Future of Schools

With a new approach to discipline, one Indianapolis high school cut suspensions in half

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Manual High School started using restorative justice last year.

When Jessika Quinn started as a freshman at Manual High School, student fights were so common that she grew accustomed to the sound of hall monitors and security guards rushing to intervene, she said.

For two years, she often heard classmates recounting violent clashes they’d seen between classes.

But the disruption and distraction for students wasn’t the school’s only problem. All that fighting came with another cost — Manual had a strikingly high suspension rate. The school, which enrolled just 550 students in the 2014-2015 school year, tallied 850 suspensions that year.

“There were fights all the time. People (were) getting expelled, suspended for so long,” said Quinn, who is now a senior at the school. “It was crazy.”

But over the last year, Manual has gotten calmer, according to Quinn, other students and staff. There’s less fighting, and suspension rates have fallen steeply — last year, there were just 343 suspensions.

Also down is the number of students who’ve faced repeated suspensions. While  71 students had four or more suspensions two years ago, last year, the number of students with that many suspensions dropped to 12.

For David Hernandez, the dean in charge of discipline, the difference is palpable.

“It is so quiet back here some days,” he has little to do, he said. “Whenever something happens, we have it under control and everything is back to normal within 20 minutes.”

Staff and students say the school is better because leaders last fall embraced an approach to student discipline called restorative justice. Instead of relying on punitive punishments, such as suspensions, the new approach, which has gained prominence in schools across the country, focuses on helping students find healthy ways to deal with conflict and repair the damage they’ve caused.

The idea is that students will learn to manage conflict and stop getting into trouble.

Manual’s move toward restorative justice is part of a national trend, as schools strive to reduce suspension rates. School districts in Denver, Oakland and Pittsburgh are using the approach in many schools. In Indianapolis, the state’s largest school district has also encouraged schools to use the model to reduce suspensions.

It’s not always easy to shift the culture of schools, said Anne Gregory, a researcher at Rutgers University who studies school discipline and restorative justice.

“We have a deeply ingrained sense of the need for punishment,” she said.

At many schools using restorative justice, leaders start by training teachers. Educators are then expected to use the method to run their classroom and to resolve conflict.

Some schools don’t bring students into the process until fairly late in the game, but at Manuel, the school brought students in from the start.

Hernandez, who is in his third year as dean at Manual, worked with 10 staffers on the discipline and safety team to plan for restorative justice. Instead of looking to transform classroom culture, they focused on discipline in the first year and getting students involved in the process. They held several assemblies with students where they explained how it would work, and they created a peer jury with nearly two dozen teens.

The volunteers on the peer jury help resolve serious conflicts by leading peace circles where students who are having problems talk about what happened, what they could’ve done differently and what they can do to repair any damage created by their actions.

“Any kid can identify with another kid easier than with an adult,” Hernandez said.

The students on the jury also play another important role: They’ve become ambassadors for restorative justice throughout the school, explaining how it works and encouraging students to avoid fights.

Quinn is one of the teen volunteers, and like most of the jury members, she’s had problems in school in the past, including suspensions. As a member of the jury, she said she can use her experience to connect with other students.

Earlier this year, she helped mediate a peace circle with three girls who were arguing — the kind of gossip that causes a lot of problems in high school. The circle allowed the girls to talk about the issue with neutral students, including Quinn, so they could resolve their dispute. Since then, Quinn said, she’s checked in with one of the girls involved in the fight every day.

“We pass each other in the hallway. We share smiles or we wave,” Quinn said. “I’ll be like, ‘are you doing OK today?’ … just to let her know that I’m still there if she ever needs to talk.”

One reason why schools across the country are aiming to reduce suspensions is because black children and children with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended than their peers. Hernandez said that’s not a significant issue at Manual, and suspension rates reflect the demographics of the school. (State data suggests there is a gap, with black students making up about 19 percent of enrollment and 26 percent of the students suspended.)

But Manual, which was taken over by the state in 2012 after years of low test scores and is managed by Charter Schools USA, had alarmingly high suspension rates for all student groups, Hernandez said.

Back then, Hernandez said the school’s high suspension rate was due in part to a zero tolerance policy for some student infractions. When students did something wrong, teachers would send them to the office, and Hernandez would dole out punishment. Sometimes, he would suspend five students or more in a day.

Now, with restorative justice, teens get many chances to make amends for their actions before they face suspension. When students get in fights or cause disruptions in class, they might talk to their teacher, the hall monitor or the behavior interventionist. If each of those meetings fail, they might meet with someone else involved in the conflict or do a peace circle with students from the peer jury.

In some cases, the conversations are enough to resolve the issue. In others, students are asked to do something to repair the damage. For example, a teen who graffitis the school might help the custodial staff during lunch, Hernandez said.

Suspension is a last resort, he said.

The decline in the number of students with multiple suspensions suggests that teens are learning from the discipline process, Gregory said. If restorative justice is working well, students should learn how to resolve conflicts and how their actions impact others, she said.

“The idea is to not just not give them a sanction but to increase learning and relationship building,” she said.

Laura Burpo O’Brien, a Manual staffer who splits her time between teaching and working as a behavior interventionist, said teaching students conflict management skills is one of the most important pieces of restorative justice.

When the school started restorative justice last year, students were nervous about the meetings and peace circles, Burpo O’Brien said. But now teens are more comfortable with it. Sometimes students who are having conflicts with friends even stop by the dean’s office to request restorative chats or peace circles.

“We stress to them, conflict is OK,” she said. “You are going to have conflict in every job. You are going to have conflict in every relationship. But you have to embrace the conflict and figure out appropriately how to deal with that conflict.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”