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.”

school segregation

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Kindergarten students from Park Hill and Stedman elementary schools meet between the two schools in January 2017 to march together in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr's visit to Denver's Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church.

Eagleton Elementary is a block and a half away from where Brian Hilbert lives with his wife and two young children in west Denver. It’s a largely Latino working-class neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, and Hilbert said he values the diversity of the area.

But when it came time for the family, who identify as white and middle-class, to choose a public preschool for their 3-year-old daughter, Hilbert said their first instinct was to look at schools in wealthier parts of the city, where the test scores are higher.

“I don’t want her to lose privilege, as weird as it is,” Hilbert said of his daughter. “My pre-parenthood politics, I hate the idea of saying, ‘I want my kid to be privileged.’ On the other hand, it’s hard to say, ‘I want my kid to be disadvantaged.’”

That tension is one reason many Denver schools continue to be segregated by race and income, even as gentrification creates more diverse neighborhoods.

Unlike schools in more homogeneous neighborhoods, schools in these areas have the potential to be naturally integrated. But district data shows that’s not always happening. Instead, wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools that are not in their neighborhood. The result is that the schools in some gentrifying parts of the city look much like they always have.

That matters because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students of color and students from low-income families without lowering the scores of students from wealthier ones – and because wealthier parents bring more resources to the schools their children attend.

Denver Public Schools officials want to see those benefits in the district’s 200 schools. But officials also believe strongly in school choice – that is, allowing the district’s 92,600 students to “choice out” of the assigned school in their neighborhood and “choice in” to another school they feel is a better fit. Allowing families to choose can be at odds with the desire to integrate.

Interviews with white, middle-class parents provide some insight into how they’re making school choices. Some worry their children will feel isolated if they’re the only white students in their class. Others are nervous about sending their kids to a high-poverty school with low test scores. Those fears sometimes persist even when the high-poverty school has a good academic rating.

A task force of community leaders assembled by Denver Public Schools recently came up with a list of recommendations to increase school integration, including that the district should launch a communications effort to inform families about the benefits of integration.

All types of families in Denver use school choice, and the recommendation doesn’t specify which parents would be targeted by the effort. About 76 percent of Denver Public Schools students are children of color, and 24 percent are white. Two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, while one-third do not.

But some parents of color doubt a communications campaign will increase integration. Antwan Jefferson, a black parent and University of Colorado Denver education professor who served as co-chair of the task force, said the parents opting their children out of high-poverty schools don’t seem to be making those decisions based on a lack of information.

In fact, he said, it seems to be the opposite.

“Ignorance might not be the issue,” he said. “I think educating parents about the benefits of integration, it may be a veiled attempt to respond to their fear of being in these schools.”

‘I’ve heard it’s different now’

Chalkbeat sent out a survey earlier this year asking Denver parents how they choose schools for their children. It included this question: What role did student demographics of potential schools play in your decision?

We followed up with several parents who were willing to talk more. Of those who responded to our interview request, all identified as white and middle- or upper-middle class. They all said they wanted their kids to go to diverse schools.

But they acknowledged that for many parents, other factors like test scores trump diversity.

“In the abstract, everybody wants schools to be more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse,” said Elisabeth Ihler, a Denver doctor and mother of two. “But the only control you have over that as a parent is to send your child there. Everybody wants the best for their child. I think that those ideals sometimes take a hit when the rubber meets the road, so to speak, of, ‘Am I going to send my child to this school where the test scores are not as good?’”

Ihler is pleased to have found a school she believes provides both diversity and academic rigor. Her son goes to Denver Language School, a charter school that offers full immersion in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. The school is racially diverse, but not socioeconomically diverse. While half of its 750 students are white and half are children of color, the school’s poverty rate is only 18 percent. That’s far below the district poverty rate of 67 percent.

When Ihler began searching for a school, she said people kept recommending Bromwell and Steck. Both are district-run elementary schools where the overwhelming majority of students are white and less than 15 percent are living in poverty. Test scores are high, especially for white students, and Steck is the top-rated public school in Denver this year.

“I found myself thinking, ‘Is it really the school that’s so good? Or the kids who go to that school have all these advantages going in?’” Ihler said. “That led me to widen my search.”

Robyn DiFalco had a similar experience. After moving to Denver, DiFalco said she was hoping to find an integrated school for her kids. Instead, she said she found schools where nearly all students qualified for subsidized lunches and schools where almost none did. She scratched the latter off her list and worried about the former.

“It was hard when I saw it was like 90 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” DiFalco said. She said she wondered whether students who were living in poverty might have experienced trauma that would affect their behavior and, in turn, her children’s learning environment.

She ended up sending her kids to their neighborhood boundary school, Bradley International, a highly rated school where 34 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches. But with her oldest going into middle school next year, DiFalco found herself on the school hunt again.

One of the schools she considered was the boundary school for her neighborhood, Hamilton Middle School. When she spoke to a neighbor about the school, where a majority of students come from low-income families and identify as children of color, DiFalco said the neighbor told her, “That was not a fit for us, but I’ve heard it’s different now.”

Opting out

In the early 1970s, Denver Public Schools became the first district outside of the South to be ordered by the Supreme Court to racially integrate its schools. When busing ended more than 20 years later, in 1995, the district reverted back to a system of neighborhood boundary schools. The move was cheered at the time, but it meant a return to a familiar problem. Because Denver neighborhoods were segregated by race and income, so too were its schools.

The district has taken steps in the past decade to encourage integration. In addition to universal school choice, it created “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries designed to cross neighborhood lines. Three years ago, the district quietly began a pilot program to prioritize filling open seats at affluent district schools with students from low-income families who want to opt in. The pilot expanded this year. And some schools in changing neighborhoods are becoming more integrated without explicit nudging from the district.

But many Denver schools remain segregated.

To help the task force understand how school choice and segregation intersect, district staff made a list of schools with the biggest gaps between low-income and wealthier families opting out. Unlike in the 1970s when the integration conversation was focused on race, the district now focuses on socioeconomic status, which sometimes correlates with race, though not always.

With the exception of one school on the list, the percentage of wealthier families who leave their boundary schools is much higher.

Many of the schools are in gentrifying neighborhoods. A recent national study drew a connection between school choice and gentrification. It found that wealthier families are more likely to move into mostly black or Hispanic neighborhoods if they can opt out of the local schools.

Marina Guerrero lives across the street from one of the schools on the list: Cheltenham Elementary. Seventy-six percent of wealthier families who live in the northwest Denver neighborhood surrounding Cheltenham chose other schools last year, while only 37 percent of lower-income families did, resulting in a 39-percentage-point gap.

Guerrero’s twin boys are in third grade at Cheltenham. She’s watched as other families have been pushed out of the neighborhood by rising rents or wrecking balls. Many of the people moving into the brand-new townhomes sprouting up around her duplex don’t have children – and if they do, Guerrero said, they’re not sending them to Cheltenham.

Academically, the school is improving after a new principal ushered in much-needed changes, Guerrero said. But it’s also caught in a vicious cycle. Because Denver schools are funded per-student, the withering enrollment is sapping Cheltenham of the resources it needs to add the type of enrichment programming she feels would attract more families.

“It makes me feel powerless,” she said.

Another elementary school with a big gap is Trevista at Horace Mann, located a few miles north of Cheltenham. That neighborhood is also home to a mix of families. The city’s biggest public housing project is there, but the median price of a non-subsidized house was more than $400,000 last year, according to city records. Once a predominantly Hispanic, working-class area, it has seen an influx of wealthier, mostly white families in the last decade.

Trevista, however, is homogenous. Nearly all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Out of 351 students, 260 are Hispanic, 50 are black, and just 29 are white. After years of low school ratings, Trevista has reached “green,” the second-highest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, for the past two years. The color ratings are largely based on state test scores and heavily weight year-over-year academic progress.

But Trevista’s high rating hasn’t accelerated integration.

That may change next year. Trevista is adopting a dual-language curriculum in its lower grades that it plans to roll up to the entire school over time. Starting in the fall, preschool and kindergarten classes will be taught in a combination of English and Spanish.

It’s something English-speaking parents in the neighborhood have wanted for years, said Principal Jesús Rodriguez, and the reaction has been overwhelming. Whereas in the past the school had to cancel family tours because no one showed up, every tour this year was packed. Rodriguez said he saw more white families than in the six years he’s been principal.

“I can’t make any assumptions about household income, so I won’t,” he said of the families on the tours. “But racially and ethnically, the groups have been pretty diverse.”

The move to dual-language is also an effort to better serve the 33 percent of Trevista students who are English language learners, Rodriguez said. Trevista used to have more, which allowed for a classroom at every grade to be taught in Spanish, a model known as “transitional native language instruction” that gradually shifts instruction from students’ native language to English.

But the number of English language learners at Trevista is shrinking, and this year Rodriguez had to combine 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds into one class. Dual-language classrooms will allow Spanish-speaking students to learn alongside their same-age peers, he said.

“Hopefully it provides two ends for us: One is we are able to serve our current families well,” Rodriguez said. “And two is that we are interested in growing our school enrollment to a place where it reflects the demographics of the community at large.”

Leaving after preschool

At schools in some gentrifying Denver neighborhoods, the key to increasing integration isn’t getting local families to come to the school but convincing them to stay.

Principals of high-poverty schools where most students are children of color have noticed a pattern. White, middle-class parents who live in the neighborhood will enroll their kids for preschool, a grade for which there tend to be fewer options.

But they don’t keep them there for kindergarten. Instead, parents pull their children out and send them to schools that are whiter and wealthier – and where the test scores are higher. One place that’s playing out is in the Park Hill neighborhood, which has four elementary schools: Park Hill Elementary, Stedman Elementary, Smith Elementary, and Hallett Academy.

Ninety-six percent of Hallett students are children of color and 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school is rated “red,” the lowest of Denver Public Schools’ color ratings, though Principal Dominique Jefferson was hired to turn things around.

A parent of a student in Hallett’s preschool program – often referred to as early childhood education, or ECE – recently said something Jefferson thought was profound.

“She said, ‘It shouldn’t be considered courageous for me to have chosen to send my child to Hallett. You are in our neighborhood,’” Jefferson said. “It’s interesting that she would say that. What would be more courageous would be that you chose to stay beyond ECE.”

Andrew Lefkowits followed the pattern for his oldest daughter. For a year, she attended an “advanced kindergarten” program at Stedman Elementary. Sixty-two percent of students at Stedman are from low-income families and 71 percent are children of color.

But for first grade, the family, which identifies as white and middle-class, sent her to Park Hill Elementary, which is actually their boundary school. It is also wealthier and whiter: Just 17 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches and 30 percent are children of color.

Part of the reason, Lefkowits said, was that Stedman’s low “orange” rating made them wonder if the district might eventually close it. Park Hill Elementary is rated “green.”

“It didn’t feel like it was the time to give up our seat at Park Hill,” Lefkowits said. “I struggle with it all the time. It was not an easy choice, and I’m not sure it was the right choice.”

Lefkowits grew up in the neighborhood, attended Stedman as a child, and supports integration. He said the family is considering making a different choice for their younger daughter, who is now in the dual-language preschool program at Stedman.

Michelle Quattlebaum, a black parent who served on the district’s integration task force, doesn’t actually think integration is the best way to ensure all students get a good education – although she said children of color do benefit from integration in some ways.

When wealthier white students start attending a school, Quattlebaum said, “then money appears, and the textbooks are updated, and we get new painted walls, and the gym gets refurbished, and, oh my goodness, now there’s a computer lab.”

But she doesn’t think it should be like that. She’s also experienced the downsides of integration. Her three children attended Denver’s George Washington High School. On paper, the school looks integrated, but there has long been a divide between students in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and students who are not.

Quattlebaum said her family chose George Washington because her oldest child was interested in the IB program. But when her daughter showed up on the first day of school, a white classmate told her she was in the wrong classroom.

“My daughter says, ‘I am in the right class,’” Quattlebaum said. “He said, ‘No, you’re black. You don’t belong in this class.’ You tell me, did integration benefit my daughter?”

Quattlebaum believes in school choice, and her family took advantage of it. And she said she doesn’t fault parents for making choices in the best interest of their kids, even if she suspects those choices may be driven by hidden biases.

But she disagrees with using choice as a way to increase integration. Instead, Quattlebaum said, the district should strive to ensure all of its schools are good schools.

“If you want integrated schools, you make every school a quality school. And then it happens.”

‘The first step’

Five days after having their second child, Brian Hilbert and his wife toured Eagleton Elementary, the neighborhood school they’d worried might not serve their 3-year-old as well as a school in a wealthier part of the city. Eagleton is “yellow,” a notch below “green.” Ninety-four percent of students come from low-income families, and 95 percent are students of color.

Hilbert and his wife were impressed. The preschool classroom was full of activities that looked fun and enriching, he said. A group of not more than 20 young students were playing together happily. The kids appeared to be from a variety of different racial backgrounds. The teacher had a master’s degree in education and two teacher’s aides to assist her.

“It looked just like a normal school and mirrored what we remember going to,” said Hilbert, who grew up in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch. “It put away a lot of fears we’d had.”

That was different from the feeling Hilbert’s wife had when she toured a school in a wealthier neighborhood where 70 percent of the students are white and the majority are middle-class. That school was crowded, he said, and they got the impression it’d be hard for their daughter to get in. The experience soured Hilbert on the concept of school choice.

“It’s a way of distracting from general school quality and saying to parents, ‘You have choice, so pick a better school,’” Hilbert said. “I do feel like our school is going to be an OK school.”

Hilbert found out this spring that his daughter got into the preschool at Eagleton. He’s optimistic, and yet he said that when he re-reads the school rating information, he gets nervous. Parents and students report being satisfied with the school and many students are making academic progress, but fewer are meeting expectations on state tests.

“It’s still kind of hard for me,” Hilbert said. “A lot of things, they’re not doing well on. I don’t know how to square that. Where we left off is, ‘This is the first step in our daughter’s education. And if it’s a huge problem, we’ll look at something else.’”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.