Human Touch

New program reduces disciplinary infractions, but racial disparity persists

Hinkley High School students Aurora Hernandez and Dearic You have been spreading rumors about one another.

Aurora told her friends Dearic smelled. Dearic fired back and told his friends Aurora was having inappropriate relationships with too many of their male classmates.

In a second floor classroom, Aurora and Dearic are gathered around a table with two student facilitators, Marco Dominguez and Nyece Smith. The goal is to help Aurora and Dearic resolve their conflict through a process known as restorative justice. If successful, the program will help the two isolate the root causes of their behavior, take ownership of their actions and build trust.

If the conference is successful, the conflict between Aurora and Dearic won’t escalate or happen again.

As it turns out, Aurora and Dearic’s argument was just a role-play. Aurora, Dearic, Marco and Nyece are among more than a dozen students enrolled in a peer mentoring class led by counselor Deanna Kline. Students learn life skills, conflict management and study social issues, like eating disorders and poverty.

Students who pass the class may move on to become restorative justice facilitators. Working alongside the high school’s dean, they’ll help their peers work through conflicts using the restorative justice model many Aurora Public Schools officials are celebrating as the reason suspensions and expulsions are dropping.

Nationwide trend

When the Obama administration released new guidelines on school discipline earlier this month, federal officials urged schools across the country to rid themselves of zero-tolerance polices. The federal Justice and Education departments, echoing years of a growing consensus of researchers and activists, believe these policies lead to a significant numbers of students missing class due to suspensions and expulsions, especially students of color.

APS won’t have to do much to comply with the new guidelines.  The suburban district, east of Denver, trashed all but one of its zero-tolerance policies — bringing a firearm on a school campus is still an automatic expulsion. 

Aurora officials replaced their zero-tolerance policies with multiple approaches, including restorative justice, that keep students in their seats while offering teachers and school leaders alternative paths to manage their classrooms and campuses, said Bonnie Lavinder, Aurora’s director of division and equity and engagement.

And the results APS has seen — a 2 percent drop in suspensions and expulsions each year during the last three — are exactly what the White House hopes to see across the nation as it crusades to break the “classroom-to-prison pipeline.”

APS is now embarking on an ambitious path to implement restorative justice in as many of its schools as possible. The expansion isn’t just to keep kids safe. When students spend more time in class and less time suspended academic outcomes improve, officials from Washington to Aurora believe. 

Struggles persist   

While the district is seeing across the board dips in suspension and expulsion rates, APS is still struggling with racial disparity.

African-American students, especially boys, continue to be suspended and expelled at a higher rate than any other ethnicity group. During the 2012-2013 school year, one in every ten Aurora high school student was suspended. But one in every seven black high school student was suspended during the same time.

Even as suspension rates for black students is dropping, the expulsion rate has risen steadily during the same time.

During the last three years, one in roughly 100 Aurora students of all races were expelled. But, for example, during the 2010-2011 school year, one in every 62 black students was expelled. The following year: one in every 54 black students was expelled. And during the 2012-2013 year, one in every 46 African-American students was expelled.

Lavinder said she isn’t sure why black students are being suspended and expelled higher rates, but the district is reviewing its policies and, according to an APS spokeswoman, a districtwide survey will be conducted later this year exploring multiple issues including student-teacher relationships.

At Hinkley High School, where African-American suspension and expulsion rates slightly outpace the district’s, every black student has been provided a mentor, said the school’s dean Bonnie Martinez.

And that’s a good first step, said Greg Brown, a probation officer and spokesman for the Restorative Justice Council–Colorado.

But if Hinkley and APS want to see similar declines in suspensions and expulsions among African-American students, it would be behoove them, Brown said, to ensure each school has an equitable number of restorative justice leaders from the same population or bring family and those aforementioned mentors into the restorative justice conferences.

“What we know is the relationships we develop with kids and their families is the most important thing,” Brown said. “If you don’t have relationships and if there is a cultural barrier, it could be that much more difficult.”

And each restorative justice conference and outcome should be customized to each situation, Brown said.

Making it their own 

A restorative justice conference takes a lot of time — about an hour, Martinez said. But she argues that it’s worth it.

While some critics of the program claim it takes away from too much instruction time, Martinez counters that “if we don’t front load, we’ll pay for it in the end.”

Martinez also points to fewer disciplinary referrals to her office. She believes students and teachers are finding ways through restorative justice to prevent classroom disruption. Teachers and student leaders who have embraced the program can hold shorter, less formal conferences in hallways or in between classes.

“Our teachers are doing the work, as well as the community,” Martinez said.

Hinkley High School has invited families to participate, Martinez said. And the program isn’t just for student conflicts. Conferences are held between students, teachers and staff. Even Hinkley principal Matt Willis, a former Marine, has led and been a participant in a restorative justice conference to resolve conflicts with his staff.

He said practicing restorative justice has made him more open to different voices and focused on how to repair broken relationships. “It’s been very transformative,” he said. “Just a total culture shift.”

That culture shift doesn’t happen overnight, said the Denver Foundation’s education director Sarah Park. “But it is deep and meaningful.”

The foundation is helping APS expand the program through grants and programing.

And students say they’re also taking the lessons of restorative justice outside of the classroom to their homes and part-time jobs.

“My dad doesn’t like to share his feelings that much,” Hinkley senior Cynthia Cisneros said. And that would lead to plenty of misunderstandings. “But I’ve learned I need to where he’s coming from. And when I did, he started to share. I have a better relationship with my dad now.”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”