New discipline rules make schools less safe

“Progressive” discipline policies such as “restorative justice” are reducing suspensions — and making schools less safe, argues Paul Sperry in the New York Post.

Convinced traditional discipline is racist because blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites, New York City’s Department of Education has in all but the most serious and dangerous offenses replaced out-of-school suspensions with a touchy-feely alternative punishment called “restorative justice,” which isn’t really punishment at all. It’s therapy.

. . . everywhere it’s been tried, this softer approach has backfired.

Chicago teachers say they’re “struggling to deal with unruly students” under a new policy that minimizes suspension, reports the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s just basically been a totally lawless few months,” said Megan Shaunnessy, a special education teacher at De Diego Community Academy.

De Diego teachers said the school lacks a dedicated “peace room” where students can cool off if they’ve been removed from a class. They say the school does not have a behavioral specialist on staff to intervene with students, nor does it have resources to train teachers on discipline practices that address a student’s underlying needs.

 “You have to have consequences,” fifth-grade teacher John Engels said of the revised conduct code. “If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit, when you got on the Edens Expressway you’d go 100 miles an hour.”

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a "talking circle."

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a “talking circle.”

All over the country, teachers are complaining that student behavior has worsened under lenient policies, writes Sperry.

It has created a “systemic inability to administer and enforce consistent consequences for violent and highly disruptive student behaviors” that “put students and staff at risk and make quality instruction impossible,” wrote Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern in a letter to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Los Angeles Unified also is seeing problems, writes Sperry.

“I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student,” a teacher at a Los Angeles Unified School District school recently noted on the Los Angeles Times website. “The black student told me to ‘Back off, b—h.’ I told him to go to the office and he said, ‘No, b—h, and no one can make me.’ ”

Oakland Unified is considered a national model for using restorative justice programs to cut suspensions in half.  “Even repeat offenders can negotiate the consequences for their bad behavior, which usually involve paper-writing and ‘dialogue sessions’,” writes Sperry.

There have been serious threats against teachers,” Oakland High School science teacher Nancy Caruso told the Christian Science Monitor, and yet the students weren’t expelled. She notes a student who set another student’s hair on fire received a “restorative” talk in lieu of suspension.

. . . White teachers are taught to check their “unconscious racial bias” when dealing with black students who act out. They’re told to open their eyes to “white privilege” and white cultural “dominance,” and have more empathy for black kids who may be lashing out in frustration. They are trained to identify “root causes” of black anger, such as America’s legacy of racism.

Conflicts can take days or weeks to resolve. Teachers must use class time for “circles” rather than academic instruction.

“RJ (restorative justice) can encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions,” warns science teacher Paul Bruno, who participated in talking circles while teaching middle school in Oakland and South Central Los Angeles.

Most schools still follow zero-tolerance rules. An 11-year-old boy was kicked out of school for a year when a leaf that looked like marijuana, but wasn’t, was found in his backpack, reports the Roanoke Times. The gifted student now suffers from depression and panic attacks.

‘Circle up’ instead of suspension

A restorative justice circle at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, Calif.

A restorative justice circle at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, California

“Instead of suspending or expelling students who get into fights or act out, restorative justice seeks to resolve conflicts and build school community through talking and group dialogue,” reports Eric Westervelt on NPR.

Oakland Unified, a large and very diverse California district, expanded its program “after a federal civil rights agreement in 2012 to reduce school discipline inequity for African-American students.”

At Edna Brewer Middle School, the first year was difficult, but  this year, students are willing to “circle up,” says Ta-Biti Gibson, the restorative justice co-director. “Instead of throwing a punch, they’re asking for a circle, they’re backing off and asking to mediate it peacefully with words.”

A few years ago, the school’s alternative discipline program failed because of “problems with teacher buy-in, training and turnover,” reports NPR. The staff is “struggling” with restorative justice, says Principal Sam Pasarow. Some teachers want to see stronger consequences for misbehavior.

Eva Jones, 12, says there have been fewer hurtful rumors and fights this year.

“It seems easier now to, like, make friends with people, because people are less angry and defensive,” she says. . . . Last year, “there was, like, a lot of fights — like, every other week there was a fight. And now there’s, like, a fight once per year. ”

Well … not quite.

About a half-hour later, I hear some yelling. In the gym, pushing and verbal sparring has descended into a full-blown fistfight between a seventh-grade boy and an eighth-grade girl.

The program’s director, (Kyle) McClerkins, has pinned the boy to the gym floor.

After a weekend “cooling off” time, the school schedules a “harm circle.” The combatants — Briona and Rodney — attend with her parents and his single mother.

Rodney’s mother says she’s worried about his anger problem and seeking counseling.

Briona’s mom, Marshae, says her older son went to counseling for his anger. “He just turned 18 in jail. You don’t want to go there,” Marshae tells Rodney.

Rodney shows some remorse with a whispered apology. But his mom is not satisfied and wants to know what’s going to change.

“What do you plan on doing to make sure these kinds of incidents don’t happen again?” she asks.

Rodney pauses. He thinks for a moment and answers in a quiet voice. “Like, I don’t play with people and stuff, I won’t horseplay and stuff like that.”

Then Briona admits she helped instigate by yanking his backpack and teasing.

. . . It’s agreed as a group that the two students will have to write and post anti-bullying posters and do after-school service. And they’ll have to do joint morning announcements offering tips on how students can get along better.

Districtwide, suspensions are down by half in Oakland schools that have fully adopted the program. Absenteeism is down too and graduation rates are up. At two schools, “the disproportionate discipline of African-American students was eliminated,” reports Westervelt.

Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and other urban districts are trying variations of the approach.

‘Personalized learning’ helps in math, reading

“Personalized learning” appears to be raising math and reading scores at 23 schools, according to “interim research” by Rand for the Gates Foundation.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

The 23 urban charter schools in the study predominantly enroll low-income students with below-average scores. Yet students ended the school year above or near the national average. The lowest performers improved the most.

Most teachers use technology — adaptive software programs with short lessons and quizzes — to personalize instruction. Students work at their own pace and their own level, moving forward only when they’ve demonstrated mastery. Typically, teachers work with small groups while other students are working independently.

Slightly less than half of teachers said students use technology for educational purposes about a quarter to half of the time, and about 20 percent said students use technology between 50 to 75 percent of the time. Among the remainder, nearly 20 percent reported an even higher level of technology usage, and nearly 20 percent reported a fairly low level of technology usage.

Most schools used common elements, notes Chalkbeat

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”);
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

Denver’s  Grant Beacon Middle School has used blended learning to personalize for three years, reports Chalkbeat. Test scores and student engagement have improved, says Alex Magaña, the principal. Denver may create several new schools modeled on Grant Beacon.

I wrote about experiments with blended learning in Oakland schools — mostly district schools — in Education Next.

For more on using blended learning to personalize, check out: Blended. Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsHow to get blending learning right and Does blended learning work?

Personalized learning — without fairy dust

Like many high-poverty middle schools, Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep is trying to reach students who are all over the map academically. One third are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind — or more. “You can’t teach them by aiming for the middle and providing these little supports,” says Betlach.

“Teachers are told to sprinkle your differentiation fairy dust,” says Betlach. With 32 students in a class, and no aides, “it’s not possible.”

What is possible?

A foundation-funded experiment is testing whether “blended learning” can personalize instruction in eight Oakland schools. I write about how it’s working in Beyond the Factory Model in  Education Next.

9-hour day includes robotics, dance, cooking

 In a tough Oakland neighborhood, a middle school offers a 9-hour school day, reports Susan Frey on EdSource.  Elmhurst Community Prep students can choose enrichment classes in robotics, music, dance, painting, cooking, blogging and other activities. “They can make collages, dissect fetal pigs or create apps,” writes Frey.

“We’re not just cookies and basketballs,” said Principal Kilian Betlach,  “We have a real moral imperative to provide kids from low-income backgrounds with the services and opportunities that middle-class kids get. We don’t do just hard academics. We offer access and opportunities.”

Classes begin at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. Federally funded AmeriCorps teaching fellows tutor students during the day and teach after-school classes. The regular academic teachers get an hour each afternoon, from 2 to 3 p.m., to work collaboratively and plan.

Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit, helps train the Americorps fellows and brings in “citizen teachers” from the community to teach their specialties. Local companies invite students for “apprenticeship” experiences.

At Pandora, students learned how to make an app. “It was a video game where you dodge fireballs,” Betlach recalled.

The school also works with nonprofits such as Waterside Workshops in Berkeley, where the students built a boat.

In 8th grade, student focus on one after-school activity.  Andres McDade, who tried robotics, skateboarding and film, chose music as an 8th grader. He plays the saxophone and percussion drum. “I like the joy of playing music,” he said.

Betlach and Citizen Schools “have cobbled together federal, state, local and private funding” to pay for the extended day, writes Frey.

In his days as a San Jose teacher, Betlach wrote an excellent blog, Teaching in the 408.

I visited Elmhurst a few months ago. (The school is participating in a blended learning pilot, which I’m writing about for Education Next‘s spring issue.) It’s a small, semi-autonomous school in Oakland Unified, so it has some freedom to innovate but all the usual challenges.

Six years of high school (with job training)?

President Obama’s visit to P-Tech, a six-year high school in Brooklyn, spotlighted the idea of combining high school, community college and job training.

Linked learning — schoolwork combined with job internships — is expanding in Oakland Unified.

‘Restart’ weak charters

When a charter school isn’t performing well, closure isn’t the only option, argues a new Public Impact report. The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform. Instead of forcing students to find new schools, “introduce new adults who have the will and skill to help struggling students achieve, and let the students stay.”

Charter school restarts offer a way to intervene when performance does not meet expectations–and not just as a last-ditch effort to avoid closure. Restarts can also be used proactively by responsible boards and authorizers when the conditions are right.

This report describes how restarts worked at five charter schools in Chicago, New Orleans, Trenton, New York and Philadelphia.

Oakland’s school board plans to close three very high-scoring charters because it believes the American Indian Model Schools board remains under the thumb of founder Ben Chavis, who resigned amid conflict of interest charges.  Students will be forced to transfer to lower-performing schools. Why not restart with a new board?

Top ‘challenge’ school faces closure

Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter High School  is the most challenging high school in the U.S., according to the Washington Post’s index, which measures the number of college-level tests taken per graduate. At AIPC, 81 percent of students come from low-income families, yet 86 percent of graduates pass at least one Advanced Placement or other college-level exam.

Yet the high school and the two high-scoring AIPC middle schools face closure in June, writes Jay Mathews. Nobody questions the schools’ academic success, but the Oakland school board thinks the AIPC board hasn’t managed public funds properly.

The Oakland district alleges that (AIPC former director Ben) Chavis, who rented property to the schools, “improperly received $3.8 million in public funding” that “violated conflict of interest laws.” The charges are worthy of adjudication, but is a shutdown the best option? . . . The schools have been at or near the top on state test results. Having one of the nation’s worst school systems kill off three of the nation’s best schools makes little sense.

Ben Chavis turned around a very low-performing charter school, creating three schools that put their students on the path to success. He’s now retired. If he’s profited illegally from his contracts with AIPC schools, prosecute him. But the county or the state board of education needs to keep the AIPC schools operating in Oakland.

Feds will monitor suspensions for racial bias

Federal officials will monitor 38 Oakland schools charged with suspending too many black male students, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Almost 20 percent of the district’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, six times the rate of white boys.

In middle school, 1 out of every 3 black boys was suspended at least once.

The board approved a five-year plan that includes mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior. In addition, the plan calls for “restorative justice” as an alternative to suspension. Students, parents and school officials meet to encourage  “the offender taking responsibility and making amends.”

The district already has an Office of African-American Male Achievement, which has created programs such as a daily after-school “manhood development” class at Edna Brewer Middle School for 24 black males.

As the boys built drums out of wood and tape, their instructor, who goes only by Jahi, described the benefit of working with the boys, giving them help with their homework and encouragement to focus on school and their futures.

“We try to create this culture of success,” he said. “We can’t change what’s happening outside in the world.”

Eighth-grader William Bolanos, 13, said he’d had some trouble in the past at school, with a few suspensions on his record.

But that won’t happen this year, with help from Jahi’s class.

“It just shows you how to be a man, a leader, a big brother to people,” he said. “I’m just going to try to get honor roll this year.”

Brewer Middle, a relatively high-scoring school, is 34 percent Asian, 31 percent black, 16 percent Latino and 13 percent white. And, no, the district doesn’t have a special office for any other racial or ethnic group.

Implementing the plan — including  “comprehensive and frequent documentation to prove compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964″ — will cost the district “millions,” according to the Chronicle.

Oakland loses students, schools to charters

Twenty-one percent of students in Oakland, California, a mostly low-income, minority district, now attend charter schools and now two successful schools are converting to charter status, writes Lisa Snell on Reason.

Last week the Oakland Unified school district voted to close five elementary schools as part of a restructuring plan as the district grapples with a huge budget deficit caused in part by too many schools and not enough students. In the past six years student achievement in Oakland Unified has improved faster than any urban district in California. The district has operated through a charter-like school-choice process called “Options” where a student can enroll in any school in the district and the “money follows the child” to that school. 

 Despite the flexibility, teachers and principals at two elementaries, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, have voted for charter status, saying charters “have far more control over who they hire, what they teach and how, and how they spend their money,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Those interviewed from the two schools, including Mari Rose Taruc, a parent-leader from ASCEND, say families overwhelmingly support the charter proposal.

The two schools hired teachers dedicated to the mission when they opened in 2001 (ASCEND) and 2007 (Learning Without Limits). But, this March, the district issued seniority-based layoff notices to 60 percent of the older school’s teachers and nearly all of the newer school’s teachers. While most of the layoff notices were rescinded, the two schools decided that charter conversion was the best way to protect the schools’ character.