First Person

First Person: What the shift to restorative justice looked like in my KIPP school

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Matthew Peoples
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It was the kind of call no educator ever wants to get, especially in the middle of a winter holiday: A maintenance staffer reporting messages of hate scrawled everywhere, threatening the principal, me, by name. On the sides of the building. On portable classroom walls. On windows. Everywhere.

The student who had defaced the campus — I will call him Luis — freely admitted what he had done, and openly tied his actions to his involvement with a gang. There was no mystery about who was responsible. The question was what to do about it.

This took place in 2011 at KIPP Summit Academy, a charter middle school near Oakland, California. Given the extent of the damage and the nature of the graffiti, most schools would have considered suspension or expulsion for Luis. Indeed, many of our staff members initially felt strongly that was the right response.

At KIPP Summit Academy, punishment and suspension had resulted in obedient behavior. But those measures left a sizable proportion of students feeling that adults were adversaries, not partners, and separated them from the learning process. Rather than teaching lessons about how to do better, I saw us putting some of our most needy students on a path to alienation from school.

[Read more: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline]

So our school ultimately took a different path, and chose a process that led Luis to learn from his mistakes rather than simply being punished for them.

This path, called restorative justice, has a 40-year history in the U.S. and is finding favor among a growing number of schools nationally, including many of my school principal colleagues leading KIPP schools in the Bay Area and across the country.

It’s not because restorative justice is easier than the traditional approach. When Luis was told in 2011 that he would have to engage in tough conversations with his classmates and teachers, he actually asked to be suspended instead.

We didn’t suspend him. Luis and his family eventually agreed to go through the restorative justice process, where we instead asked him four questions: What happened? What were you thinking at the time? Who was affected by your actions? And, what do you need to do to make it right?

We asked those questions in more than a dozen conferences. (I told you it wasn’t an easier way.) In the final one, nearly everyone touched by the event was represented — Luis, his mother, some teachers with whom he had good rapport, friends who could speak to the positives in his character — as well as the parents and facilities manager who volunteered to clean up the graffiti.

What happened next provides a window into why, though the process demands more of everyone, the rewards can also be greater.

In that conference, Luis recounted his state of mind at the time of the incident. He talked about his anger at experiences in school and elsewhere, and how much fun it felt defacing the school. But now, in a very different state of mind, he apologized and asked to do something to repay the community. He spent two weeks working with the facilities manager after school.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as “soft” and as failing to draw the line on serious misbehavior. We ask to be judged by results. In the KIPP schools where I have worked and in others, teachers have seen measurable reductions in undesirable behaviors and school suspensions.

No one would claim the restorative justice approach as a cure-all. A student who helped Luis deface the school never bought into the process, and his family, despite our pleas, ultimately pulled him out of the school. And even when it works well, restorative justice requires parents, students, and teachers to make a hard cultural shift and for schools to invest in teacher training.

There is also no doubt that some student actions, such as bringing weapons to school or threatening school safety, may result in immediate consequences, including suspension and even expulsion. But the reality is that there are many transgressions that can be better dealt with through alternative paths.

For students like Luis, and for most students we’ve tried the approach with, it has paid off. Five years later, Luis just graduated from high school. Thanks in part to continued support from KIPP teachers and his parents, gang involvement is in the past and he is likely headed to college in the future.

Kids like Luis may make mistakes when they are young, but we have seen that strategies like restorative justice can help them understand the impact of their actions, restore the harm they have caused, and make better choices in the future. And most importantly for us as educators, these new approaches can keep more kids in school and on a positive path. That’s a great outcome for all of us.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.