but where the data indicated a serious need for change. Importantly, the coverage—which encompassed almost a third of U.S. states, including a mix of large urban communities and smaller districts, as well as a combination of local and state-level work—was important to convey the rising momentum for change.

Grassroots youth, parent, and community organizing provided a foundation for the so-called “tipping point” strategy, in which change would occur in important places and inspire change elsewhere. Seeking to increase the influence of these groups on policy, Atlantic turned next to funding legal advocates—civil rights groups and public interest law firms that were focused on this issue at both the local and the national levels. They included:

• Advancement Project

• The National Economic & Social Rights Initiative

• Dignity in Schools Campaign

• LDF Legal Strategies Collaborative

• The NAACP Legal Defense Fund

• The National ACLU and state affiliates

• National NAACP

• The New York Civil Liberties Union

• The Southern Poverty Law Center

A vast array of small, grassroots organizations would be needed to help carry out the bottom-up approach, but it’s difficult for a large foundation to make many small grants. One solution was the creation of a pooled donor fund that would engage other donors in this work. The Just and Fair Schools Fund was created to serve this purpose.* This would also provide the resources necessary to strengthen these organizations so they would be able to continue their work beyond 2016, when Atlantic would exit the field.

Strengthen federal mandates and incentives for reform

While school districts largely set their own discipline policies, federal action could influence school districts to change their practices. As a result, Atlantic invested heavily in advocacy efforts to influence Congress and the Obama administration to pay attention to this issue. Grantees like the Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, and Dignity in Schools Campaign helped train local groups to advocate on the issue and to become national spokespeople. They traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers to persuade them to take action.

Under zero tolerance policies, 60 percent of all students in Texas had been suspended at one point in their school careers; a vast majority of them were students of color.

While Atlantic was initially hopeful that Congress would pass legislation favorable to their work, the mid-term elections of 2010 heralded a legislative logjam in Washington that has persisted to the time of this writing, in mid-2017. As a result, the strategy shifted to appeal to federal agencies to take up the cause.

Atlantic and some of its other funding partners, including the Open Society Foundations, assisted in facilitating relationships between advocates and federal officials, helping grantees share personal stories about the effects of zero-tolerance policies on students, and ensuring that youth voices were properly heard.

Atlantic funded the efforts of the Council on State Governments to share groundbreaking data on discriminatory school discipline policies to officials at the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. One pivotal meeting included Attorney General Eric Holder and other top officials of the Department of Justice. At one point during the presentation, Attorney General Holder heard evidence that revealed that 60 percent of all students in Texas had been suspended at one point in their school careers and that the vast percentage were students of color. At that point, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “Excuse me, could you say that again?” then turned to an aide and said, “We have to do something about this.”

Juvenile court judges worked with school officials, law enforcement, and advocacy groups to reform the disciplinary code and find alternatives to harsh punishments for minor infractions.

As a result of these direct advocacy activities, the Justice Department then engaged the Department of Education, and the two agencies collaborated in the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. This eventually led to direct involvement by President Obama, who issued a report called “My Brother’s Keeper,” which included a strong call for school discipline reform.

Engage educators and judicial leaders in promoting positive discipline

Another important grassroots strategy involved identifying juvenile court judges who had become frustrated at having their calendars clogged with young people arrested for minor offenses like gum chewing, low-riding pants, or shoving in the hallway. These judges, in particular in Jefferson County, Alabama, and Clayton County, Georgia, had been working with school officials, law enforcement, and advocacy groups to reform the disciplinary code and find alternatives to harsh punishments for minor infractions. This work proved to be an effective model for other judges to follow.

Advocacy from influential members of the legal community was essential. The late Judge Judith Kaye, the former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, became a strenuous advocate for school discipline reform. Judge Kaye convened her judicial colleagues to raise awareness of the issue and connect them to sources of data and expertise. Atlantic was joined by other donors and the federal government in supporting the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges to launch a project to help share information and strategies with judges.

Spread knowledge about school discipline reform and disparity reduction

As the example with the attorney general demonstrated, advocacy alone wasn’t enough—it would need to be supported by data.

Grantees needed to show the negative effects of zero-tolerance policies not only on the children involved, but on how those policies damaged entire schools. It was also not enough to demonstrate the policies that didn’t work. Alternatives needed to be tested to show that positive discipline approaches were more effective ways of educating schoolchildren and maintaining order in the classroom.

Atlantic made grants to develop and share information on how to design more effective approaches. The Discipline Disparities Collaborative is one example. It consisted of researchers, educators, and advocates, and it identified and shared research on emerging innovations in the field. Atlantic also funded the Council of State Governments and the American Institutes for Research’s National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline to provide information.

Alternatives needed to be tested to show that positive discipline approaches were effective at educating schoolchildren and maintaining order in the classroom.

 

THE COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY

A robust communications strategy was essential to success. Changing discipline policy and practice required changing the conversation among educators, lawmakers, judges, and even parents about why suspensions, expulsions, and arrests in school were wrong, and what needed to be done about it. Decision makers needed to hear credible facts, delivered by authentic and powerful messengers.

There were few organizations with sufficient staff and funding to carry out this work. At the time Atlantic embarked on this strategy, messaging about problems with zero tolerance and its alternatives was not well coordinated, and there was no integrated media strategy that would reinforce the work of grassroots organizations or elite insiders.

There was also no full-time communications person in any office in the country whose job was dedicated to exploding the myths of zero tolerance school discipline policies. There was nobody to do rapid response to take advantage of breaking national news to make the issue relevant in local communities. (In one well-known incident, a 6-year-old Cub Scout was suspended for taking a camping utensil commonly referred to as a “spork” to school.)

The Advancement Project and The Dignity in Schools Campaign created a host of useful tools to help tell their stories, including social media campaigns, websites, infographics, and toolkits.

While there was episodic coverage of examples of the negative effects of harsh disciplinary measures in schools, it was not tied to a larger campaign, and reporting was considered shallow at best. Few stories linked examples with issues of the disproportionate use of suspensions, expulsions, or arrests of students of color, the lack of effectiveness of these tactics, or the advantages of a more constructive approach to discipline.

Atlantic made grants to two anchor organizations, the Advancement Project and the Dignity in Schools Campaign, to drive national news stories that could be tied to more local efforts. Advancement Project conducted focus groups to develop messages and then engaged grassroots groups to learn about new messaging and to practice using those messages in national “Action Camps.” Along with Dignity in Schools, they collected personal stories that could be used by a variety of partners. These national organizations also created a host of other useful tools and tactics to help tell their stories, including social media campaigns, websites, infographics, and toolkits.

Grassroots activists not only needed to reach more media outlets, but they also had to ensure that local stories fed a larger narrative on the need and momentum for reform. Atlantic brought in a media firm called the Hatcher Group to work with grassroots organizations, researchers, legal advocates, and national advocacy organizations to conduct media relations with national outlets and to track and analyze media coverage. In addition, they funded the Columbia School of Journalism and the Southern Education Foundation to host two-day in-depth institutes for journalists to learn about the issue.

“Atlantic treated grantees as partners, not contractors. …they shared information, and there was great respect on all sides.” Virginia Edwards, former editor of EdWeek

Given the importance of educators as an audience, Atlantic funded a school discipline journalism beat at EdWeek, a national newspaper dedicated to education that is read widely by policymakers, teachers, administrators, and funders. The grant helped highlight the problem and provide constructive solutions to a sophisticated and influential audience. According to EdWeek’s former editor, Virginia Edwards, the coverage proved exceedingly popular among policymakers and practitioners, and school discipline became one of the most frequent search terms on the EdWeek website.

Reform advocates sought to change the thinking of a broad set of audiences.

 

Taken together, these efforts were designed to re-frame the issue. This is one of the most difficult challenges in communications, because changing an audience’s perception of an issue requires undoing an existing norm and establishing a more compelling counter-narrative. Reform advocates sought to change the thinking of a broad set of audiences, who saw harsh school discipline measures as a necessary evil to make classrooms safer and promote learning. The goal was to help them realize that this approach was ineffective and cruel, and it was putting the futures of thousands upon thousands of schoolchildren at risk—students who were disproportionately people of color.

It was important to develop appropriate messengers for this strategy. Funders made sure that students had the opportunity and the means to tell their own stories and advocate for fairness directly with important decision makers. For example, young people working with Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City attended rallies, public hearings, city council meetings, and community events, and wrote op-eds calling on New York to changes its policies. (The work is making a difference—in 2016, the New York City Mayor’s budget allocated $47 million for school discipline reform.) This approach was carried out by many similar types of organizations across the country. It was at a meeting of students visiting Washington organized by a grassroots youth group called the Alliance for Educational Justice that Department of Education officials began to take notice of the issue.

In 2016, the New York City Mayor’s budget allocated $47 million for school discipline reform.

 

Atlantic also worked with elite messengers like Judge Kaye in New York to host conferences to bring together judges and education leaders to address the school-to-prison pipeline, gathering allies to press for changes. Finally, rank-and-file teachers along with powerful teachers’ unions would need to endorse a new approach to school discipline. A partnership with the Schott Foundation, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and the Alliance for Educational Justice helped engage national figures like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and others, who took up the call to address the severe disparities in punishment disproportionately felt by students of color. Grants to the American Federation of Teachers allowed the national organization to better work with its local affiliates to commit to seek alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

ATLANTIC’S ROLE IN THE STRATEGY

Atlantic’s basic assumptions proved to be correct. It might appear as though Atlantic acted as a contractor in which it identified clear goals and hired sub-contractors to achieve them. This would be a simplistic reading of the foundation’s role. In fact, Atlantic used its influence when the time was right, but remained in the background when it made sense to do so. Overall, the foundation played a variety of roles in the school discipline reform strategy, including:

Co-funder. Atlantic was by no means the first funder to take on this issue. By 2010, when Atlantic was making its funding decisions, a number of other funders were already hard at work or would soon join, including: Open Society Institute, Edward W. Hazen Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, JEHT Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Schott Foundation for Public Education. Atlantic drew from the work already underway and determined that it could build on the existing activities with its own considerable investment to make a meaningful difference on the issue. The funder’s collaborative allowed grantmakers to share strategic decisions and ensure that important parts of the strategy did not fall through the cracks. Atlantic was able to turn to a number of other funders who had long been interested in the issue to collaborate on their grantmaking as well. Among other activities, these additional funders met regularly to create strategies about how to use their collective resources to better support the field and more effectively encourage government action.

Many grantees have noted that they learned a great deal from each other at events hosted by Atlantic.

 

Convener. Many grantees have noted that they learned a great deal from each other at events hosted by Atlantic. Atlantic could use its role as large funder to bring groups together to learn from each other, but Atlantic did not convene these meetings directly. Instead they supported grantees in the field to host or facilitate meetings, conferences, or other gatherings for organizations that would not otherwise have had the opportunity to work together and learn from each other. Kesi Foster of the Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City noted, “It was extremely important to learn from the successes and challenges in other cities and to build relationships with other groups.”

“It was extremely important to learn from the successes and challenges in other cities and to build relationships with other groups.” Kesi Foster, Urban Youth Collaborative

Connector. As a large funder, Atlantic played a particularly important role in advancing Atlantic’s inside strategy. Atlantic took advantage of its contacts within government and its influence as a large philanthropic organization to legitimize the work of its grantees through Atlantic’s own independent relationships with policymakers and other influential decision makers. These relationships would help grantees be more effective in meetings, hearings, and other gatherings in which grantees communicated directly with key decision makers, a strategy that turned out to be extremely effective.

Teachers unions were loathe to take a chance on new strategies. An investment in advocacy, research, and journalism won them over.

 

Collaborator. Atlantic staff saw their role as a collaborator, not a leader. Tanya Coke notes: “The advocates were there — we just funded them so they had some capacity for the first time. But what we added was the research as well as champions who could point to how zero tolerance was undermining educational outcomes and graduation rates.” It was important to work side by side with grantees and other funders. Virginia Edwards, the former editor and publisher of EdWeek, said that Atlantic “treated grantees as partners, not contractors.” She added that “they shared information, and there was great respect on all sides.”

OBSTACLES TO SUCCESS

Every strategy has obstacles. There were a number of challenges that Atlantic and its grantees had to overcome.

To begin with, by 2010 there was little hope that Congress would pass comprehensive federal education reform. The nation’s federal education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known since 2002 as No Child Left Behind) was supposed to have been reauthorized in 2007. By 2010, the bill was still hopelessly stalled. Instead, Atlantic focused its federal strategy on government agencies. At first, they gained little traction until they were able to show officials from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice how this issue was undermining educational outcomes for America’s schoolchildren.

Schools are making progress, although the data reveal that students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities are still likely to be suspended or expelled more than their classmates.

 

Teachers also presented a challenge. Given the intense pressure to produce higher test scores and high graduation rates under No Child Left Behind, teachers, and especially teachers unions, were loathe to take a chance on new strategies. The investment in advocacy, research, and journalism that was targeted toward education professionals proved essential, eventually leading to a partnership with the American Federation of Teachers.

These challenges have proved surmountable. Even the federal education reauthorization was passed, against all odds, in December 2015. The new legislation, which was influenced by Atlantic grantees like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, contains extensive direction about how to create a climate in the classroom that is more conducive to learning, including reducing the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom.

HOW DID IT ALL TURN OUT?

This strategy has proven to be remarkably successful in its execution and its outcomes. The work by grassroots organizations across the country has helped to spur reform in more than a dozen states. News coverage of the issue has increased nearly eightfold from 2011 to 2014, and public attitudes, which once favored zero tolerance, are now shifting to support restorative justice and other disciplinary alternatives.

Legislation passed in 2015, and which Atlantic grantees influenced, contained extensive direction abot how to create a climate in the classroom conducive to learning.

Schools quickly made progress. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, out-of-school suspensions were down by almost 20 percent from 2012 to 2014. While this is a step in the right direction, the data reveal that students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities are still likely to be suspended or expelled more than their classmates.

Even the federal education reauthorization bill was passed in late 2015 and is the product of significant input from Atlantic grantees on school discipline. As evaluator Stacie Foster noted, “I have never seen anything that has worked as well as this has. Grantees all say that they’ve never seen an issue go so far so fast.”

LESSONS FOR THE FIELD

There is no shortage of lessons that funders and advocates can take from Atlantic’s work on school discipline reform. A number of items stand out, which may be applicable to a host of advocacy campaigns.

1. Authentic messengers, especially youth, were critical. The decision at the outset to provide a forum for young people was the right one. Throughout the campaign, youth have presented emphatic and deeply authentic voices, advocating for a school system that values learning and treats every student with respect. As Kavitha Mediratta points out, “We didn’t pick this issue—young people did. We were just smart enough to listen.”

2. Local activists were essential. Choosing a bottom-up/top-down approach proved to be very effective. The presence of parents, students, and other members of the community pushing for change in their schools, regions, and states has been of particular importance. As Tanya Coke notes, “None of our success could have happened without smart, committed local advocates who were directly affected by these policies.”

Atlantic spent $47 million over four years to help turn the tide on school discipline. There are many multi-hundred million-dollar philanthropic campaigns that have yielded less favorable results.

 

3. Changing the narrative is particularly necessary when decision-making is decentralized. Most decisions about school discipline are made by school districts. With more than 14,000 school districts in the United States, it would be impossible to directly persuade each district. But there were certain districts that served as bellwethers for the issue. As they began to change their practices, it provided the opportunity to tell a larger story about the trend of forward-thinking districts taking on a difficult problem, and it encouraged other districts to do the same. While this has created momentum, the domino effect is not yet complete.

4. Even if the focus is on grantees, foundations can use their influence to help grantees gain access. Atlantic was able to regularly use its credibility with decision makers to reinforce relationships between grantees and decision makers to advance the overall strategy. Atlantic knew how compelling young people were as messengers, but the imprimatur of grantees’ relationships with Atlantic also proved useful.

5. Funder collaboration is key. Atlantic was not the first funder to discover this issue, and given that the foundation completed its grantmaking in the end of 2016, it knew that it couldn’t be the last. No funder can take on an issue alone— there simply isn’t enough money to solve almost any particular problem without partners, and the value of diverse experience and perspectives cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, funding collaborations can be tricky, and it is essential to be flexible and to maintain open lines of communication.

Building trusting relationships was essential, and Atlantic worked with its grantees and co-funders as true partners.

 

6. Big systems change can happen with a relatively small investment. Atlantic spent $47 million over four years to help turn the tide on school discipline. That may seem like a significant amount of money, but there are many multi-hundredmillion-dollar philanthropic campaigns that have yielded less favorable results. There were already a number of funders working on the issue, but Atlantic’s funding injected new energy and desperately needed resources into the effort. Still, $47 million remains a relatively small sum to make a difference on an issue that is felt by nearly every school district in the country.

7. Funders should remember that they have a variety of tools in their toolbox, and that grantmaking is just one way to make change. It can be tempting to rely on one approach to achieve success. Given that Atlantic was attempting to build and sustain a movement, it tried to make sure that it left no strategic stone unturned. In addition to a strong commitment to grassroots and federal advocacy, Atlantic funded research, journalism, and technical assistance for grantees, among a variety of approaches. Finally, building trusting relationships was essential, and Atlantic worked with its grantees and co-funders as true partners and sought to build trust and maintain accountability by developing and implementing its strategy in a transparent way.

“We took a bet that this issue would get traction and that it would be important. I think our instinct about the issue was right, and that we could move the needle on educational outcomes for children of color.” Donna Lawrence, former head of Atlantic’s Global Children & Youth Program

CONCLUSION

In 2009, the problem of extreme discipline practices against students of color was a priority of very few important decision makers. The issue was a symptom of deeper problems that pervade American society—race determines how people are educated, whether they will succeed in school and get a decent job, and how they will fare in society throughout their lives. Atlantic saw this as an opportunity to create the kind of change that will be felt for generations. “We took a bet that this issue would get traction and that it would be important,” said Donna Lawrence. “I think our instinct about the issue was right, and that we could move the needle on educational outcomes for children of color.”

Despite the tremendous progress to date, it would be a mistake to think the work is finished.

 

Atlantic began by articulating a very specific grantmaking strategy that relied heavily on smart communications and effective advocacy. Its elements included a national communications strategy, message development, and media outreach. There was an equally powerful grassroots communications strategy that gave voice to students, parents, and communities affected by school discipline policies that disproportionately harmed young students of color. This strategy has been extremely successful, but as Kavitha Mediratta acknowledges, “Despite the tremendous progress to date, it would be a mistake to think the work is finished. The nation is only at the beginning stages of awareness and policy change, and shifting practice and culture in schools will take more time, resources, and commitment to achieve.” There is little doubt, however, that this previously invisible problem is now very visible.

 

RESOURCES ON SCHOOL DISCIPLINE REFORM

1. “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.” American Psychological Association. August, 2006. www.apa.org/pubs/ info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf

2. Callahan, David. “From Social Movement to Social Change: Philanthropy and School Discipline Reform.” Inside Philanthropy. December 8, 2015. www.insidephilanthropy.com/ home/2015/12/8/from-social-movement-to-social-change-philanthropy-and-schoo.html

3. Eckholm, Erik. “School Suspensions Lead to Legal Challenge.” New York Times. March 18, 2010. www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/education/19suspend.html

4. Fiester, Leila. “Tilling the Field: Lessons About Philanthropy’s Role in School Discipline Reform.” Atlantic Philanthropies. July 21, 2015. www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/researchreports/tilling-the-field

5. Medirata, Kavitha. “A Powerful Partner: Philanthropy’s Role in Promoting Positive Approaches to School Discipline.” American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved December 21, 2015 from www.af.org/ae/winter2015-2016/medirata

6. Medirata, Kavitha. “Reforming School Discipline Policies to Improve Children’s Success.” Grantmakers in Health. February, 2015. www.gih.org/Publications/ViewsDetail. cfm?itemnumber=6930

7. Shah, Nirvi. “At a School of Last Resort, ‘Restorative Justice’ Offers Alternative Discipline Approach.” Education Week. January 4, 2013. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/01/ 10/16policy-side-vaka.h32.html

 

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