For teachers and administrators to receive the bonuses, their schools had to meet district-set targets in truancy and chronic absenteeism — and increase the number of families who return school climate surveys that ask questions about safety and learning.
Only nine schools, called "turnaround schools" that have faced federal and state intervention for historically low performance and high suspension rates, were eligible for the bonuses.
The suspension reduction targets applied only to nonviolent offenses like cutting class, inciting or participating in a public disturbance, classroom disruption, insubordination and disrespect.
Of the schools eligible for the grant, only two — Calverton and Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle Schools — met the targets, and leaders at both said the program increased a sense of shared responsibility and accountability among teachers and students.
"The grant made us prioritize what's important," said Tanya Green, principal of Calverton, a long-troubled school that has noted significant progress in recent years. The district "never said not to suspend kids but rather be smart about what you're suspending for."
When she took over the school in 2008 and overhauled its administration, Green said, one of her key strategies for cutting the school's suspensions in half was changing staff attitudes about student behaviors, which also helped the school meet the program goals.
Last year, the school met its target of reducing "soft" suspensions from 23 to nine over six months. It rewarded good behavior and used alternative punishments, such as lunch detentions, that keep kids in school.
Teachers and school staff also made home visits, which contributed to a combined 4 percentage-point reduction in truancy and absentee rates.
Green said teachers were skeptical of the program at first.
"We asked them to imagine the impact they could have on a student where instead of saying, 'Get out of my classroom,' you say, 'You're going to eat lunch with me,' " she said. "We all had a lot more patience by the end of the year."
The principals said they also paid bonuses to every staff member in the school, though only teachers were eligible, including attendance monitors and others who were integral to meeting goals.
"It's probably one of the things I'm most proud of, because when you're talking about a school-wide effort, it takes a team," said Marc Martin, principal at Rodgers, which reduced soft offenses from 15 to six over six months, and the absentee rate by 4 percentage points.
In addition to alternatives like Saturday school detention, the school provided hourly updates to some families about their students' behavior, negative and positive, as a reinforcement strategy. And teachers picked up truant students every day.
Martin said that while the money mattered, Rodgers' staff is accustomed to taking on additional work with difficult students.
"The worth and the value of the program is that it put front and center what our goals were," Martin said. "But we aren't in a profession where we receive bonuses for meeting targets. It made everyone feel valued."
Under schools CEO Andrés Alonso, the system has sought to reverse a trend of using suspensions as a first resort, as was the case when the district logged 26,295 suspensions in the 2003-2004 school year.
The number fell precipitously in the years that followed, to 14,744 when Alonso arrived in 2007. Under his administration, the number dropped to a low of 9,712 in the 2009-2010 school year, before rising to 11,068 in 2011 and 11,394 in 2012.
In addressing principals at the beginning of the school year, Alonso threatened a moratorium on all suspensions for "soft offenses," which he said had been driving the uptick.
But Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, said district officials often reject principals' requests for suspensions, a requirement for longer-term suspensions. He said he believes that attaching a financial incentive will make school leaders less likely to even request them.
"In most cases, the students who need to be suspended from schools are not suspended," Gittings said. "They don't do what the principals are requesting, and it is causing mass disruption in the schools."
The district is using a new strategy this year called "climate walks," in which independent evaluators help school administrators and teachers understand their suspensions through data and observations about relationships, teaching and learning, physical environment, and safety.
Karen Webber-Ndour, who oversees the district's office of student support and safety, said the strategy has been successful in demonstrating that little things — like the way staff communicate with each other — can make a difference in student behavior.
"When students see how adults talk to each other with respect, display kindness, they amend their behavior accordingly," she said. "It is so elemental on some level, but it is time to get back to basics."