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Organizing against violence

As Chicago reeled under a new spate of street violence, community organizers including scores of teens working to prevent violence met Saturday in Little Village — and participants said the problem will require a far more comprehensive approach than just locking up “bad guys.”

“The ‘harsh on crime’ approach simply hasn’t worked,”  said Luis Carrizales, coordinator of the Violence Prevention Collaborative, a collective of community organizations run out of Enlace Chicago.

“We’ve had that attitude for 15 years, and we’ve created a prison population larger than ever in history.  And we have more young people who are disconnected, either not in school or out of work, and we’re surprised that they turn to violence.”

The collaborative works on the principle that the problem of violence is complex and there is no single approach to dealing with it, Carrizales said.  For example, a panel at Saturday’s gathering addressed the links between street violence and domestic violence — young people who have witnessed or been direct victims of abuse and haven’t gotten treatment.

Peace circles

The event marked the UN’s Day of Peace and focused on nonviolence education.  Peace circle training was offered for teachers and school counselors, part of an effort to promote restorative justice in Chicago schools, Carrizales said.

It’s one of several key proactive strategies to reduce violence that political leaders and school officials should take more seriously, he said.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” — with school disciplinary policies that criminalize misbehavior that would have been dealt with within school in earlier days — has certainly contributed to the culture of violence, he said.

“You’re convicting and labelling people as violent and unredeemable at age 14, 15, 16, and saying lock them up and get rid of them,” he said.  “The problem is they’re going to be coming back to our neighborhoods, and they’ll come back bitter and more angry and with even less options.”

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CPS pressed on discipline reform

A City Council resolution will call on CPS to implement school discipline reforms, and students, parents, and community and faith leaders will release a report showing that a restorative justice approach could make schools safer and save the school district money.

The High Hopes Campaign will hold a press conference in the main entrance hall of City Hall at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14.  Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) will discuss a resolution he will introduce Wednesday’s council meeting, and students and parents who are implementing restorative justice in Chicago schools will describe their experiences.

CPS added restorative justice to its student code of conduct in 2006 but has never implemented the approach system-wide. The approach uses peer juries and peace circles to improve school safety and culture by holding students accountable for their actions and supporting them to get on track.

The report presents findings that restorative justice is more effective at improving student behavior and achievement than punitive discipline methods, including suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.  It reviews best practices and makes recommendation on what’s needed in terms of funding and staffing, as well as monitoring and evaluation. [Read the report.]

CPS could save money now spent on having police officers and large numbers of security guards in schools – and on expulsions and arrests — by focusing on approaches that improve behavior, said Ana Mercado of Blocks Together.

The High Hopes Campaign (it stands for Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions) includes Access Living, Community Renewal Society, Enlace Chicago, Organization of the North East, Blocks Together, Trinity UCC, Southwest Youth Collaborative, and POWER-PAC.

Last week the U.S. Department of Education released findings confirming that African-American students in CPS face harsher discipline than other students.  It’s time “to figure out what’s working and what’s not,” said Secretary Arne Duncan at the time.

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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CPS acts on LGBT concerns

A grassroots organizing campaign led by LGBT youth has won agreement from CPS chief Ron Huberman on a new advisory council to promote the school district’s policies against discrimination and harassment.

The agreement comes weeks after another youth-led campaign won an expanded anti-discrimination policy from the Board of Education.

Meeting with members of the citywide coalition Gender Just and other groups on August 18, Huberman offered to fund an “intervention team” or advisory council of students and community members that would develop a student justice handbook and guide development of a training curriculum for CPS staff.

The team will also be tasked with developing a grievance process for students with discrimination and harassment issues that their own schools aren’t addressing adequately, said Sam Finkelstein of Genter Just.

CPS’s anti-discrimination policy was expanded to add gender identity and expression to the list of protect categories at the school board’s July 22 meeting. That decision followed a drive by young people working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, during which nearly a thousand signatures were collected on petitions.

The August meeting followed a community forum with Huberman in June where Gender Just proposed eight measures as part of their “safe and affirming education” campaign. These included a district accountability organizer to assist gay-straight alliances in every school; comprehensive sex education, covering condom use and diverse sexual orientations; accountability for security guards; attention to the potential impacts of school closings on vulnerable students; and a directive to principals emphasizing the district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Gender Just wanted mandatory training for all staff; Huberman agreed to develop a curriculum for new staff orientation that would also be available online, Finkelstein said. A letter to principals emphasizing district policies will go out with the new curriculum, he said.

Good policies, not always followed

CPS has good policies but they aren’t implemented everywhere, Finkelstein said. “There are a lot of disparities and they tend to match up with income levels and race,” he said.

Gay-straight alliances — GSAs — are generally found on the north side, with very few on the south or west sides, he said. Often schools won’t allow students to form GSAs, even though CPS policy requires them to do so if they allow any student clubs, Finkelstein said.

“Teachers weren’t really supportive,” said Akhia Daniels, a recent graduate of South Shore High School for Leadership. “They would see stuff going on and not address it.”

“School is supposed to be a place for education, a place to be safe, not a place to be judged on whether you like boys or girls,” she said. “They want you to do all these things and at the same time they’re not offering you a safe environment.”

Another campaign member is Chicago Youth Initiating Change, a citywide social justice group. CYIC emphasizes problems with Renaissance 2010, including problems caused for vulnerable students by closings and relocations.

Military academies, security guards

Renaissance 2010 schools present other problems, Finkelstein said: with “more flexibility and less accountability,” charter and contract schools associated with Renaissance 2010 are more likely to disregard or feel unbound by CPS policy. Discrimination, harassment and violence are particularly issues in the military academies which are proliferating, he said.

Blocks Together, a community organization which organizes youth in West Humboldt Park, joined the campaign because BT’s longtime effort to improve training for security guards (see below) meshed with its goals, said Cecile Carroll. At last month’s meeting, Huberman said CPS is finally overhauling training to raise standards and increase professionalism among guards.

Blocks Together’s youth council wants to be at the table — in part to ensure that principles of restorative justice are part of the training — Carroll said. “It’s a good opportunity to help influence the culture of security guards all across the system, rather than school by school, the way we have been working,” she said.

While school districts in cities across the country are beginning to address the concerns of LGBT youth, Chicago’s efforts are noteworthy because of the direct involvement of youth in designing responses, Finkelstein said. “Chicago has a robust youth organizing movement right now,” he said.

Grassroots success at Dyett High

[UPDATED] As CPS struggles with low graduation rates, a program at Dyett High School guided by the Grand Boulevard Federation — and led by students — has succeeded in doubling the school’s graduation rate, and raising the college attendance rate by 41 percent.

GBF’s “Education To Success” program, aimed at increasing graduation rates for African-American males, will be featured at a Chicago Urban League forum (Tuesday, December 2, 6 p.m., 4510 S. Michigan) as part of the League’s campaign for high school equity.

It was student ownership of efforts to address discipline issues and promote college preparation that helped make the difference, said Andrea Lee of GBF.

A peer jury program based on principles of restorative justice — with the goal of preventing students from dropping out due to discipline problems — grew out of discussions led by students. And instead of having a few school staff members trained in the process, thirty Dyett students — including kids with histories of disciplinary problems — underwent three days of intensive training.

The students got to name their organization — Justice Youth Advisors, or J-YA — and they got a Peace Room which they decorated and furnished as a venue for peer juries and a place where kids can go if they need to cool down.

J-YA almost doubled in size as students who were referred to the peer jury asked to become involved, Lee said. And the numbers were dramatic — a 46 percent decrease in misconduct reports and an 82 percent decrease in in-school arrests.

“Dyett became the poster school for peer juries,” Lee said — and Dyett students were asked to conduct trainings at other Chicago high schools; the Milwaukee schools paid for a group of Dyett students to go there to train educators and students.

The opportunity to really develop public speaking and leadership skills was key to inspiring students to raise their aspirations, Lee believes. Efforts to develop those kinds of skills “are mostly missing in neighborhood schools,” she said.

Now GBF is helping to establish a student group to promote the importance of college — again, not aiming at the school’s top students. The group Men At Work (which has come to include young women too) meets in a new college and career lab and has attracted widespread involvement from other students.

While CPS has the goal of each high school student applying to five colleges, GBF found many points beyond submitting an application where the process breaks down. “We found out a lot of kids don’t know how to do the research to determine if a school is a good fit,” Lee said. “We found a number of students who were accepted but couldn’t afford to attend” and “didn’t know what to do to get financial aid.”

So the group goes step by step through the entire process — what is an appropriate college; what questions to ask on a college tour; role playing interviews; how to get a letter of recommendation — and what to do when you get an acceptance letter.

One issue that has emerged was the reluctance of many low-income parents to send financial information necessary for aid applications. So GBF and its Peer Parent Education Network are working with parents to allay concerns.

One result is that Tuskegee University is reserving a dozen seats for qualified graduates of Dyett — and is paying to fly a group of Dyett students to visit the school in January.

Students who need community college to get their grade point average up develop a plan to continue to a four-year school. Students who may find themselves for the first time among very few African-Americans are prepared for what to expect. Families where no one has been to college are prepped to support a child who calls home depressed or homesick. Plans include finding a mentor at college and having a college-educated mentor back home.

“The culture has shifted” at Dyett, said Lee, citing the strong support of principal Jacquelyn Lemon, along with the focus of program coordinator Cornelius Ellen on building trust and relationships with youth, and the help of CPS and several community partners.

Lemon and Ellen will join three Dyett students, including a special education student who is going on to college, at the Chicago Urban League forum, speaking about barriers to graduation and college for African American males — and how they can be overcome.

“There’s a horrific graduation problem in Chicago,” said Leslie Drish of the Chicago Urban League. “We wanted to look at one grassroots organization that’s had remarkable success with graduation rates in their school and talk about how to replicate their efforts.” Another forum on the subject is planned for January 13.

Parents, Students Act on School Safety

While the City Council considers a proposal to fine families of children who get into fights at school, parents in Austin are improving classroom behavior and performance with an educational discipline program based on “restorative justice,” and students are discussing initiatives to reduce tensions at Clemente High School.

Earlier this year members of the citywide parent group POWER-PAC established the Austin Peace Center at Brunson Elementary School, with support from the State’s Attorney’s Project Reclaim.

POWER-PAC has called for education-oriented discipline programs as an alternative to excessive use of suspensions, which they say don’t improve behavior or address underlying issues.

At Brunson students facing suspension or detention were referred to the peace center, and one group of boys and one of girls each met for twice-weekly after-school sessions for several months. They learned conflict resolution strategies and got homework help and one-on-one time with adult mentors. A conflict resolution approach called “peace circles” was used to handle classroom infractions, bringing together everyone involved in a supportive conversation which holds offenders accountable.

Volunteer parents and community residents serve as Peacemakers, staffing the peace center during school days. “Kids can ask to talk to a Peacemaker if they’re getting upset,” said Lynn Morton of POWER-PAC. “They can sit and talk and calm down, and then go and have a great day.”

Discipline problems have gone down and grades have gone up for participating students, Morton said.

Several Austin school are interested in joining the program, she said, and next year they will expand to Howe Elementary, 720 N. Lorel.

Students participating in the Austin Peace Center will be recognized in an awards ceremony on Thursday, June 8, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at Brunson, 932 N. Central.

Backed by Community Organizing and Family Issues, POWER-PAC is also pressing to reinstate recess in CPS elementary schools, in order to improve behavior and learning.

At Clemente High School, students are discussing starting a welcoming committee for students transferred from Austin High as it is phased out, said Freddie Calixto, executive director of BUILD Inc., which has worked with Clemente students on gang and violence issues for several years.

Fights went up dramatically at Clemente after Austin students were transferred there this year.

Of the welcoming committee Calixto said, “They could have done it this year,” but information about the student transfer “didn’t funnel down to the community level. People didn’t know what was going on, so they didn’t know how to respond.”

Clemente students are also planning to reach out to parents from the Austin area, and they have called for more security at the school and better training for security personnel, Calixto said.

They’ve also won administration support for scattered dismissal times, reviving a proposal that had been rejected in the past, he said.

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