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Fenger High School – a model for CPS

Mark Brown offers an inspiring report on the success of restorative justice in “creating an atmosphere that is both disciplined and relaxed” at Fenger High School, overcoming the unfortunate notoriety the school received with the killing of Derrion Albert in 2009.

Newstips noted Spicer’s work at Fenger over a year ago, in a post reviewing restorative justice efforts in individual CPS schools – and the lack of district support for the initiatives.  (Spicer’s commitment to restorative justice goes back years with his work heading the Community Justice for Youth Institute.)

That’s the bigger picture:  coalitions like VOYCE and the High Hopes Campaign – building on the work of community groups like Blocks Together and POWER-PAC, and the in-school efforts of social service agencies like Alternatives Inc. and the Chicago Area Project — are pressing CPS to put real resources behind the restorative justice approach it officially embraced, at least on paper, in 2006.

VOYCE points out that CPS spends millions of dollars on zero-tolerance discipline approaches that aren’t effective at improving student behavior or making schools safer – and that only make dropout rates worse.  Both High Hopes and VOYCE emphasize the blatant racial disparities in the use of harsh discipline – an issue recently backed up by Arne Duncan.

Mayor Emanuel says improving high schools is going to be a priority.  It needs to be; in two decades of school reform, high schools have been the most resistant to change.

The very first step should be a serious commitment to implementing restorative justice – an approach that holds students accountable for their behavior and supports them to do better, that solves problems rather than kicking them out the door; the approach that’s had such success at Fenger – in every school across the district.

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Students call on Emanuel to back discipline reform

Student activists and elected officials will launch a petition drive Monday calling on Mayor Emanuel to reverse his support for extreme disciplinary policies that they say are ineffective and force kids out of school and onto the streets.

Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education will be joined by County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, State Senator Willie Delgado, and State Representative Kim Dubuclet for a press conference at the Cook County Junevile Center, 2245 W. Ogden, at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 5.

Students will share research and personal experiences showing that punitive disciplinary approaches – ranging from fines for misconduct at Noble Charter Schools to suspensions and expulsions at traditional schools – target black and Latino students disproportionately and increase their risk of failure.

New research by students in VOYCE, reviewing tens of thousands of disiplinary actions at CPS over the past year, shows the vast majority were for offenses that did not pose serioius and immediate safety threats, according to the group.

While Emanuel pushes for a longer school day, CPS policies cause hundreds of thousands of lost school days for kids most at risk, they point out.

VOYCE is a citywide multiracial youth organization focused on reducing dropouts. After a 2008 report on “Student-Led Solutions to the Dropout Crisis,” the goup piloted a program in which 300 members served as peer mentors to 700 freshmen in eight high schools. They found extended suspensions for minor misbehavior to be a major obstacle to getting kids on track (see Newstips from July 2011).

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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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