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Pushing out students: Noble, AUSL, and CPS

There were two big school stories in the past week – the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for minor infractions charged to students by Noble Charter Schools, and the sit-in at Piccolo Elementary by parents and supporters opposing a turnaround by the Academy of Urban School Leadership – and one issue that cuts across both is growing opposition to harsh, ineffective discipline policies that force kids out of school.

At AUSL, where the Board of Education will vote on six additional turnarounds on Wednesday, it raises questions about unstable school leadership, wildly shifting school policies, and failure to support programs promised in AUSL submissions to CPS.

Largely lost in the coverage of Noble (particularly in the Chicago Tribune’s editorial, once more attacking critics of CPS) was the actual source of concern – the campaign by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education to reduce the dropout rate, which has led them to focus on disciplinary policies which push kids out.

“We agree there should be consequences for minor infractions, but Noble is not doing it the right way, and as a result, students are leaving,” said Emma Tai of VOYCE.  She said Noble has acknowledged that 40 percent of entering students leave before senior year.  (Ben Joravsky has previously reported on Noble’s fines, demerits, counseling out of kids, and charges for make-up courses.)

Bigger picture

But Noble is “just one piece of a much larger picture,” Tai said.  “Whether it’s demerits and fines at Noble or suspensions, expulsions, and arrests at [traditional] schools, there are practices in all our schools to keep students on lockdown and push them out.”

Concern over test scores may be a bigger driver of the approach than concern over safety, she suggests.

“We should be making sure that all schools are putting a full-faith effort into keeping young people in schools,” she said.  “What’s happening in all our schools [reflects] the real failure of our public officials to use our public dollars to make sure every child gets a quality education.”

At Piccolo, parents protesting the proposed turnaround charged that at other turnarounds, “AUSL has not lived up to promises  of increased support for at-risk students” and “AUSL has pushed out students through zero tolerance discipline” as well as “dropping students and counseling out low-performing students.”

One group backing Piccolo, Blocks Together, has worked extensively with students at Orr Academy, now in its third year as an AUSL turnaround school, and they report a variety of practices that seem to conflict with AUSL’s commitments to CPS.

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Students target school discipline policies

While a new mayor and schools chief are promising to reduce the dropout rate in Chicago schools, a group of CPS students is pointing to the school system’s “harsh discipline policies” as “a major obstacle to graduation.”

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School discipline reform advances

Civil rights leaders will meet with the president of the Chicago Board of Education on Saturday, and high school students will meet with the executive director of a school “turnaround” group on Monday, with similar agendas – reducing student suspensions and increasing support for restorative justice.

The High Hopes Coalition, which includes civil rights and community organizations (more here), will hold a public meeting with board president Mary Richardson Lowry (Saturday, April 2, 11 a.m., Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan) to present a plan to reduce suspensions and expulsions of CPS students by 40 percent next year.

The group wants Richardson Lowry to commit to reducing suspensions and implementing restorative justice in conjunction with community groups, with monthly reports on disciplinary measures made public.

They point to a guide to implementing restorative justice in schools (pdf) issued recently by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Agency.

According to the guide, punitive approaches to school discipline including zero tolerance “do not educate students or resolve conflicts, and may even make schools less safe and cause further harm to students.”

Under such approaches, students of color tend to face disproportionately harsh punishments, according to the report – a point High Hopes has also made.

Reducing violence, dropout rate

Restorative justice defines accountability not as receiving punishment but as understanding the impact of one’s actions and taking responsibility; it “combines strict control and strong support,” and “may be more efficient at reducing violent incidents,” according to the ICJIA report.

It’s also a key strategy for reducing the dropout rate, said a High Hopes organizer.  “The number one factor for passing classes is attendance, and each suspension increases the chances of a student dropping out or failout out,” said Alex Wiesendanger of the Community Renewal Society.  “We need an approach that will keep youth in school and do something about issues that cause problems in the classroom.”

The guide identifies possible funding sources and strategies for integrating restorative justice into the existing disciplinary process.  It includes a “success story” from Kelvyn Park High School in Chicago.

Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity UCC, Rev. Dr. Calvin S. Morris of CRS, and Rev. Robert Biekman of Southlawn United Methodist Church will be presenting the group’s proposal.  Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and CPS interim chief Terry Mazany have also been invited to the event.

The Monday meeting between Orr students who are part of the Blocks Together Youth Council and Donald Feinstein, executive director of the Academy of Urban School Leadership, follows up on a recent community meeting with new Orr principal Tyese Sims which was covered by Catalyst.  That meeting dealt with a large number of students who’d been “dropped” for extended absences as well as a stepped-up suspension policy at Orr.

Mayoral candidates on CPS suspension rates

Two mayoral candidates and several state legislators will endorse the High Hopes Campaign’s goal of reducing suspensions in CPS at a community forum tomorrow.

All the mayoral candidates have been invited to the forum, Saturday, January 29, 10:30 a.m. at Southlawn United Methodist Church, 8605 S. Cregier.

City Clerk Miguel del Valle has confirmed his attendance – he’s previously endorsed the campaign and spoken repeatedly in favor of its goals – and Carol Moseley Braun is sending a representative to announce her support, organizers said.

State legislators from the South Side, including members of legislative committees on education, will also announce their support, they said.

With 43,000 suspensions and 600 expulsions last year, CPS leads the nation’s school systems in both measures, and African American students are twice as likely to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled, according to a Catalyst report which inspired the campaign (see previous post for more).

Research shows that suspensions increase the risk of failure, dropouts, and incarceration.


High Hopes aims at “collapsing the walls of this cradle-to-prison pipeline” and countering “disproportionate levels of incarceration and unemployment in the African-American community,” said Rev. Paul Ford of Avalon Park UCC, in a release.  The church is part of Community Renewal Society’s Civic Action Network, which is spearheading the coalition.

The campaign wants CPS to implement the restorative justice approach which it adopted in 2007, replacing a punitive “zero tolerance” policy.  Restorative justice uses peer juries and peace circles to hold offenders accountable and build community.  But CPS has yet to implement the approach system-wide.

Organizers say that where used, restorative justice has reduced suspensions and conflict.

At Fenger High School, where longtime restorative justice advocate Robert Spicer joined the staff last year following the beating death of Derrion Albert, peace circles have prevented 268 days of suspension over a recent six-week period, Spicer reports in a blog post.  The circles have also helped resolve conflicts that could have ended up in physical fights, he said.

“This is what should be on the front page of our newspapers,” he comments.

In 2009, peer juries averted 2,000 days of suspension, according to Andrew Tonachel of Alternatives.


But some administrators have been reluctant to adopt the new approach.  At Orr High School, peer juries handled numerous cases that would have otherwise resulted in suspensions, but the principal has been slow to refer cases, said Ana Mercado of Blocks Together, a coalition member which works with Humboldt Park youth and parents.

The Chicago Area Project’s restorative justice program was hugely successful at Dyett High School, says Edith Crigler – she tells of post-suspension reentry circles with a large group of girls who “realized they all faced the same challenges” and decided to become the Dyett Peacemakers – and in one year, in-school arrests went from 60 to 6.  But when a new principal came in, the program “fell off the cliff.”

At other schools where CPS sent CAP, principals were too busy to meet with them, and nothing got off the ground, she said.

“You need adult buy-in in the school for it to have a chance,” said Tonachel. Alternatives trained peer juries in 20 CPS high schools this fall – down from about 40 over the past several years, after a federal funding stream was cancelled.

In Chicago, restorative justice is “very much school-driven as opposed to the central office mandating it and providing resources,” he said.  “There’s not a system-wide interest.”

In neighborhoods with “a lot of violence, kids getting shot and dying,” restorative justice “gives young people a way to have their voices heard in a safe environment, to process some of the trauma going on in their lives.  These kids are coming to school with so much trauma and it makes it so hard to learn.   CPS could help them find a way to deal with all this.”

CPS: high suspension rate challenged

Parents and students will join coummunity and faith leaders to rally for reform of CPS’s disciplinary system tomorrow, with the launch of the High Hopes Campaign, (Saturday, November 13, 10:30 a.m. at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington).

They’re calling on CPS to implement restorative justice programs in order to reduce suspensions and expulsions by 40 percent in the next year – and on mayoral candidates and the next CPS chief to make a commitment to provide resources for more effective discipline.

The campaign grows out of a symposium in April that looked at results of a study of suspensions and expulsions in CPS by Catalyst Chicago.

Catalyst found that “black male academic achievement is stunted by disproportionate and often unnecessary disciplinary measures.”  CPS leads the nation’s school systems in suspensions and expulsions, and African American students are twice as likely to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled, Catalyst found.

Last year 43,000 CPS students were suspended and 600 were expelled.

The same offenses often receive very different disciplinary responses, depending on who the student is, said Rev. Robert Biekman of Southlawn United Methodist Church, a member of the Community Renewal Society, which is backing the campaign.

Suspension not only puts students at risk of failing class; studies show it increases chances of dropping out and ending up in jail. And racial disparities in punitive school discipline feed into similar disparities in dropout  and incarceration rates, Biekman said.

In 2007, under pressure from parents groups, CPS changed its Student Code of Conduct to replace “zero tolerance” with restorative justice, which uses peer juries and peace circles to redress harms caused by misconduct.  But there’s been little follow-through, advocates say.

Implementing restorative justice would take “a push from the top so that principals and disciplinarians really latch on” and teachers and staff get training, said Lynn Morton of POWER-PAC, which is backing the campaign.

Working with POWER-PAC, Morton helped found the Austin Peace Center five years ago to implement restorative justice in two Austin elementary schools — and more recently at Wells High.  “It’s a slow process,” she said, but the schools have seen improved attendance, fewer disciplinary cases, and better grades.

With little support from top CPS leaders, the group has focused on a working with parents to bring restorative justice to their schools.  This year POWER-PAC published a parent-to-parent guide to restorative justice, and the group has trained a hundred parents in Lawndale and worked in several schools in other parts of the city.

“When parents learn about it they’re really enthusiastic,” Morton said.

In 2005 POWER-PAC held community hearings on school discipline issues and reported numerous cases of suspensions for minor misconduct (including failing to complete homework and being late for lunch) – with two-thirds of parents saying they were not informed of suspensions (pdf).

Dropout crisis or ‘pushout crisis’?

With Chicago described as one of the nation’s “dropout epicenters” by Education Week, young people here are saying the dropout problem may be more of a “pushout” problem.

Two events Saturday will feature youth activists as part of a national week of activities to bring attention to the “school pushout crisis” and advocate for “the human right of every young person to a quality education.”

On Saturday morning, young people from Blocks Together (Humboldt Park), the Young Women’s Action Team (Rogers Park), MAGIC (Woodlawn), Gender Just, the Chicago Freedom School, and the Korean Resource and Cultural Center will participate in a panel discussion of the “school to prison pipeline” sponsored by the Project Nia and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan, (Saturday, October 16, 9:30 a.m. to noon).

Starting at 1 p.m. the Southwest Youth Collaborative hosts a Day of Expression with youth workshops on education rights, the pushout crisis and the school-to-prison pipeline, with an open mike following at 6 to 9 p.m. at 2749 W. 63rd.

Earlier this week Blocks Together held a “mock trial” of CPS over failed disciplinary policies and school pushouts.

School pushouts in Chicago can be the direct result of policies like zero tolerance discipline or “shifting enrollment policies with the privatization of schools,” and can also be the indirect result of lack of resources, including teacher layoffs and larger class sizes, said Blocks Together youth organizer Ana Mercado.

“They only have two social workers at Orr High School, and that’s not meeting children’s needs,” she said.  “When you call it a dropout problem, you blame the students for the system’s failings.”

The events are being coordinated with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition including the ACLU, Children’s Defense Fund, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local organizations, aimed at “refram[ing] the debate around school discipline from one that favors the punishment and exclusion of children and youth who have been failed by unsafe and underperforming schools to one based on human rights — respecting every child’s right to an education.”

According to DISC, expulsions in Illinois schools increased by 44 percent from 2000 to 2006, with black students far more likely to be expelled than others.

Chicago students and activists joined DISC in Washington D.C. at the end of September to lobby Congress to include funding for restorative justice programs and require collection of school climate and disciplinary data in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

DISC has also urged states to use federal stimulus grants to schools for alternative discipline programs.

In Chicago, groups like DISC member Alternatives and others have instituted alternative disciplinary programs in individual schools and have pressed for including restorative justice in the CPS discipline code.

Blocks Together is currently piloting training based on restorative justice for security guards at Banner School; security guards are responding enthusiastically, Mercado said.

Youth win on CPS guards, grievance process

In a victory for two youth organizing drives, CPS has agreed to establish a grievance procedure for students experiencing violence, harassment or discrimination, and to pilot a program training security guards to use principles of restorative justice in their work.

Both campaigns promote the restorative justice approach – emphasizing accountability as an alternative to zero tolerance and punitive discipline – as a more effective approach to reducing violence, said Sam Finkelstein of GenderJust, an LGTB student group that protested at CPS headquarters and at CPS chief Ron Huberman’s home to demand a grievance procedure.

GenderJust announced last month that CPS had agreed to establish a process for students to file grievances on paper, by phone, or via a website.  Complaints may be investigated by the district’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office. A student oversight committee will monitor the process.

“It’s important that students’ voices are heard when bad things are done to them,” said Nelleli Luna of GenderJust, a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High.

Last week, Blocks Together Youth Council announced an agreement with CPS to pilot restorative justice training for security guards in five or more high schools.  The West Humboldt Park youth group has organized for years against security guard misconduct and policies that criminalize youth.

The two groups supported each other and worked together at various points over the past year.  Southwest Youth Collaborative also worked on the security guard issue.

Both groups have their work cut out for them: GenderJust is working up a publicity drive to inform students about the grievance procedure, including a citywide Queer Student Orientation at the beginning of the school year.  BTYC is identifying schools to participate and working with restorative justice practitioners to create a curriculum.

The agreement with CPS security director Michael Shields includes a commitment to facilitate discussions with the administration at Orr High School, where many BTYC members are students, said Ana Mercado.  Though the school has peer juries based on restorative justice, they aren’t widely used, she said.  “The administration doesn’t really understand it, and doesn’t put its weight behind it,” Mercado said.

One goal for the coming year is to talk about what full implementation of a restorative justice policy would look like for CPS, Finkelstein said.  The approach is now used in scattered ways with limited support (and other groups have worked to promote it over the years; see Newstips from 2005.)

System-wide implementation would be the best way to reduce violence and promote a “culture of calm,” Finkelstein said.

“A lot of people in CPS don’t know what [restorative justice] means,” he said.  “We think students should be the ones defining it.”

For background: Newstips on GenderJust’s Safe and Affirming Education campaign; Newstips on Blocks Together Youth Council’s security guard campaign.

School guards and ‘culture of calm’

UPDATED – Fifteen students, most of them from Orr High School, sat around a storefront in Humboldt Park last Wednesday evening, taking turns role-playing situations encountered by security guards in their school – and discussing better and worse ways of handling them.

One student, portraying a guard, watched an argument between two students escalate into a fight and then roughly subdued one of the contenders, who ends up in a choke hold.

How often does this kind of thing happen, the students are asked.  “Every day,” comes the response from several of them.

The students, members of the Blocks Together Youth Council, say they routinely witness or experience inappropriate behavior by security guards. In a survey of CPS students across the city, they gathered reports of guards cursing and insulting students; sexually harassing them; failing to prevent fights, and even instigating and initiating them; and using excessive force, including beating and paddling students.

Too often security guard misconduct “contributes to an unsafe learning environment,” said BT youth organizer Ana Mercado.  “Their approach leads to more conflict and tension.”

And while she says there are guards who focus on problem-solving over punishment, “it’s not just a few bad apples who are unprofessional, it’s a natural extension of the zero tolerance mentality.

“If you think kids only learn if you are harsh on them, if that’s the only recourse you have, then if it doesn’t work there’s nothing for you to do but go harder, and you end up beating kids up.”

BTYC maintains that one of the most direct ways to promote a “culture of calm” in CPS high schools is to revamp security guard training to include an introduction to restorative justice principles.  They say an interactive workshop format could help guards think through ways of reacting to immature and disruptive behavior in a professional manner.

And they’ve been pushing, with limited success, for a seat at the table as CPS revises its security guard training, arguing that young people’s perspective is crucial.

As participants worked through different scenarios – a student who shows up without a shirt, another who refuses to remove a hat – they talked about how to apply restorative justice principles, which were posted on hand-written signs around the room: the importance of listening, of relationships, of taking into account individuals’ needs, of problem solving, of considering the larger community, and of modeling the behavior you want to see.

BTYC had expected Michael Shields, chief of security for CPS, at the meeting.  At a previous meeting, he’d asked for a demonstration of how restorative justice principles could be applied to training for school security guards, and this date was subsequently set, they say.

But when Blocks Together called to confirm the meeting, they were told it wasn’t on Shields’ schedule, said Orr student Edward Ward.  When they inquired at the school board meeting earlier that day, Shields spoke with them briefly and said something personal had come up that morning.

Ward noted the discrepancy – if it had come up that morning, why wasn’t it on his schedule days earlier?  “We’re angry about that,” he said.

On one wall of the office hangs a sheet with a list of agreements including BTYC involvement in revising security guard training and in monitoring and evaluating trainings; and ensuring that training includes an introduction to restorative justice, discussions of the developmental needs of youth and the proper role of adult professionals, and an interactive format.  At the bottom is Shields’ signature.

Shields has since backtracked on several promises, Mercado said, including allowing BT members to observe trainings.  At the meeting last October where that agreement was signed, Shields also agreed to provide a copy of the current curriculum for guard training, said BTYC organizer Ana Mercado; to date, that promise hasn’t been kept, she said.

CPS spokesperson Monique Bond couldn’t address specifics of discussions between Shields and the group, but said a comprehensive review of security guard training is underway as part of the district’s anti-violence plan.

Misconduct by guards should be reported to teachers, principals, or the district’s inspector general, she said. “These are very serious allegations, and the only way to address them is to file a formal complaint,” she said.

“For young people there’s a lot of fear of backlash from security guards if they hear about a complaint,” said Mercado.   “We’re trying to deal with the problem preventively.”

BTYC has been supporting an effort to establish a confidential grievance process for students to report incidents of violence and harassment in school, a campaign being spearheaded by GenderJust, which has carried out a series of direct actions.

“Right now there’s not really a process,” said Sam Finkelstein, an organizer for the LGBT group.  “You complain somehow, maybe you tell the principal and if you’re lucky it gets acted on.  There’s no followup, no oversight.”

Blocks Together has worked on this issue for years (Newstips first covered their efforts in 2002), organizing high school youth, working to bring restorative justice to local elementary schools, helping to establish a peer jury at Orr.   With limited administrative support and resources, school-by-school efforts have had limited success, Mercado said.

Now she wonders whether the call by  CPS chief Ron Huberman for guards to act as mentors to students will be anything more than “lip service.”

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