a theory of justice

A Bronx school with a high suspension rate is trying restorative justice. It isn’t going as planned.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Nick Lawrence

When Mayor Bill de Blasio began pushing schools to dramatically reduce suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches to student discipline, it was a policy designed to target schools like East Bronx Academy for the Future.

The grades 6-12 school, which is 98 percent black or Hispanic and situated in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, has been responsible for an outsized share of the city’s suspensions, sometimes issuing more than 200 per year (the school serves about 660 students).

Suspensions were so routine when Nick Lawrence arrived as a teacher nine years ago, that they were often issued to multiple students per day. Now, as an assistant principal, Lawrence is at the forefront of the school’s effort to rethink how teachers should respond to student misbehavior. Last year, the school issued 30 percent fewer suspensions than the year before.

“The regular standard practice wasn’t actually affecting student behavior or getting to the root causes of the behaviors,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. But the school’s push to reshape student discipline hasn’t fully delivered on its promise. In a recent conversation with Chalkbeat, Lawrence articulated the challenges many schools are grappling with as they face pressure from the city to turn school discipline on its head.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your school has had some struggles with discipline. How did you handle it the past?

There was a very top-down structure, it was very traditional … A teacher would stay, “Stop doing that,” and if they were noncompliant, they would serve detention. And if they didn’t serve detention, or if there was some more egregious action, they would serve a suspension — and then it’s varying levels of suspensions … It was just do a suspension and come back.

Over time, we’d seen [the] regular standard practice in terms of discipline wasn’t actually affecting student behavior, or getting to the root causes of the behaviors.

Often they’d leave for a suspension and come back and there would still be the same issue, whether it was a conflict between kids or whatever.

How did you initially decide to do restorative justice?

There was a lot of pressure [from the mayor and the chancellor] to not just suspend kids. We needed to think more about trying to root out the underlying issues and I think that’s what turned a lot of heads toward restorative practices. A lot of people had some successes in other places and that’s why we were excited about it.

The concept of restorative practices can sometimes seem vague. What do you mean by it?

We’re still trying to figure out what that means for our school community and that’s where the problem starts in trying to figure out how to implement it.

A lot of it is about taking a step back and stopping yourself and examining how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that. And with kids, it’s like being able to shut down [your own] frustration and turn your perspective back to what’s going on with them. It’s not just about reacting to what’s going on, but having real training about how to prevent a lot of these things from escalating.

It’s having a conversation that’s trying to root down into: Where are you? How are you interacting with other kids? Are you acting out because the circumstances surrounding things outside of this classroom? Rather than just “Would you please grow up?”

What were the first steps you took to reshape the school’s approach to discipline?

We tried to re-write our “ladder of referral” and think about what the process would be for kids once they had some kind of incident. Who would they talk to? What kind of mediations would happen? Is it a big restorative circle? Is it a mediation between two kids? If it’s in a classroom, is the teacher going to be involved? We talked about all of those things.

How has that work played out?

Some of the things that have stuck: restorative circles, which is usually a larger group of people. There’s a protocol involved with how to be effectively polite and how to share feelings and ideas. We’ve seen those happening. I think those can both be preventative and sort of after-the-fact.

We have a sixth-grade math teacher who was doing that every week, to debrief the week. We had a global teacher who was integrating restorative circles into current events.

But it obviously didn’t work perfectly. Though your school’s suspension rates have been falling, it still issued 167 last year, down from 240 the year before. And your school topped the list of suspensions issued for insubordination last year.

We’ve worked to give fewer suspensions, which in some ways has been productive and in some ways has been very frustrating. Last year, one of the big push-backs from the staff was the lack of consistency as to when suspensions were handed out.

A lot of [suspensions] were kicked back — [the Department of Education wasn’t] accepting suspensions. We can issue principal’s suspensions very easily, but superintendent suspensions [for more serious infractions], they kicked almost all of them back.

When we were trying to reduce suspensions, we really tried to avoid them when it probably made sense to issue them sometimes. We tried to figure out: Is this one of those situations? Can we talk this out, do we have time for that?

Because of that inconsistency, that was one of the biggest frustrations. We rethought this full bore “let’s [shift] to restorative practices” thing.

How do you know when it’s not working?

When we default to just a standard punitive [approach to discipline], we’re frustrated, we’re tired, there are 16 things going on, we just literally don’t have time for this, that’s one indicator.

When students didn’t believe in it — when they were just like, “We’re going to have a conversation so that you stop talking to me and then we’re going to go fight it out on the block anyway.” It’s not like that happened all the time, but it happened a couple times.

Can you be more specific about a time it didn’t work?

One [attempt] that didn’t work well was between a group of boys here who felt kind of a lot of loyalty to the school. They were not really well-behaved — they’re actually still here, they’re seniors. There was this new group of boys that were affiliated with unfortunate influences outside of the school and they felt like they were very much in conflict. We tried a lot of different things to mediate and they just wouldn’t do it.

Eventually the students that were new to the school left, which is not something that we embrace. That seemed like a failure. I would be lying if it wasn’t a sigh of relief, to some degree, we knew that the conflict was gone.

What are the biggest sticking points in making restorative justice a success?

It’s been finding the time and the right resources. I hear a lot from my boss that she really wants very good training. You send teachers to enough [professional development sessions] that aren’t that great and they’re going to say “I’m done with that.”

To get training in this, you need like four or five full days and you have to go back and practice them, which is the way that people learn … So it’s prioritizing it, getting people to commit to it ahead of time, and making sure we have the resources to pay for them to go, to pay them while they’re there, to pay for their subs. It’s not a cheap endeavor.

What do you make of the city’s mandate to reduce suspensions overall?

One of the only ways they can put pressure on schools is to require that [schools reduce suspensions].

We have to sort of change from both ends. It seems like it would be most effective if both [schools and the DOE] said they going to be less punitive … If the top is like less “throw the book at them,” then it sort of sets an example.

Just offering trainings to people, that doesn’t cause change to happen. I’ve offered plenty of trainings to the staff, and some people have taken me up on it, but it hasn’t caused systemic shifts in the way we use technology, or the way that we have instructional practices. That involves systemic change around leadership and getting people to buy in and actively tracking those things.

What proportion of your teachers have gotten some kind of training?

About 15-20 people were in a training [last week] — we have a staff of about 90. About 15 people went to [a separate] training in August.

Seems like there’s a balance to be struck. Can you issue suspensions and still add a more restorative approach?

It’s about finding the specific tools we can move forward with and not just have to blanket this as we’re going to be all restorative-happy. But funding specific trainings and finding specific people to train — finding a transition plan. It’s like the Affordable Care Act repeal. Don’t repeal this without a replacement. You have a system that makes things function, you can’t just throw it out.

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.