Talking it through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a culture Kirksey credits to restorative justice.

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

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

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.