Talking it through

A gentler approach: Jeffco Public Schools emphasizing restorative practices as part of discipline changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
High school students role play a restorative justice seminar with their counselor in this Chalkbeat file photo.

Jeffco Public Schools is investing more resources in so-called restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions, part of a broader reexamination of student discipline practices.

The district, under the leadership of a new director of discipline, has expanded training of teachers and administrators and is considering other policy changes, officials said.

“Moving forward with restorative practices and other alternatives to suspension are going to be a priority for us,” said Jen Gallegos, who became Jeffco’s head of student discipline about a month ago. “Right now it’s not a systemic practice in Jeffco.”

A practice that has gained momentum nationally, restorative justice shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning and personal growth. It provides school administrators a blueprint for leading discussions between people, usually two, in conflict. The goal is to help the two people, students or adults, understand the effect of their actions and to commit to solutions together.

Districts like Denver Public Schools — where Gallegos previously worked — have led in the use of restorative justice as a way to help decrease student suspensions, expulsions and referrals to police while also improving student behavior.

Recent data shows Jeffco has leaned more toward punishment in disciplining students. Last school year, Jeffco handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district and state discipline data showed that in 2015-16, Hispanic and black students were overrepresented among those that got suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement.

Trying to reduce discipline numbers might be a motivation for districts to use restorative justice, said Jen Kirksey, principal of Jeffco’s Dunstan Middle School. But in practice, there’s another goal for school staff, she said.

“It’s about helping students understand how to authentically resolve conflict and repair harm,” Kirksey said.

This week, before classes resume for the fall, Kirksey and Gallegos led a training session meant to give school administrators real-world practice for how to roll out restorative justice and a related practice for leading positive discussions around a circle for larger groups.

The training provided a window into how a practice that gets a lot of attention in public education plays out on a practical level, including challenges adults face in seeing it through.

The district had provided some basic training before on what restorative practice are, but it was the first time the district made practical training available, led by a principal and a former principal, to all district principals or administrators who were interested. Almost 60 signed up.

Most already have been using restorative justice at their schools. But as they worked through demonstrations and shared examples of times they used the practices, they drilled down on details. Should you give students time to calm down before the discussion? Can the required guiding questions be phrased in different words? How are misbehavior incidents that lead to the restorative practice recorded?

Then the administrators got to see a mock demonstration of a restorative justice discussion involving two adults pretending to be students. Kirksey was the facilitator, showing how to ask the four questions that prompt those in conflict to think about the causes of their problem, the effect of their actions and also has them commit to a solution.

Kirksey cautioned administrators not to look for answers they would consider correct.

“You are teaching children to consider the effect of their actions,” Kirksey said. “Don’t do it for them.”

One of the administrators in the group asked how to help her elementary students think of creative solutions besides apologizing without suggesting the solutions herself.

The group brainstormed and suggested a class circle on the topic of what good apologies and solutions mean.

During circle activities — the proactive companion to restorative justice — all students must be required to participate, Kirksey told administrators.

The teacher, or a student, will start with a question and every person must give an answer. At the start of the year that might be about a favorite food, or favorite music, but as the year progresses, teachers can use the circle discussion to address problems in the class by asking what students wish their teacher was doing different.

Circle activities are meant to help students speak up and feel like they are part of a group, which should in turn decrease discipline issues.

Kirksey said that when students misbehave at her school — she mentioned one time that some students left school grounds, against school policy — other students step in to get each other back on track, even if it requires involving teachers.

It’s a culture Kirksey credits to restorative justice.

In her new district role, Gallegos said she also will be rewriting the district’s discipline matrix, which right now has no flexibility on how to discipline students when it comes to incidents involving drugs or weapons, and leading a focus group next month with elementary principals to come up with new resources and guidelines on other alternatives to suspensions or expulsions. Later she will do the same for secondary schools.

“At this point we know suspending the youngest kids is not super helpful,” Gallegos said. “If we can make sure that we are providing interventions for younger learners, we know that’s better.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.