A Revolution in Denver Schools: A new approach to discipline — “restorative practices” — helps dramatically cut suspensions
Author: Donna Bryson - October 8, 2017 - Updated: October 9, 2017
Sometimes a cell is more than a cell.
That’s what North High School staff member Lisbeth Vargas discovered after a math teacher gave a student a second warning about using his phone in class. Vargas, whose responsibilities include helping North teachers deal with disruptive students, said she knew two more warnings would mean an in-school suspension. Vargas stepped in to mediate, first speaking to the student alone and getting him to admit he wasn’t getting the material.
“I’m struggling,” Vargas remembers him telling his teacher later in the mediated session. “I tune out. I just need something to do. The cell phone’s there and I pull it out.”
The student and teacher were able to turn their attention together to solving math, not discipline, problems after the young man took responsibility and apologized, Vargas said.
Vargas brought the student and teacher together by employing a strategy known as restorative practices. Strip away the jargon and it comes down to this: if communications can be improved between immature students and busy teachers, young people will be less likely to be alienated from learning, suspended or expelled.
North and two other Denver schools pioneered the approach to discipline more than a decade ago, and the practice is quietly revolutionizing education in the city.
Ten years after restorative practices and other reforms were introduced in DPS, suspensions have dropped from 11,000 in 2006, when the district had about 70,000 students, to 4,500 last year, when the district had more than 92,000, according to Donna Cash, a DPS manager whose portfolio includes discipline reform.
Cash said in a district that started with three pilot restorative practices schools in 2006 now has coordinators like Vargas and others with similar responsibilities in up to 70 schools.
Now Denver is nationally recognized as a leader in restorative practices. Its schools have been cited as models by the National Education Association and a national civil rights group.
Proponents say the current anti-immigrant, pro-law-and-order climate has given them a new sense of urgency as they work to spread their philosophy in the state’s largest school district and beyond.
“It’s not to say that the stakes haven’t always been high. But they’ve felt a lot higher” in recent weeks, said Allison Meier, who works for a coalition supporting restorative practices implementation in Denver whose partners include the grassroots organization Padres y Jovenes Unidos.
As its name implies, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos rallies parents and children to work together to address challenges. The group has long argued that traditional school discipline policies have resulted in a disproportionate number of minorities being suspended or expelled, and that those young people pushed from school too often end up in jail.
Now, in addition to drawing attention to what it calls a school-to-prison pipeline, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos is speaking out about a school-to-deportation pipeline. Initially conceived to ameliorate in-school discipline issues, restorative practices were quickly recognized as a tool to help students of color stay in school, and now the method touches the national immigration debate.
Support they need to succeed
As this school year began, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos was part of a coalition that released a step-by-step handbook it hopes will help more schools adopt the techniques used by Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North. The coalition includes Denver Public Schools and its teachers union, which agreed in the contract their negotiators reached Sept. 1 that restorative practices should be implemented in each of the districts 199 schools as part of a broader commitment to ensuring all 92,000 students — more than half Latino, 23 percent white and 13 percent black have the support they need to succeed.
Daniel Kim, state director for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, says his group recently started its first youth clubs outside Denver, in Fort Lupton to the north and in the mountain town of Leadville. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos also is planning restorative practice workshops in Pueblo and Leadville.
A new principal has already been implementing restorative practices at Leadville’s high school. Ben Cairns said the groundwork was already in place before he arrived in Leadville last year. Before heading to the mountains, Cairns had preceded Vargas as a restorative practices coordinator at North and lobbied for the strategy at the state house.
According to a report prepared for Denver Public Schools in 2007, the district saw a discipline crackdown between the 2000-2001 school year and 2004-2005. In-school suspensions, in which a child might be confined to the lunchroom or principal’s office instead of learning in class, went from 1,864 to 4,859, and out-of-school suspensions from 9,846 to 13,487. The period also saw a 71 percent increase in police being called in to arrest or ticket students for misbehavior such as using obscenities, causing disruptions or shoving a classmate. Arrests for more serious infractions like bringing a weapon or drugs to school also were up, but not as sharply.
In 2004-2005, Latinos received 71 percent of those police tickets, though they made up only 58 percent of the district’s student body. African-Americans were a third of all those expelled, but only 19 percent of students.
After a decade of reforms, DPS’ Cash said the improved numbers prove the commitment from principals who have so many priorities but are willing to budget for the restorative practices positions. She added the new step-by-step guide will help the district expand and deepen such work.
Meier, a former teacher, said it can be hard.
“We’re asking teachers to change their definition of their job,” she said. “You’re not a math teacher. You build relationships with the students in order for them to be able to let you teach them math.”
Reduce expulsions, increase safety
Cash said the dramatic drop in suspensions has meant more learning time for students and contributed to improved graduation and decreased dropout rates. But she said minority students continue to be disproportionately disciplined.
“We’ve made great strides. We’re proud of the things we’ve done,” Cash said. “And we still believe we have things to accomplish.”
Some commentators trace discipline crackdowns, which also were seen elsewhere, to the 1999 shooting at Columbine in which two students at the school near Denver shot and killed 12 students and a teacher. Meier, who taught social studies at North before coming to Padres & Jóvenes Unidos to help make restorative practices policy, says a broader “get tough on crime” attitude also played a part. Now, the Trump administration is echoing the law-and-order rhetoric of the 1990s.
Padres & Jóvenes Unidos was part of a task force that helped state lawmakers draft a 2012 law that gave school officials more leeway in disciplining children by overturning, for example, an education version of three strikes in which three warnings about disruptive behavior automatically led to expulsion. Hearings for the bill drew a broad range of supporters, including senior law enforcement officials who said it was time for common sense changes like restorative practices. Principal Cairns, who also was part of the task force, said the restorative strategy appeals both to conservatives who want schools to have more autonomy and liberals who see it as a way to address injustices in the way minorities are treated at school.
“We can reduce suspensions and expulsions AND increase school safety,” Cairns told lawmakers in 2012.
David Osborne, director of the an education think tank project of Washington’s market-oriented Progressive Policy Institute, praises how charter schools and other innovative strategies have worked in Denver in his new book “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education.” He also quotes some teachers who have complained that the district’s emphasis on reducing suspensions and expulsions has made them feel unsafe at school. Restorative practices done correctly will instead leave teachers feeling empowered, Osborne said.
Denver’s embrace of restorative practices is “a good move,” he said. “I think it makes a lot of sense and it’s good that they’re training people. I think they’re moving in the right direction.”
Kim, of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said it would be hard to reverse a trend that has such broad support.
“But we know we’re in really critical moment,” Kim said.
Creating a ton of anxiety
Kim said the immigration crackdown is increasing pressure on the families his group serves. Young people might behave in ways that will be seen as disruptive or disrespectful if they are anxious about getting home from school to find a parent has been deported or worried about their DACA status.
Former President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order offered two years’ relief from deportation, with the possibility of renewals, for young people who were children when their parents brought them to the United States without proper documents. DACA eligibility requirements included provisions that young immigrants be in school or have high school diplomas and have no felonies or more than three misdemeanors on their records.
While President Trump has indicated he wants a solution for those who had benefitted from DACA, his Sept. 5 announcement that he would end the program had some of Cairns’s students in despair over their future. The Leadville principal said that in his 7th-through-12th grade school with about 400 kids, most of them poor and Latino, restorative practices has the added benefit of showing that adults still believe in finding solutions to problems through dialogue that includes everyone.
“Public schools … create a sense of public and a sense of community,” Cairns said. “We’re a public school. That’s the most beautiful thing in our democracy. We can’t as a society continue to think that not rebuilding community in our schools is going to fix things.”
Denver teachers’ union president Henry Roman added the immigration debate “creates a ton of anxiety for our students. It’s real for them.”
“For our DACA kids, this is the only home they know. They may have been born somewhere else. But their identity is American,” said Roman, an immigrant himself who came to the United States from Peru as a teen. “For us, we’re in the business of educating our students and that’s what we will continue to do.”
A second chance
And restorative practices offer “more opportunities for our kids to succeed,” Roman said.
Maria Rosales, a 16-year-old North senior, also refers to opportunity when she talks about restorative practices. At the middle school she attended in Summit County before her family moved to Denver, she said, “they would just suspend you as soon as something happened.”
For Rosales, “something” once meant hiding a teachers’ glasses in the wastebasket, for which she was banished from school for three days. Infractions piled up. Her grades suffered because she was missing so many classes. By the time she got to North, Rosales was “feeling like I couldn’t do anything. Like I was going to disappoint my parents.” She considered dropping out.
But after an argument with a classmate at her new school, she said she was baffled when, instead of being suspended, she was given a chance to calm down and explain herself — and felt heard.
“They gave me another opportunity,” said Rosales, who had appreciatively checked out the offerings in the teachers’ lounge snack machine before settling at a table to talk about her experiences.
She became a self-styled lobbyist for restorative practices. When a friend at a charter school that shares North’s campus was having trouble with another student, Rosales approached the charter’s principal to urge him to talk through a solution with the feuding teens.
Rosales is taking an education class at a nearby community college along with her high school work. She’d like to teach in an elementary school. She wishes she had had a chance when she was much younger to begin learning the patience and self-control she has developed at North.
“I’d told myself I never wanted to become a teacher,” she said, saying she’d worried she’d have to deal with students as unhappy as she once was.
Now she has seen that “if you’re a teacher, it’s because you’re passionate about kids.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:09 p.m. Oct. 9 to reflect the correct employer of Allison Meier.