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

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
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I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.