Repairing harm

Inside one of three Denver schools serving as a national model for how to do discipline differently

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Principal Scott Wolf talks with a student in 2015.

What struck Erika Strauss Chavarria the most was the mutual respect she saw between adults and teenagers at Denver’s North High School. Having watched her own students in Maryland get handcuffed by armed police officers in the hallways, the Spanish teacher said North seemed almost like “a utopian society.”

“It’s like the little things that make this building great,” Strauss Chavarria said. After she and other visitors sat in on a history class, the buzz was not about the lesson but about how the teacher trusted students enough to go to the bathroom without asking permission.

North is one of three Denver schools serving as national examples of restorative justice. Educators and community members from around Colorado and the country have been invited to spend a day in one of these schools to see what it looks like when teachers and students are encouraged to sit down and hash out their conflicts.

Restorative justice – or restorative practices, as Denver Public Schools calls it – is an approach to school discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In action, it looks like students or teachers who are in conflict having a conversation about how their actions affected each other and what they can do to fix the situation. Advocates say the method reduces punitive discipline and builds relationships that feed a positive school culture.

Denver began dabbling in restorative justice more than a decade ago with a pilot program at North and three other schools. It’s now part of the district’s discipline code, and officials said more than 40 percent of Denver’s 207 schools have staff dedicated to restorative justice.

The district has seen its number of suspensions drop even as its enrollment has grown. In 2010, the district suspended nearly 9,000 of its 78,000 students, according to district and state statistics. Last school year it suspended just shy of 4,500 of its 91,000 students.

The length and breadth of Denver’s experience make it a good exemplar, said Dwanna Nicole of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization is part of a coalition that began arranging the visits last year. The coalition aims to host 15 visits a year split between North, Skinner Middle School, and Hallett Academy elementary school.

The visits are free for educators and community members, and the slots fill up quickly, Nicole said. The funding comes from a three-year grant from another coalition member: the National Education Association.

Teachers unions aren’t always fans of this approach. Some teachers worry that a soft touch will leave them without enough tools to deal with unruly students and might even make classrooms less safe. Denver’s union once had similar concerns but is now part of the coalition. The national union joined to inform more teachers about the approach, said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s human and civil rights department.

There isn’t a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice, and studies haven’t found a direct causal link between restorative practices and better student outcomes. However, existing research consistently finds decreases in the use of suspensions and improved school culture.

The idea behind the visits, organizers said, is to answer questions common even among those who’ve been trained in the basics: What does restorative justice look like when it’s done well? What does it feel like? How do I know if I’m in a school that’s “restorative?”

They’re also meant to energize educators who may find themselves the lone advocate for the method in a community of skeptics. “They’re able to go back home and say to their principal, ‘I saw it. This is what they did,’” Nicole said. “It renews the work.”

The recent visit to North gave the 15 visitors, 14 of whom were from other states, a chance to pick the brains of administrators, teachers, and students who buy into restorative justice.

Kelsey Binggeli, a Spanish teacher who’s been at North for three years, fielded questions about how she gets to know her students and what she does when they’re late to class, an issue several visitors acknowledged was a problem at their schools.

“When they get to my class late?” Binggeli said. “Invite them in. ‘Welcome.’”

The visitors exchanged incredulous looks. Several remarked that wouldn’t fly at their school.

Lisbeth Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North, explained that students who are tardy get a phone call home. But unbeknownst to them, she said, all first-period tardies are excused. It’s a decision she said administrators made after hearing students’ stories of having to drop off younger brothers and sisters or take unreliable public transportation.

Vargas is teaching a new class at North this semester that gives students even more of a role in restorative justice by training them to facilitate conversations for low-level offenses, such as using a cell phone in class. In recruiting students for the class, the school aimed for a mix of ages and discipline records, inviting those who’d been in trouble and those who hadn’t.

Sophomore Laila Arguello said that before taking the class, she ditched school so much that Vargas had her mom on speed-dial. She was quick to escalate confrontations, she said, and often found herself part of the conversations she’s now learning to lead.

“You know how girls are,” Arguello said. If someone was gossiping about her, she said, “I’d go up to them and be like, ‘You want to fight? I’ll fight you.’ … Now I’m like, ‘If you have an issue, we can talk about it. I’m not going to waste my time on arguing and fighting with you.’”

Other students said the class has made them think of themselves differently, as leaders and role models. “My grades have flipped after being in this class,” said sophomore Francisco Alvarado-Melchor. He said his attendance has improved, too.

Principal Scott Wolf is a restorative justice evangelist. Even though it was in place before his tenure, he said the culture at North was still very top-down. He’s worked hard in the last five years to give students more of a voice, he said. The school got rid of its strict dress code and restarted the student council. All job candidates are interviewed by a panel of students and asked specific questions about discipline. Their answers can be a deal-breaker, he said.

The visitors were stunned. Our principals spend their time worried about test scores, they said.

“I will take lower test scores any day of the week,” Wolf told the group. “I don’t need to have the very best test scores if families and kids feel welcome and included.”

But Wolf was also honest about some of North’s challenges. He readily admitted that not all teachers are on board with restorative justice. While the district does provide some support, he said he’s had to do a lot things on his own. And although he said he strives to hire teachers who reflect the student population, which is 75 percent Hispanic, most teachers are white.

North also still suspends students. Last year, district statistics show the 1,000-student school had a 9 percent suspension rate, which is higher than some other similarly sized high schools.

If students are fighting and their conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, dean Marisa Lucio said they’ll often be suspended. The difference is that in order to come back, the students and their families must participate in a meeting and restorative conversation.

“There’s always that skill building that happens,” Lucio said.

This year, Wolf said the school has issued half as many suspensions as it had at this time last year: 33 compared to 67. He said North is “committed to data integrity,” meaning it’s honest about recording when students are not in class for discipline reasons, whether they’re sent home or still at school cooling down after a conflict or thinking through what happened.

At the end of the day, the visitors gathered to debrief. Kevin Gilbert, the equity director of a school district near Baltimore, said what struck him the most was a brief conversation he had with one of the students who was part of the restorative justice class. The student had recently transferred to North, and when Gilbert asked about the difference between his old school and his new one, the student answered, “The adults in this building care about me.”

“That’s what all this work is all about: trying to change the culture and climate of our schools,” Gilbert said. “This is not about implementing a program. It’s implementing a way of life.”

on the clock

After another low rating, Denver’s Manual High could face state intervention

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Denver’s storied but academically struggling Manual High School faces the possibility of state intervention next school year after earning five consecutive low ratings from the Colorado Department of Education. It is the only one of Denver’s more than 200 schools facing that risk.

Manual’s situation is noteworthy because Denver Public Schools generally has taken aggressive action toward low-performing schools before the law allows the state to step in. The district hasn’t shied away from replacing or closing struggling schools, which has earned it criticism from those who think the tactics are too harsh.

In fact, the district closed and reopened Manual more than a decade ago because of lagging test scores and declining enrollment. The controversial decision still evokes painful memories in the community. Since then, the school has cycled through leaders and repeated overhauls of its academic program.

Manual is not the first Denver school to earn five low ratings, which are based largely on annual test scores. But the other schools were either closed by the district or able to turn around their performance to avoid sanctions. District officials are confident Manual will turn it around, too.

The school has one more chance. If it earns a higher rating next year, the state will put on hold the threat of intervention, which could include conversion to a charter school or even closure. Two years of higher ratings would put Manual in the clear.

But the northeast Denver high school faces hurdles on its road to improvement, including that it doesn’t have a permanent leader. Its last principal – a charismatic Denver native and the architect of the school’s latest rebirth – resigned suddenly in March. An investigation found Nick Dawkins violated the district’s policy against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

The school has an interim principal and is searching for a permanent one. A search in the spring netted three candidates, but the top prospect turned down the job.

“Our focus is on making sure Manual is a great school for its students,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “We’re excited and confident about Manual moving forward.”

Manual is one of the district’s oldest high schools, and its alumni include several prominent Denverites, including the city’s current mayor. Last year, it served just over 300 students, 90 percent of whom were from low-income families and 96 percent of whom were students of color.

In preliminary school ratings recently released by the Colorado Department of Education, Manual earned the second-lowest: “priority improvement,” which is coded with the color orange. The ratings are based on state tests students took in the spring.

Alumna Lainie Hodges said she’s not surprised Manual did poorly by that measure. The students went through what she called “a year of constant trauma” that started with the deaths of a fellow student and a recent graduate, and continued with a headline-grabbing controversy over whether fans of an opposing high school football team had displayed a Confederate flag during a game against Manual.

Then, a month before students were scheduled to take the state-required PSAT and SAT tests, Manual’s popular principal resigned.

“That they didn’t show up and test well, I’m not surprised at all,” said Hodges, who graduated from Manual in 1997 and until earlier this year was the board chair of the Friends of Manual High School booster group. “Is it a measure of their talent and ability? Absolutely not.”

Recent graduate Elijah Beauford said he’s not surprised by the test scores, either. He said he himself struggled with tests as a student. But he excelled at the work he did in class and at home, encouraged by teachers with whom he said he had a “genuine connection.”

Many of those teachers were people of color, as was Dawkins, the former principal. Beauford, who transferred to Manual in his junior year from a school in Aurora, said he hadn’t ever attended a school where most of the staff, and the students sitting in the honors classes, looked like him.

“Seeing people who look like me in high-ranking positions of power, it’s subconsciously and consciously empowering,” said Beauford, who graduated in 2017.

That environment helped Beauford thrive. His confidence grew, his GPA shot up, and he went from a student who struggled with reading to one who consistently won first prize at high school speech competitions around the city. Beauford, who goes by the name Young Activist, has continued to give speeches and become involved with local education advocacy groups.

“I personally believe that the school doesn’t make the students, the students make the school,” Beauford said. People say Manual has a bad reputation, he said, but the reality is that “there’s a lot of good kids there who are in bad situations but still coming to school each and every day.”

There are two big caveats to Manual’s low state rating. The first is that districts can appeal the ratings of individual schools. State officials have until December to decide.

The second caveat is that Manual’s quandary is partly Denver Public Schools’ own making. The district has its own school rating system that it considers more rigorous. In cases where Denver rates a school lower than the state, the district asks the state to use the district’s rating instead. In three of the past five years, the state lowered Manual’s rating at the district’s request.

Crucially, in 2017, the district asked the state to lower Manual’s rating from yellow to orange. Yellow would have gotten Manual off the state “accountability clock.” (The clock refers to the amount of time low-performing schools and districts have to improve before the State Board of Education can order them take action.) But an orange rating kept it on.

There was also a year when Denver rated Manual higher than the state – and the state refused to raise its rating. That also had the effect of keeping Manual on the clock.

In an interview, Boasberg was quick to point out that Manual wouldn’t be on the clock had the district not requested the state lower Manual’s ratings. However, he was also gracious about the state’s role in ensuring all Colorado schools are meeting certain standards.

“We and (the Colorado Department of Education) have exactly the same objective, which is to ensure every student at Manual gets a great education,” Boasberg said. “We have collaborated, and we continue to collaborate, closely with CDE.”

Boasberg said his confidence about Manual’s future stems from its recently revised “innovation plan,” which describes the steps the school will take to boost student performance. Manual was one of Colorado’s first “innovation schools,” which means it has permission to waive certain state and district rules, as well as parts of the teachers union contract. The idea behind innovation schools is that increased flexibility will lead to better student outcomes.

Manual’s plan, which was submitted by Dawkins, includes more time for teacher training and more opportunities for students to take college-level courses. Manual is one of 20 state-designated “early college high schools,” meaning students can earn an associate degree or up to 60 college credits by the time they graduate high school.

But a new state law aimed at reining in the cost of early colleges limits the time students can take to complete their associate degree or earn their 60 credits. As a result, Denver Public Schools is redesigning its six early college high schools, including Manual.

Manual also has a unique career education program called the Med School at Manual geared toward students interested in careers in health care. The program offers classes in topics such as human anatomy and sports medicine, as well as job shadows, field trips, and internships.

Denver Public Schools has pumped an additional $3 million into Manual since 2015 in an attempt to help improve the school’s performance. The district refers to that money as “tiered support funding,” and Manual received it because of its low school ratings.

If the school’s state rating holds steady at orange this year, and it doesn’t improve next year, its leaders will find themselves before the State Board of Education in the spring of 2020.

Hodges said she hopes state officials, when deciding which action to take, consider Manual’s rich history, its recent trauma, and district decisions that she thinks hurt the school. She said she hopes state officials see Manual as worth fighting for.

“Because we do,” she said.

Welcome Back

‘They deserve the best:’ A Denver principal talks about restarting a school in her home city

PHOTO: Courtesy John H. Amesse Elementary
Students at John Amesse Elementary smile for the camera. The school is being "restarted" this year and is now known as John H. Amesse Elementary.

Today is the first official day of school in Denver. But students at John H. Amesse Elementary in the far northeast part of the city got a head start when they returned to class last week.

Angelina Walker.
The school is undergoing a “restart” this year in an attempt to improve chronically low student test scores. John H. Amesse has a new principal, a new plan, and new flexibility over how it spends its money and time. (Hence, the early start; research has shown more time in school can boost scores for students from low-income families.) The school also has a slightly new name: It now includes the middle initial H.

We sat down with new principal Angelina Walker to talk about her passion for working in the city where she grew up and her vision for John H. Amesse, where nearly all students come from low-income families. Walker spent a year preparing for her new role. While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations last year, Walker learned, planned, and strategized for this one as part of a turnaround strategy Denver Public Schools calls “year zero.”

“I’ve always wanted to be an educator,” she told Chalkbeat. “I knew from when I was 2 years old that I was going to be teacher. And I knew I wanted to be a teacher that opened a school. So it’s kind of just really serendipitous, but also I feel pretty privileged and blessed.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to teaching, even when you were 2?

They talk about callings. I can’t describe it. I just knew. I don’t have educators in my family, so I’m not sure where it came from. But any game I ever played, anything like that, was teaching.

Did you go to school when you were very little?

I did. I’m a Denver native. I grew up in the northeast, far northeast area. When I was real little, I grew up in Park Hill, off of 35th and Elm, and I went to a little day care-slash-school a block away called Watch-Care Academy. It was a predominantly African-American school.

You said that when you applied to become a principal in Denver Public Schools, you asked to lead a school in the northeast because you wanted to serve the community where you grew up. Tell me a bit about what this community means to you.

My community means a lot to me. When I grew up – and this was back in ‘80s and ‘90s, and into the 2000’s for high school – the image that was out there, whether true or not, was that the public education system, at least in the northeast, was not that great, was unsafe.

There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of issues with our community. And out of everybody that I lived with or grew up with, I’m one of the very few that graduated high school. I have a lot of people I grew up with who are creating a life for themselves where they are, so I applaud them. But I have also seen some of the inequities in terms of society.

The importance my family placed on education really impacted and shaped the direction that I went. I mean, it did help that I loved education and I loved teaching. But being able to provide a schooling environment in my neighborhood that challenges what anybody says about our community is of utmost importance to me. Us writing our own narratives, instead of people writing our narratives for us, is very important to me.

I got into education because I wanted to be a teacher. Not necessarily to help, but just to educate, to teach. I became a principal to challenge systemic inequities. My community, they deserve the best. And so they deserve the best leader.

What have some of the challenges been at John Amesse?

Some of challenges that, generally, I have seen are lack of resources. With this turnaround, it’s really refreshing because I have gotten some resources to give kids what they deserve.

We are building a STEAM lab. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.) We have a lot of social and emotional supports. Right now, we have a psychologist, a social worker, and a social work intern. We have three members on our special education team, a full-time nurse, and the Center for Family Opportunity.

There’s a narrative out there about John Amesse that it was “a mess.” I think that the last couple of years, it’s really changed around. So really reclaiming that narrative is important.

I do think that we’ll continue – and then accelerate even more – with what the previous principal, Charmaine, did in terms of starting to look at our instruction based off of our data. So just bringing in some of those systems and tightening those up some, and having teachers own that.

We also want to maintain the culture that’s been built here. John Amesse has a wonderful, amazing culture. It’s just beautiful to walk around the school when the kids are here.

What are some of the things that make it special?

The involvement with the community has always been something that I value and I will strive hard to continue. Just celebrating kids. (In previous years, the school) did little things that we’re continuing, like celebrating attendance or shouting-out kids.

We plan on continuing a lot of the traditions – white linen lunches, and different things for kids – and adding on to them awards assemblies and things like that.

What’s a white linen lunch?

A white linen lunch is for students that have a certain percentage for their attendance. Basically, they get their lunch served to them on white linen cloths. They love it. There’s little decorations and then they get a little dessert at the end.

Can you think of an example of a really impactful conversation with a student or with a family that informed your work during your ‘year zero’?

There were a couple. I had a – we called them pop-up sessions – with a group of kids. We were in the new STEAM lab, but it was just that big, open space.

The question I put out there was, ‘If you could imagine this space to be anything you wanted it to be, what would you make it as and why?’ Then they had to create, from cut-out magazines, these pictures showing what they wanted in the space.

At first, I thought they wanted a makerspace type of area, and that’s where we were heading originally. And it basically came out that they wanted a space where they could build and explode and do different things like that – and they wanted a space where literacy was involved. Literacy, including drama and the arts.

Taking all their suggestions, I started researching and the STEAM lab is what popped out from everything they wanted. They didn’t want to do the traditional makerspace. They really wanted to have science, but then art and drama, and so that’s hopefully what our space will reflect.

The other conversation that I really remember is, I had a conversation with a parent, and the mom started crying. She was just saying that she’s really excited for the direction of the school, she feels there’s going to be solid leadership, all the typical things.

But then she really went into that she never felt that her child had been heard before. And so being able to provide that space for them to provide that feedback (through the pop-up sessions and other design opportunities) was important for this parent, in particular.

Is there an overall vision for John H. Amesse?

Our vision is really to support change-makers in our community. It’s really to get students to actualize their power and utilize that power to support the development of their community.

It’s really a grassroots kind of approach – and, with that being said, also giving them the tools they need and the access they need to navigate systems they maybe traditionally haven’t had access to. It’s just as important to be able to navigate things like PARCC (the state literacy and math tests) – those gatekeepers – so those are not barriers for them.

Can you tell me a little bit about the name change?

We didn’t want the trauma that ‘restart’ causes to have that same impact here. We did feel a name change was necessary, just to start reclaiming that narrative. Instead of being a school that’s “a mess,” putting that H in there broke up that saying.

We’re presenting ourselves in a different light. But we didn’t want to change it a whole lot because we really didn’t want to traumatize the community.

As part of the restart, John H. Amesse is now part of a school network called the Montbello Children’s Network with nearby McGlone Academy, a K-8 school that has shown a lot of academic growth. How do the schools work together?

Last year, it really started with me doing some leadership learning from McGlone and from Principal Sara Goodall, in particular. Now it’s evolved into that I have a network of school leaders I can rely on to support me with everything from professional development creation to just a general I-need-to-talk-to-someone kind of thing.

We do a lot of cross-collaboration professional development as staff. For example, this week my ECE teachers are going to McGlone and doing a network-wide training there.

Sara and I have a really close relationship, as well. This year, we’ll be meeting a couple times a week for a few hours. But we text each other, call each other all the time.

I think John H. Amesse has one of the best mascots of all Denver elementary schools, a multi-colored roadrunner. Is it going to stay?

It’s definitely staying.

Parents overwhelmingly said they didn’t want to change the mascot. We said we would honor that. Because of branding purposes with the network, we did have to change the look of the roadrunner. But we wanted to make sure the roadrunner was still there.

We also wanted to incorporate the school colors that were (previously) chosen. Going back to that whole trauma of the restart, the colors have remained the same. Their uniform shirts will be those colorful colors. They can still wear their old uniforms, and if they’re passing them on to siblings and things like that. We wanted to honor the voice of the community with that choice.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to add about what’s coming up this year, or what this restart will mean and how it will feel for families?

I really hope that it starts to feel like we’re starting to come back together as a Montbello community. And that it’s a safe place, but also a place where kids are going to be challenged academically, as well as supported socially and emotionally. And that our community feels that their voice is heard, and that they are getting the education they deserve.