Rather Than Suspend Students, Support Them
At Cirrus Academy in Macon, Georgia, Superintendent Dr. Gail Fowler noticed that In School Suspensions (ISS) were not working. Dr. Fowler says of ISS, “it was punitive, regardless of what you were suspended for”. Cirrus Academy’s innovative alternative to in school suspensions is Eagles Bridge Academy, a holistic extension of the work being done at Cirrus Academy. I sat down with Dr. Fowler and Eagles Bridge Academy Coordinator Jarvis Adside Sr. over Zoom to talk about the ways Eagles Bridge is serving students, parents, and teachers better than ISS ever could.
In school suspension is a popular disciplinary tool used across public and charter schools. Students disciplined with ISS can still attend school, but they are suspended from participating in any other type of activity, including sitting with peers at lunch. In 2019, Dr. Fowler noticed that ISS wasn’t serving her students’ mental wellness needs and brought in Jarvis Adside Sr. as the ISS Coordinator. After Jarvis arrived, says Dr. Fowler, “it clicked. I don’t need in school suspension. I need someone to be able to have these conversations. Be that listening ear. And in the midst of that COVID was being born and I didn’t know it”.
In Mr. Adside’s words, “[Eagles Bridge Academy] is dedicated to the development of each student by providing positive behavior interventions that promote change and encourage the development of each student’s potential. So, our goal was to help students manage emotional, behavioral crises whether in school, in the home or in the community through education, human behavior, mental processes, and giving them the tools and resources that they need to be successful”. These tools looked like progress monitoring, wellness days, movement days, meditation days, and other focal points that weren’t necessarily academic, but impacted academic performance. Another tool is a physical person, usually Mr. Adside, sitting beside a particular student and supporting them if they have trouble staying on task. Jarvis Adside Sr. says, “it was actually a team effort that we did lead, we have a school nurse, an RN on campus. And also it involved our school counselor Dr. Chapman. It also involved our school nutrition director.” Dr. Fowler says that Eagles Bridge Academy is the bridge that connects wellness, teachers, parents and even social services to students, all while maintaining the privacy of the student.
Dr. Fowler, Mr. Adside and their Bridge Program understand that proper learning is a coordination of mind, body and spirit. It’s common knowledge that you can’t learn if all you can think about is how hungry you are. If a student has been stuck inside for days, like most of us were at the beginning of the pandemic, they’re going to have too much energy to focus on the Zoom lesson. Eagles Bridge Academy takes this understanding and creates a program that addresses students’ holistic needs because everything going on in a student’s life is going to affect how they perform in the classroom. “We don’t believe that we have bad kids.”, Mr. Adside says, “We know that kids are acting out or they are doing something for a reason. It’s our job to get to the root of that and make a recommendation to everybody who needs it.” If any stakeholder (student, teacher, administrator, parent, member of the Cirrus Academy school district) has trouble in any way, Jarvis Adside is there to be the listening ear and also connect stakeholders to resources. Dr. Fowler says, “If it’s any situation that you don’t want anyone to know but you know you can tell one person at this school and that’s Mr. Adside.” Jarvis Adside Sr. and Dr. Fowler tell of a Cirrus Academy family that was living out of a motel. Mr. Adside was personally checking in on the family, connecting them with social services, making sure their motel bill was paid and making sure they had food to eat. Serving their students at home, or wherever they may be living, is part of Eagles Bridge Academy’s wellness initiatives now, but this was a lesson taught by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the interview, Mr. Adside refers to Dr. Fowler as “prophetic”. I sense that too. There’s a knowing to the way Dr. Fowler speaks. A kind of wisdom from all her collected years in classrooms and out in communities. And to Dr. Fowler’s credit, the Bridge Program and its tools seemed ready to remedy many of the cracks in the education system that COVID made chasms. “It’s all kinds of critical situations that scholars come into school with that you better have somebody at school that can support these students with what they’re going through, living through day to day. So that they can focus on the academics”, says Dr. Fowler. The Superintendent and Mr. Adside want to see the Bridge Academy in other schools too. They know their students’ outcomes are better since replacing ISS. In a post-interview email, Jarvis Adside Sr. wrote, “Last school semester from August- December  I have seen about 10% of the total school population. Out of the 10% of scholars I have seen our program has been able to successfully reduce the number of scholars returning to the program for repeated offenses by 67%”. But because the program is so intensive, I had to ask, does every school that hopes to implement an Eagles Bridge Academy need a Jarvis Adside? Dr. Fowler says, “They do. Every school is not gonna have a Jarvis. They might get close because you have to have that passion, that commitment and you got to have that love for the children because you’re hearing this every day.”
Dr. Fowler and Mr. Adside have the progressive understanding that we are all connected and we all have a responsibility to take care of each other. They are not just responsible for the education of a student, but responsible for the outcome of an individual. Eagles Bridge Academy is meant to be the bridge between the academic, the home and the personal. Eagles Bridge was created to replace in school suspension; the Bridge Academy support students’ needs rather than punishes behavior. Dr. Fowler says, “the easiest thing to do is to suspend a child. That’s easy. And that’s not our work. Our work is to support our scholars whether its academically, social wellness so that they can grow up to be the best that they can be. If you can’t get that at school, where can you get it?”