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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”