Grace and equity: How Port Huron's Central Middle School has reduced racial discipline disparities

After several years spent in Florida and Boston, first as a teacher and then as principal, Shawn Shackelford was returning to Michigan. The Mt. Clemens native was about to accept a job as the principal at Port Huron’s Central Middle School.

It was the summer of 2017, and Shackelford was crossing the Blue Water Bridge into Port Huron, taking the shortcut from Massachusetts by driving through Ontario. When the customs agent quizzed him upon his re-entry into the U.S., Shackelford replied that he was going to interview at Central.

"The agent said his wife works there and said, 'That’s a tough school.' It’s a stigma attached to Central Middle School," Shackelford says.

"My number one goal was to get to know the staff and community. What we really needed to do was to change the perception of Central."

Shackelford started as principal there in July 2017 and immediately began working to change not only the perception of Central, but the culture, too.

To start, Shackelford set out to combat negative perceptions of the school with a social media campaign of positivity. Utilizing the hashtag #Positivity, the school would share all things positive happening at Central. The little things that happen throughout a school day, teachers’ birthdays – if it was positive, it was shared. He would post photos with students, dubbed Selfies with the Shack, and hold Facebook Live sessions for parents.

"That personal touch is something very important for our community," he says.

While Shackelford was working to change outside perceptions of the school, he was changing how things were run inside the school, too.

A year prior to his arrival, Central, along with Holland Woods Middle School and Port Huron High School, enrolled in a statewide equity pilot project to reduce racial discipline disparities in Michigan schools. And though the program started a year before he got there, Shackelford has fully embraced its mission.

Data revealed that Black students and students receiving special education services were subject to an inordinate number of referrals and out-of-school suspensions. For instance, while Black students make up just 8 percent of the student population at Central, data from the 2015-16 school year revealed that Black students were subjected to more than 20 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. By the 2018-19 school year, however, that number had been reduced to 12 percent.

Discipline issues have been treated differently across the board, too. There were 630 total out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year and just 155 in 2018-19.

"At any middle school, you’re going to have middle school behavior. We have to take an alternative approach to how we deal with it. We have to take a restorative approach," Shackelford says.

Shackelford took a three-step approach to addressing the disparities in discipline: Data, the Refocus Room, and a mentoring program for Black male students. Shackelford actively utilizes a principle of grace to unite the three.

Shawn Shackelford at Central's team equity trainingHe not only used data to assess the situation, he shared it with his teachers, too. In doing so, along with dedicated professional development programs, Shackelford worked to chip away at any personal biases teachers may have, no matter how hidden they may be.

"When I came in, doing the equity work was hard because I was the only Black adult in the building. So that was tough," Shackelford says.

"Some staff thought they were being called racist. It took two years to explain that we’re not calling anybody a racist. We just need you to take a step back and think about where everyone is coming from."

Shackelford uses the term cultural mismatch to help explain how the dominant culture of a building can negatively impact minorities and hide implicit biases that teachers don’t even realize that they may have.

"The point of all equity work is to take a step back, reflect, and be honest with yourself. It’s okay to have tough conversations as long as you grow," he says.

As teachers became more aware of issues of equity, referral numbers went down. For students still facing discipline, they were sent to the Refocus Room. Rather than an in-school suspension, where Shackelford says many behavior issues persisted, the Refocus Room works to identify students’ behavior, work with them to address those issues, and get them back to class as soon as possible.

The third aspect of Shackelford’s mission of equity is the mentoring group for Black male students. A group of Black men, leaders of the community like Rev. Alex Crittenden and the Community Foundation’s Kevin Totty, meet weekly with a select group of students.

"My focus is grace. I spend a lot of time talking about grace. And especially in terms of equity work. We have to give our kids the benefit of the doubt. We have to extend grace to our kids and then a lot comes back to us," Shackelford says.

"The question is how we can share opportunities in our building to show grace to our kids. And if we do, they will support us."

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