Restorative justice

Talk it out: Restorative justice techniques help school communities rethink approaches to discipline

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville uses restorative justice techniques as a way of dealing with disciplinary issues issues beyond suspensions.

Silent with arms crossed, two girls face each other across a table at Nashville’s Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School, their first day back to school after being suspended for fighting each other the week before.

The students had been avoiding each other since their classroom altercation in January. But now, along with three school administrators, they join a “community peace circle” to seek a resolution – a new practice at Pearl-Cohn following fights or other disciplinary infractions.

“This is just for you guys to try to take in and process yourselves first, process one another, and process how you can move on for yourselves and each other,” Gerlonda Hardin, the school’s dean of students, tells the girls.

Finally, one girl explains the source of her anger and heightened sensitivity. She has been living on her own for the first time, which she describes as difficult. When she heard the other girl talking about her with a group of other girls — a charge never denied — her feelings were hurt.

“I said something, and I shouldn’t have,” she acknowledges about her role in the altercation, noting that the next time she will keep to herself.

Researchers say such conversations improve a school’s climate on at least two levels: Students develop the skill of empathy by working to understand how the other participant perceived the initial conflict; and administrators learn more about their students and how to support them better.

“Most kids don’t like the aftermath of a fight. To the degree that they have skill sets and opportunities to solve things in other ways, they’re open to them,” said Maury Nation, a Vanderbilt University researcher studying such alternative discipline techniques in schools.

A different way

Community peace circles are just one piece of Pearl-Cohn’s programs aimed at restorative justice – a philosophy of resolution, discipline and reconciliation based on talking and learning the root cause of disciplinary issues, rather than depending solely on traditional methods of punishment such as detention of suspension.

The principles and goals of restorative justice are especially appealing as the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the idea that schools are ushering some students, especially minority students, into the criminal justice system — gains momentum in the national conversation around race in schools.

Across America, students of color are suspended and expelled at a far higher rate than white students. In Nashville, nearly 70 percent of students expelled in the district in 2011-2012 were black, even though black students made up only 45 percent of the student population.

“Once you suspend kids, you more than double the risk of them dropping out of school, and kids who drop out are at much larger risk of ending up [in the judicial system],” Nation said.

To address racial disparity in suspensions, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools kicked off an initiative last July called Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity (PASSAGE), to understand and reduce racial disparities in school discipline. This year, the district added eight counselors specializing in restorative justice from STARS, or Students Taking a Right Stand, a local non-profit organization, for a total of 14 restorative justice counselors districtwide. In schools across the state, STARS has about 50 counselors.

The Tennessee Department of Education is increasing its focus on restorative justice approaches as part of the Safe and Supportive School initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The grant, which goes through this year, allows Vanderbilt researchers to assess “school climate,” defined as the quality and character of school life based on patterns of personal experience. A positive school climate is associated with stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates, decreased incidences of violence and increased teacher retention, according to researchers.

This month in Nashville, the department held its first workshop for educators interested in restorative justice practices – which not only deal with how school officials respond to disciplinary issues, but how they can prevent them. It will be holding more workshops throughout the coming months through its Department of Student Services.

“Restorative practices are emerging as an opportunity to address discipline and behavior in a more positive way,” said Trevor Fronius, a researcher for WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.

Preliminary research suggests that restorative justice programs positively impact student behavior, but more research needs to be done, Fronius said. Regardless, many urban schools are trying out the approach, and educators say they like the resulting improvements in relationships within their schools.

Road to reconciliation

At Pearl-Cohn, early feedback looks promising.

Since administrators and staff began implementing restorative justice practices last fall, referrals to the principal’s office have decreased, and the school is on target to meet its goal of a 20 percent reduction in referrals.

With 900 students enrolled – more than 90 percent black and more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged – Pearl-Cohn has a disproportionate number of suspensions. During the 2013-2014 school year, 3,103 referrals were made involving more than 56 percent of the school’s student body.

Today, the school still issues suspensions for physical altercations, but they always are followed by community peace circle discussions.

The journey to community peace circles began three years ago when Sonia Stewart became principal of Pearl-Cohn. Changing the way administrators dealt with disciplinary issues was part of her larger plan to increase trust between students and faculty and remove barriers to academic success.

“Much of those barriers are behavioral,” Stewart said. “We didn’t even use language of restorative justice. It was more, ‘How are we going to interact with children? How will we interpret classroom behavior?’”

Restorative justice requires changing teachers’ understanding of students – and why they might be acting out. Stewart hosted professional development sessions, including poverty simulations, so teachers could better understand their students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and how to respond to disciplinary issues. Stewart also recruited a STARS counselor and an emotional learning specialist.

In her second year, Stewart began organizing small groups for students to learn about techniques in anger management.

This is the first year the school has used community peace circles. The school also added alternatives or supplements to suspension, in hopes of preventing repeated infractions. Every student sent to the office participates in a conference, in which they discuss what happened, why it happened, and what they could have done differently. After that, options include community service, peer mediation, writing letters of apology or an informal hearing.

After only a semester of community peace circles and other restorative justice techniques, school administrators say the school has fewer office referrals and fewer repeat offenders. They attribute the decrease partly due to students feeling more comfortable to discuss problems and conflicts with adults in the building.

“Our No. 1 goal is for students to be at school,” said Tanzye Hill, Pearl-Cohn’s community schools coordinator. “At other schools, they’re going to have higher rates of suspension or absenteeism, which means students aren’t … [at school] learning.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The names and ages of the two students described in this story were withheld by school administrators.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.