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.”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.