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School leader paves a more promising path

Superintendent Luvenia Jackson led nation in eliminating zero-tolerance discipline
  • Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Luvenia Jackson, left, and Principal Michael Robinson speak to two students at the district’s newly opened Martha Ellen Stillwell School of the Arts.
  • Students at Rex Mill Middle School program a wheeled Lego robot to navigate through a maze laid out in the center of their classroom.
  • Two Rex Mill Middle School students fine tune their robot's programming.
  • Principal Michael Robinson gives Superintendent Luvenia Jackson a quick drumming lesson at the Stillwell School of Arts, which is adjacent to Clayton County’s performing arts center.
  • A Rex Mill Middle School student launches her team's robot into the maze.

CLAYTON COUNTY, Georgia— Luvenia Jackson knows students can’t learn when they’re in jail. During 40 years in education, the Clayton County Public Schools superintendent has seen that academic performance cannot improve systemwide under zero-tolerance discipline.

Instead of leading to safer buildings and higher achievement, the strict policies cause excessive suspensions, lost instruction time, and students to be needlessly traumatized by criminal charges—all over behavior that can be better managed by teachers and administrators, she says.

“You cannot increase graduation rates if children are out of school,” says Jackson, who retired in 2010 as a special assistant to the superintendent but returned in 2012 as interim superintendent of the suburban Atlanta district in which she had spent her entire career.

“To reduce arrests, we had to have that belief that children really matter,” says Jackson, whose efforts at discipline reform were among the reasons she was named permanent superintendent of the 50,000-student district in 2014.

Support neediest students

Jackson began her career as a special education teacher in 1976. But her concern for struggling, disadvantaged and neglected students goes back farther, to her childhood during the segregation era of the 1950s and ’60s. She was raised by her grandparents in one of the poorest areas in southern Georgia. She too was poor, but says she had a small advantage, in that her grandparents owned land.

“They promoted getting an education and treating people right,” she says. “They said you have to finish school, and you can do better than we have done.”

Her career choices seemed limited to teaching and nursing. Her interest in special education also began around that time, when she learned to communicate with a relative who was deaf.

“That was fascinating to me—to learn some sign language and be able to converse with him,” she says. “So when I had to focus on a major I decided to get into special education because maybe I could make a bigger difference there.”

Clayton County Public Schools

  • Schools: 65, plus 1 early childhood center
  • Students: 54,431 (pre-K through grade 12)
  • English language learners: 4,600(pre-K through grade 12)
  • Staff and faculty: 7,100
  • Per child expenditure: $7,661
  • Graduation rate: 66%
  • Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 100%
  • Yearly budget: $411,944,226
  • www.clayton.k12.ga.us

She says she didn’t feel the brunt of bigotry until she went to community college in Atlanta. She befriended white students but had trouble with some of her instructors, who told her she couldn’t write or speak well enough. “I had to ask myself, is this really racism or am I not as smart as I thought I was?” she says.

She went to the library, and tried to adopt the tone of the writing she found in the books there. When instructors still criticized her work, she threatened to report them to a dean. Their feedback suddenly became more positive.

“That changed my perspective about how you have to promote yourself and really believe in yourself,” she says. “You really have to get over racism or it can take over your life.”

Those experiences helped frame a career spent looking out for the most needy. Her first special ed classes didn’t have textbooks. Jackson not only galvanized other teachers to make sure the students had books and other learning materials, but she also made breakfast for kids who hadn’t eaten. She took others to doctor appointments after school.

The range of students’ academic and emotional abilities in her early special ed classes also gave her an early start on a modern trend—personalized learning. “I would have 15 students with disabilities, ranging from 40 to 70 in IQ, and you taught them everything, all the core subjects at their levels of learning,” she says.

“All I knew to do was differentiate instruction—you teach the same concept at a first-grade and a fifth-grade level in the same classroom.”

Creating a national model

Over the last 15 years, Jackson and Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske have developed a national model of progressive interventions designed to stop bad or aggressive behavior and to keep students in school.

When they launched the initiative around 2001, misdemeanors, including fights, disruptive behavior and truancy accounted for 92 percent of the criminal cases against students.

Now, school resource officers have developed closer, trusting relationships with students by taking a proactive approach. For example, police recently caught a number of students bringing pocket knives and fake handguns to school. Instead of rushing to impose punishments, police investigated and learned the students were being bullied on the way to school.

“We wanted SROs who really wanted to work with children and staff in a positive manner, and who understand the characteristics of youth development,” Jackson says.

The resource officers no longer arrest students for disobeying teachers, or disrupting class, or even for minor fights. Now, a student who gets into a scuffle will more likely be back in school on a Saturday to discuss their behavior with their parents and district counselors—instead of having to hire a defense lawyer.

Administrators, principals and teachers have received new training on handling discipline problems. They’ve learned techniques for de-escalating conflicts that erupt between themselves and students, or between students and their classmates.

Superintendent Jackson’s Favorite Things

Teacher: Ms. Young (high school teacher)

Pastime/Hobby: Cooking, volunteering with local church

Sports: Tennis

City: Atlanta

Food: Seafood

Dessert: Pound cake

Books: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee; Visible Learning by John Hattie

Music: Tina Turner, Patti Labelle

Facebook, Twitter or YouTube: All—facebook.com/ccpsnews; twitter.com/ccpsnews; youtube.com/ccpsnews

Heroes: Thurgood Marshall

Sheroes: Eleanor Roosevelt

Quote: “I am not responsible for your happiness.” (author unknown)

In 2010, Jackson and Teske created a program to help students who do end up in court, charged with felonies, including violent crimes. With help from grant funding, the “System of Care” homegrown initiative provides more intensive psychological counseling, health care, family outreach and other social services to students with chronic behavior problems or who have been in jail.

Students who have gone through the program—which Jackson ran during her retirement—have improved their attendance by 62 percent and increased scores in English, science and math. “It’s not about singling a child out,” says Jackson. “It’s about giving a child what he or she needs—from the most gifted to those who need more.”

A dependable leader

Jackson has served as principal at a middle school and an elementary. She then rose through the ranks of the administration before she left the only district for which she’d ever worked.

So why did she take on such a demanding job when the district asked her to return? It’s not like she was sending out resumes or regretting her decision to retire—she had plenty of things to do, including volunteering at her church and devoting more time to cooking, she says.

“I didn’t see the job of superintendent as being so stressful at the time,” Jackson recalls. “I guess I’m a teacher at heart—I love Clayton County and felt I could have created an impact.”

Pam Adamson, chairman of the Clayton County school board, says the district turned to Jackson after years of heavy turnover among superintendents, a period of time that also saw the district lose and regain accreditation in 2008-09.

Many in the community felt leaders hired from outside the area never adequately grasped the county’s specific needs, Adamson says.

Community support has strengthened substantially during Jackson’s tenure. The district has also had to cope with several changes in Georgia’s state assessments. This has made it hard to measure student progress, says Adamson.

“We have an affluent county just to the west and often folks want to compare our kids to those kids,” she says. “We have to keep reminding everybody that they’ve got to work extremely hard to educate these children—they’ve got to commit to every moment of instruction.”

Yet improvements at the schools have helped fuel growth in some of the county’s municipalities. Bobby Cartwright, mayor of the city of Lovejoy, says changing perceptions of the district have attracted more families with school-age children. Jackson’s more honest administration style has fueled that shift, he says.

“Compared to where we were, it’s two different districts,” Cartwright says. “We couldn’t depend on anything we heard for a long period of time. Now, we’ve got somebody we can depend on.”

PD stands out

Jackson says staff morale was low and individual schools had no clear academic plan when she took the helm. To improve the culture, Jackson and her leadership team worked to establish a curriculum and teaching practices that reflected Clayton County’s status as a high-poverty, Title I district.

“We had to realize we were not going to have children coming to school as prepared as we’d like,” Jackson says. “We had to do more remediation from the beginning to get children where we wanted them to be, then we could begin with our academic goals.”

Jackson launched a “very aggressive” PD plan that included sharing data with teachers on where students stood academically and emphasized the rigorous instruction that would raise performance. Major focuses include improving literacy across the curriculum and giving teachers time to plan lessons with their colleagues from different grade levels, Jackson says.

“We are making progress,” Jackson says. “We do intend to lead this metro area through our PD. Many people in education now say, ‘Get teachers from Clayton County because they are being trained very well.’”

Getting ahead of a burgeoning education trend this school year, Jackson pushed for and received board approval for high school students to get more sleep by setting start times 40 minutes later. Students have been more alert, disruptive behavior has decreased and extracurricular activities haven’t been affected, she says.

Also this school year, the Stillwell School for the Arts opened in its own brand-new building adjacent to the county’s performing arts center. And a health clinic that doubles as a medical provider and academic resource now operates at North Clayton High School.

Enabling parents to take children there for medical care that they can’t get privately has improved attendance. Academically, the clinic is also the first step in developing the high school’s advanced career pathway: health care technology—specifically, robotics.

“It’s very specialized, and when you look at what’s going on with health care, a lot of it is centered around developing technology,” Jackson says. “It will introduce students to careers they might not have dreamed of before.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.