First Person

First Person: What the shift to restorative justice looked like in my KIPP school

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Matthew Peoples
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It was the kind of call no educator ever wants to get, especially in the middle of a winter holiday: A maintenance staffer reporting messages of hate scrawled everywhere, threatening the principal, me, by name. On the sides of the building. On portable classroom walls. On windows. Everywhere.

The student who had defaced the campus — I will call him Luis — freely admitted what he had done, and openly tied his actions to his involvement with a gang. There was no mystery about who was responsible. The question was what to do about it.

This took place in 2011 at KIPP Summit Academy, a charter middle school near Oakland, California. Given the extent of the damage and the nature of the graffiti, most schools would have considered suspension or expulsion for Luis. Indeed, many of our staff members initially felt strongly that was the right response.

At KIPP Summit Academy, punishment and suspension had resulted in obedient behavior. But those measures left a sizable proportion of students feeling that adults were adversaries, not partners, and separated them from the learning process. Rather than teaching lessons about how to do better, I saw us putting some of our most needy students on a path to alienation from school.

[Read more: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline]

So our school ultimately took a different path, and chose a process that led Luis to learn from his mistakes rather than simply being punished for them.

This path, called restorative justice, has a 40-year history in the U.S. and is finding favor among a growing number of schools nationally, including many of my school principal colleagues leading KIPP schools in the Bay Area and across the country.

It’s not because restorative justice is easier than the traditional approach. When Luis was told in 2011 that he would have to engage in tough conversations with his classmates and teachers, he actually asked to be suspended instead.

We didn’t suspend him. Luis and his family eventually agreed to go through the restorative justice process, where we instead asked him four questions: What happened? What were you thinking at the time? Who was affected by your actions? And, what do you need to do to make it right?

We asked those questions in more than a dozen conferences. (I told you it wasn’t an easier way.) In the final one, nearly everyone touched by the event was represented — Luis, his mother, some teachers with whom he had good rapport, friends who could speak to the positives in his character — as well as the parents and facilities manager who volunteered to clean up the graffiti.

What happened next provides a window into why, though the process demands more of everyone, the rewards can also be greater.

In that conference, Luis recounted his state of mind at the time of the incident. He talked about his anger at experiences in school and elsewhere, and how much fun it felt defacing the school. But now, in a very different state of mind, he apologized and asked to do something to repay the community. He spent two weeks working with the facilities manager after school.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as “soft” and as failing to draw the line on serious misbehavior. We ask to be judged by results. In the KIPP schools where I have worked and in others, teachers have seen measurable reductions in undesirable behaviors and school suspensions.

No one would claim the restorative justice approach as a cure-all. A student who helped Luis deface the school never bought into the process, and his family, despite our pleas, ultimately pulled him out of the school. And even when it works well, restorative justice requires parents, students, and teachers to make a hard cultural shift and for schools to invest in teacher training.

There is also no doubt that some student actions, such as bringing weapons to school or threatening school safety, may result in immediate consequences, including suspension and even expulsion. But the reality is that there are many transgressions that can be better dealt with through alternative paths.

For students like Luis, and for most students we’ve tried the approach with, it has paid off. Five years later, Luis just graduated from high school. Thanks in part to continued support from KIPP teachers and his parents, gang involvement is in the past and he is likely headed to college in the future.

Kids like Luis may make mistakes when they are young, but we have seen that strategies like restorative justice can help them understand the impact of their actions, restore the harm they have caused, and make better choices in the future. And most importantly for us as educators, these new approaches can keep more kids in school and on a positive path. That’s a great outcome for all of us.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk