a different approach

As city prepares to rethink school discipline, a look at restorative justice programs in action

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Senior Judith Nkwor is a peer mediator at Validus Prep, a school that has implemented new discipline strategies that aim to minimize suspensions.

It’s a clear morning in mid-June, and Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx has that end-of-the-school-year feel. Students bid farewell to teachers, seniors tote freshly printed yearbooks, and most noticeably, students are allowed to disregard the school uniform without a call home or a trip to the principal’s office.

Yet even on a regular day, breaking the dress code would not lead to these consequences. In Validus terms, offenders would be “brought to Fairness” instead.

Validus, a small high school opened during the Bloomberg administration, is one of a number of city schools using restorative justice practices like student justice panels that are meant to provide useful alternatives to punitive discipline.

For the past few years, the Department of Education has been quietly building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. Most recently, the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development verbally committed to expanding the programs next year by providing funding that would allow schools to hire restorative justice coordinators and train staff members.

Though the number of schools involved and the dollar amount each would receive have yet to be determined, a proposal presented by the New York chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign last December outlines an $8.75 million investment: a pilot cohort of 10 schools, each receiving $175,000 annually for five years.

That would be a significant step in a citywide shift toward restorative justice that Chancellor Carmen Fariña promoted in May, and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for as public advocate.

A closer look at restorative justice in action reveals the challenges the city is likely to face in spreading these programs. The schools currently using restorative approaches tend to be small, young, and emphasize social-emotional learning. Educators at these schools say the programs are essential to creating a safer, more respectful environment. But for an expansion to work, other schools must commit to rethinking the “why” and “how” of school discipline.

Analyzing the programs in practice

“Restorative justice is about creating new systems where we’re building relationships,” said Anne Looser, a special education teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, which has a restorative justice program. “We’re putting supports into place so young people don’t get lost.”

These supports can take the form of student justice panels, peer mediation programs, “restorative circles,” and other methods. They all aim to change students’ offending behaviors and repair damaged relationships through resolutions like writing an apology note or helping out a teacher.

Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Restorative justice programs at Validus Prep High School in the Bronx include Fairness Committee and a peer mediation program.

In contrast, restorative justice supporters argue, using suspensions as the universal consequence for behavior incidents further alienates at-risk students and often fails to address the root of their behavioral problems.

Suspensions from city schools decreased 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, though there were still 53,465 suspensions last year. For schools looking to reduce their reliance on punitive discipline, restorative justice programs are meant to provide teachers and students with multiple options for dealing with conflict.

At Validus, the Fairness Committee independently handles a wide range of offenses, from incidents of bullying to small disruptions like violating the cell phone policy. The most severe infractions, such as those involving drugs or weapons, are sent directly to the administration.

Fairness Committee meets once or twice a week, and all students rotate serving as panelists. A teacher facilitator leads the group in discussing the student’s actions and creating resolutions to right the wrong.

Validus also runs a peer mediation program, which art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy believes has led to changes in the school culture. “There seems to be this sort of tangential effect,” she said. “Because students know there’s a peer mediation program, they seem to just be aware of conflict resolution. They don’t glorify fighting.”

“I think it’s good for teachers too,” said senior Judith Nkwor, who is a peer mediator. “They don’t feel hopeless when they’re dealing with students; they have an option to help them stay focused and make them accountable for their actions.”

At Flushing International High School, the Lyons Community School, and the Bronx Academy of Letters, restorative justice often occurs in “restorative circles”—gatherings where participants sit in a circle to build community through conversation. The schools use circles in classroom discussions, to address discipline issues, to comfort students dealing with trauma, or to reintegrate students into the school after a suspension.

According to Flushing International social worker Tania Romero, the environment at her school “has become much more peaceful.”

This year, Romero added, circles have helped “open up conversations in more meaningful and deeper ways,” allowing students to discuss issues like racism.

At the moment, it’s difficult to judge whether these programs have reduced suspensions. Some schools, such as Lyons, said they do not keep such records, and others, including Validus, Bronx Letters, and Flushing International, would not share these numbers with Chalkbeat. But educators at these schools say that punitive measures have decreased as a result of restorative programs.

They also stress, however, that restorative justice is not intended to replace suspensions entirely.

“Do we use suspensions all the time? Yes. But we have a larger bank of tools,” explained Lyons Principal Taeko Onishi. “Our goal is to make sure in each case that we consider the restorative options before we go another route, or we use them in tandem.”

Taking restorative justice to the next level

Interestingly, many of the schools using restorative justice share certain qualities. Validus, Lyons, Letters, and Flushing International were all founded in the 2000s, maintain a student body under 600, and started restorative justice programs within the past five or so years.

Each school also has a specific focus. The Bronx Academy of Letters emphasizes writing skills, Flushing International works with students who have recently immigrated, and Validus is an Outward Bound expeditionary learning school, for example. In recent years, all have dedicated time and resources to establishing a school climate where communication and support are highly prized to accommodate restorative justice.

To some, scaling up restorative justice programs to very different schools could present challenges.

Creating a culture where educators default to restorative practices instead of suspensions takes time, Munkatchy explained. In fact, it’s still an adjustment at her own school.

“Is insubordination a suspendable offense?” she asked. “If a kid says ‘f— you,’ at the moment, seven or eight of our faculty will say it’s a suspendable offense. I feel like that is a really poor relationship between a kid and an adult.”

Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Art and chemistry teacher Jamie Munkatchy runs the Fairness Committee at Validus Prep.

Getting students to buy in to the programs is another hurdle, one that Onishi said took years to overcome at Lyons. But now, if a new student doesn’t take restorative justice seriously, “I’ll get the coolest 11th grader to come tell them to buy in,” she said.

Looser, the special education teacher at Letters, formerly taught at Lehman High in the Bronx, a school of about 2,000 students that was nearly shut down by the city in 2012 and again in 2013.

Lehman ran a mentoring program that paired seniors with freshmen, and a number of teachers were trained in restorative justice practices. But “because the school was going through so much turmoil, there was constant interruption of consistency of service,” Looser said.

Yet the size of the school itself was not an issue, she said. If anything, it was easier to gather a pool of teachers for training since the staff was so large. A larger faculty would also mean less time and effort required from individual teachers to support restorative justice.

For now, the scope of the department’s commitment to expanding restorative justice to additional schools is uncertain. But the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a nonprofit focused on discipline reform, has a clear a long-term vision: a restorative justice coordinator at every school in the city.

Instead of teachers volunteering to organize different aspects of a restorative justice program, as is the case at Validus, a single staff member would organize the program holistically. This coordinator would also be responsible for tracking and analyzing statistics that could show the programs’ effectiveness.

“It is not an impossible task,” said Shoshi Chowdhury, a campaign coordinator for Dignity in Schools. “But the administration has to be on board.”

The city would not comment directly on its plans to expand restorative justice programs or provide the number of existing programs across the city. A spokeswoman said the department has been meeting with community groups and principals to discuss alternative forms of discipline. Reducing reliance on suspensions is “a top priority for Chancellor Fariña,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Looking at the big picture

School discipline reform is gaining momentum nationwide, with restorative justice practices taking hold in Oakland, Calif. and other school districts. In January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a set of guidelines meant for “improving school climate and discipline,” the first such guidelines released on a federal level.

Back in New York, the department is poised to significantly change the way it disciplines its students. “Under the Bloomberg administration, with the very, sort of, heavy emphasis on accountability, there was a lot of breakdown of trust necessary to make the school system function in the best way it can function,” Morningside Center Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah said, though she noted that some Bloomberg-era officials were supportive of restorative justice.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has sent teachers from 55 middle and high schools to receive training in restorative approaches from the Morningside Center, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

Fariña’s administration, she believes, “has already shown itself to be extremely aligned with this kind of work.”

Still, Onishi cautioned that restorative justice is not an immediate fix-all.

“Saying, ‘The kid cursed at me yesterday, did restorative justice, and cursed at me tomorrow’ is not a fair way to measure its success,” she explained. “Our goal is not for you to suddenly be good. Our hope is that the behavior is less severe and it happens less frequently. It’s a progression.”

Later this week, Chalkbeat will publish an in-depth look at suspension policies in New York City schools. Sign up for our morning newsletter to stay in the loop.

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.