discipline policy

City preparing to expand restorative justice programs

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

The city is poised to dramatically expand restorative justice programs aimed at improving school climate and rethinking school discipline next year.

The head of the Department of Education’s Office of Safety and Youth Development verbally committed to provide new support for restorative justice programs at a May meeting about school discipline issues, according to two attendees. Though few details of the expansion have been finalized, the agreement represents the administration’s first step toward enacting discipline policy changes that Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have both called for.

On Friday, a department spokeswoman said officials had been consulting with a number of organizations focused on school discipline, including Dignity in Schools. The New York chapter has been meeting monthly with the safety office to create a plan that would begin in January 2015, according to Elana Eisen-Markowitz, a teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters who attended the May meeting.

As opposed to punitive policies like suspension, restorative justice programs such as peer mediation and student justice panels look to change students’ behaviors. Restorative practices often end with resolutions meant to repair relationships, like writing an apology note or helping out a teacher.

Restorative justice is not about trying to replace suspensions entirely, educators stress, but instead about “creating space to support a positive school environment,” as Dignity in Schools Campaign Coordinator Shoshi Chowdhury said.

Implementing these programs school-wide requires funding and training. Dignity in School’s December 2013 proposal outlines a pilot program that would involve 10 schools, each of which would receive $175,000 annually for five years. The money would be used to hire and train restorative justice coordinators and support training for school staff members.

At the May meeting, safety office head Elayna Konstan did not agree to specific dollar amounts, but did suggest increasing the number of schools involved to 20, according to Eisen-Markowitz.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has been building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. The department has provided training to teachers from 55 middle and high schools through the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

At Flushing International High School, where students hail from over 40 countries, social worker Tania Romero said that restorative practices have decreased incidences of violence between students of different nationalities and allowed for deeper conversations on issues like racism.

“All schools should be entitled to this,” she said.

The details of the current plan—including how schools will be selected and the amount of funding each school will receive—have yet to be finalized. Chowdhury said her organization is hoping to hear a definite plan within the next month.

Ultimately, Dignity in Schools wants to see a restorative justice coordinator at every school in the city. “We understand that overhauling takes time,” Chowdhury said. “It’s not going to happen in a year or two years.”

The Dignity in Schools proposal describes the restorative justice coordinator as a full-time employee tasked with “the sole focus of coordinating a positive, restorative climate and approach to discipline at the school.” The coordinator would implement a mix of restorative justice programs, train school staff, involve students and parents, and collect data to determine program effectiveness.

The department would not comment directly on the restorative justice expansion or provide the number of existing programs citywide. In a statement, a department spokeswoman said that “Identifying alternatives that reduce the need for suspensions is a top priority for Chancellor Fariña.”

She said that the department has been meeting with Dignity in Schools, the NYCLU, the Osborne Association, Urban Youth Collaborative, as well as with Judith Kaye, New York state’s former chief judge who has worked extensively on restorative and juvenile justice efforts, and school principals.

De Blasio called for an expansion of the programs as public advocate, and Fariña noted her desire to expand restorative justice in a speech to 600 principals in May, saying, “Our schools are learning places, not suspension places.”

Meanwhile, the James Baldwin School in Chelsea, which runs a number of restorative justice programs, has plans to hire a restorative justice coordinator regardless of the department’s next move.

“We feel like we have the capacity [for restorative justice] among our teaching staff,” explained Principal Brady Smith. “The piece we feel like we need to enhance is that point person.”

Next week, Chalkbeat will publish in-depth looks at restorative justice programs and suspension policies in New York City. Stay in the loop by signing up for our morning newsletter.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.