Discipline Revolution Project Members:
Happy new year.
We wrote this organizational update before the horrifying violence in the capital last week. As you know, everyday, we partner with schools, systems, organizations, and leaders to develop anti-biased, anti-racist cultures and to advance racial justice in communities across the country. The events of this past week — fueled by the cancer of white privilege and supremacy — have given us even greater urgency. In that spirit, we share this summary of our work in 2020 and invite you to continue on this journey with us in 2021.
Our 2020 can be described in 4-3-2-1…
We partnered deeply with four public school districts — two traditional and two charter. We supported their work to create anti-biased, anti-racist school cultures. We helped them intensify their focus on student well-being, supports to prevent incidents from occurring, rooting out biases in their organization and schools, and radically rethinking how to respond to conflict.
We planned, facilitated, and hosted three virtual “communities of practice.” Leaders from the greater Houston Area, The Broad Center alumni network, and New Leaders gathered to discuss research and promising practices about de-criminalizing and de-policing how we handle school discipline. Participants shared what’s worked and surfaced common struggles.
We consulted with two states about their approach to putting discipline reform at the core of their agenda, even as they responded to COVID. We became an approved provider by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) to support states in implementing their child and family well-being guidance.
In every engagement, we had one singular focus: to spur deep, lasting, and real change by acting as truly trusted partners to our clients. We’ve woken up every day and thought about how to help leaders resist the urge to settle into old ways of being — and to use this moment of inflection to tackle past patterns that cement inequities. We’ve coached, laughed, pushed, planned, and helped execute big things.
Our CEO, Cami, wrote several pieces to help move the national conversation including ‘Police-Free Schools’ Vs. ‘Chaos’ Is a False Choice. Here’s What Districts Must Do to Implement Real Discipline Reform, COVID-19 Presents a Chance for Bold Reform of Schools That Have Long Failed High-Needs Students. Louisiana Can Lead the Way, and We Need a New Way of Talking About Students Who Face Barriers Erected by Adults and Sustained by Broken Systems. She was also interviewed by Huffington Post, Bloomberg News, and Instruction Partners about how to think about discipline reform and police-free schools. She joined DRP coach April Dinwoodie for a conversation about the role family diversity plays in the work and The Line for a conversation about the critical need for social-emotional supports for adults and kids right now (see Episode 5: The Path Back to School).
With all of the individual and collective trauma we’ve experienced, our work at DRP is critical. We will either have the courage to transform classroom and school environments, including de-criminalizing our approach to student behavior, or we run the risk of further disenfranchising students and communities we were already failing.
Here’s to effecting deep change in 2021,
Cami and The DRP Team
P.S. ThirdWay Solutions (DRPs umbrella organization) is hosting a webinar on How to Raise Anti-Biased, Anti-Racist Kids on January 19th. You can register by clicking here.
P.P.S. Cami writes a blog for Forbes about trailblazing women across sectors. Last month’s edition focused on three female Superintendents. We though you might enjoy reading it.
Hyperlinks may be broken in forwarding this update – please use this address to access the document with the links included:
We hope you are staying as safe and productive as possible as the reach of the pandemic continues to grow. We are grateful for educators like you, who are out there making it happen for kids and families in the face of so much adversity.
We are writing to share three quick updates:
- This Thursday, our CEO, Cami Anderson will be participating in an important discussion about attending to students’ social and emotional well-being right now. Connectivity and on-line learning have taken front stage for much of 2020 and that is, to some extent, necessary. At DRP, we believe that schools should be thinking just as deeply about how to support students’ social and emotional needs. The Path Back to School – Episode 5: Social Emotional Learning will be on Oct 21, 2020 01:00 PM Eastern Time. You can register here.
- An important article by Erica Green, Mark Walker, and Eliza Shapiro ran in the New York Times about the microaggressions and outright racism experienced by Black girls in school. An equally critical study by Dan Losen and his colleagues came out this month showing that in 28 districts, middle and high school students lose more than a year of instruction due to suspensions. Both are a must read.
- This Thursday, DRP Contributor, April Dinwoodie ,will be hosting a panel about multi-racial and multicultural families and our CEO, Cami, will be on the panel. Race & Culture in Adoption and Foster Care – Virtual Series, sponsored by the Center for Advanced Practices at Adoption RI and NAACP. To register, click here.
We have three new offerings we want you to be aware of:
- DRP is launching Communities of Practices in cities and states across the country. Groups of district and charter systems come together and participate in a 5 to 10-part virtual series. The learning series helps system leaders (with teams of 4 – 6 people) explore what needs to be true to shift away from harsh, biased, punitive discipline practices. We explore research and promising practices that help create conditions that prevent students from using negative behavior to communicate and build systems that help schools respond to struggle, incidents, and difference skillfully.
- Furthering our core mission, DRP is taking the lead in rethinking, reimagining and eliminating the need for school resource officers and/or school police. Our team partners with systems for 12 -18 months, helping build systems tailored to the needs of each unique community where all students feel psychologically, physically and emotionally safe.
- Our core model of helping systems conduct EQUITY audits using our framework that has proven successful across the country can now be done virtually. Our team has updated our tools and products to ensure clients can access the learning even while travel is limited.
Cami and the DRP Team
What a challenging school opening season this is. We are sending you strength and well wishes as you navigate impossible decisions and try to build a new plane mid-flight. We’ve been busy, like many of you, and wanted to catch you up.
- What “Defund Police” Means for Us: Calls to defund police and to examine racist and biased policies are becoming even more urgent in the education sector. Cami appeared on Bloomberg News with a panel of experts to talk about what the defund police movement should mean for schools — emphasizing the work is about much more than kicking police officers out of buildings.
- A Blueprint to Remove Police from Schools: In this piece, ‘Police-Free Schools’ Vs. ‘Chaos’ Is a False Choice. Here’s What Districts Must Do to Implement Real Discipline Reform — our team lays out a specific plan of action that goes beyond slogans. We feel the urgency to help systems tear down discipline systems that over-police Black, Latinx, and LGBTQQ students and students with disabilities. And, we know we have to replace it with something better while keeping kids physically and emotionally safe.
- Discipline and Inclusion During COVID: In the age of COVID, we are seeing systems that have not critically examined the dire consequences of exclusionary and biased discipline systems doubling down and making terrible choices even in virtual and hybrid environments. Cami talked to the Huffington Post about the fact that we are likely to see more, not less, struggles and incidents right now and that we need to be more prepared than ever to respond in ways that keep kids learning.
- The Long Tail of Change: DRP is lucky to work with Tangipahoa School District in Louisiana for several years — both on creating more anti-biased, anti-racist cultures in all schools and reexamining policies and practices with an equity lens, but also in radically rethinking their approach to “alternative schools.” Shout out to recent press about the continued progress there, even in the face of enormous challenges.
- The Intersection of Instruction, SEL, and ABAR work: Instruction Partners — a partner organization with whom we collaborate — is doing exceptional work helping districts, states, and CMOs transition to high-quality hybrid and on-line instruction. Cami recently talked to their CEO, Emily Freitag, about the need to think about that work alongside supporting students’ social and emotional well-being and building anti-racist and anti-biased cultures.
We hope you and your team make time to ask yourselves some critical questions:
- Are you rethinking what “discipline” policies should look like in a virtual, hybrid, or in-person environment? Is your team prepared to be even more skillful in handling the increasing amount of conflict we are likely to see in face of collective trauma?
- Have you taken time to work with administrators, central teams, and teachers to process and embrace how their jobs have changed — beyond issuing new roles and responsibilities documents? Are they invested in solving problems in a bottoms-up way?
- Everyone is in a learning space — and we can do so much more virtual learning for adults right now. Are we using this time to help adults get better at (a) building purposeful, trusting relationships with students, (b) responding skillfully to difference, struggle, and conflict, and (c) partnering with families in much deeper ways?
- Do you have MOUs governing how you work with police? Child welfare agencies? Are you eliminating or reinventing the role of school resource officers? How are you going about that process and what needs to be true for that to mean more psychological and physical safety for students? How is your security staff trained?
- Are you an actively ABAR (Anti-biased and Anti-racist) organization? What does that mean? Look like, sound like, feel like? Is your core team engaged in personal reflection about the extent to which they are critically conscious leaders? Have you reviewed all of your people, practices, policies, and partnerships with an ABAR lens?
If you read the list of questions and thought — wow, these topics are not getting enough attention right now, we can help. We fully appreciate why so many have prioritized instructional models and health protocols — but we deeply believe that you have to think about those things alongside culture and climate and equity.
Thank you for the work you do; we honestly cannot think of a more important time to be an educator than now,
Cami and the DRP Team
TIME SENSITIVE MATERIAL AND HEADLINES
- If you haven’t come across it, Wide Open School is a truly comprehensive culling of high-quality, safe, and approved on-line resources for educators and families fueled by Common Sense with 25 of the biggest content providers in the education space.
- An all-star panel of national, state, local, and school leaders (and lots of friends) wrote an incredibly thorough and detailed back to school opening plan for systems leaders; this is a must read for school and systems leaders
- An excellent article in US News and World Reports summarizing the big changes schools are likely to have to enact based on the new CDC guidelines
- An important article about the misuses of assessing and talking about childhood trauma; with “trauma-informed” education rightfully taking front-stage as we address student needs, it is critically important we don’t pathologize and label children, families, and communities
- Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion author and teaching guru (and friend), recorded a free webinar on what he is learning about effective on-line teaching; it’s a must watch. And while you are on his site, you will find on-line modules about good teaching overall.
PLANNING FOR RE-OPENING
- A set of equity questions for systems leaders to consider by the NYC Leadership Academy
- An excellent article about what we can learn from systems who successfully and quickly transitioned to distance learning
- A detailed reopening roadmap from a set of operations, public health, and education experts working together
- Catalyst Education released a comprehensive planning tool for systems. Including one focused on the social and emotional well being for students and families; note, we do not necessarily recommend all of the resources they link to, but the tool itself breaks down essential element that need to be considered alongside instruction, talent, and operations
- A excellent piece by Transcend Education about the three jobs systems leaders have right now: responding, recovering, and reinventing. Makes a strong case for not returning to the status quo
- A great article about assessing student learning right now
- School closures — a collaborative of over 20 organizations — is a one-stop website with a treasure trove of resources for SEL and instruction
- A Harvard Business Review article about the importance of balancing “task orientated” leadership with “people oriented” leadership; important reminder right now
- A Harvard Business Review article about the psychology of leading in a crisis; this one focused on how leaders create the right “holding environment” for people to be productive in times of uncertainty
- An excellent article about how Jacinda Ardern has been such an effective leader by exhibiting what leadership guru Ron Heifitz calls technical and adaptive leadership
- Clearinghouse of instructional resources by Instruction Partners
- 32 resources for preschoolers by Fordham
- YouTube resources for middle and high schoolers by Fordham
- Clearinghouse by Education Reimagined of academic resources
- Khan Academy made a sample home teaching schedule with links to lessons for all grades for a whole day over multiple weeks. The schedule is a great sample, and the Khan content is great for math and solid for other subjects. Self-directed and free.
- A high-quality teacher-made an incredible schedule complete with guiding questions and on-line resources
- Scholastic offers a full suite of all subject by grade level
- BrainPop offers all subjects but also has PE, Art, African AmericanHistory, and other topics all by grade level
- Zearn: This highly regarded math site builds off of the Common Core-aligned Eureka Math program to make online math lessons compelling and effective.
- GreatMinds: The publisher of Eureka Math, Wit and Wisdom, and PhD Science, will soon roll out free instructional materials, including videos of teacher-led lessons, for students nationwide
- The most comprehensive list of online education resources that are offering free services for families and/or schools right now. This is an online spreadsheet with hundreds of resources. If you are looking for something specific, you will find it here.
- Educators can also visit the Success Academy Ed Institute, for free access to the building blocks of Success K-8 curriculum, along with virtual professional development resources for teachers and school leaders.
- Penguin books has free on-line books, author talks, and other goodies for kids
- A comprehensive set of on-line resources for NYC teachers
- Audiobooks for kids are free on Audible
- On-line leveled books at Raz Kids
- This is a free K-5 on-line science courses— highly interactive and fun.
- Mark Rober, former NASA engineer: With over 10 million subscribers, Rober comes up with super fun and engaging ways to explore science concepts and engineering challenges. A good place to start is his “learn some science” playlist, currently at 26 videos, 10 to 15 minutes each
- Bill Nye the Science Guy: An oldie but a goodie—Nye’s channel offers 48 full-length, 23-minute videos, covering virtually every major topic in the science curriculum
- MIT is now delivering a weekly set of activities, video, etc. for K12 kids
- Embry-Riddie school of Aeronautics will start offering free online courses
- A readable, vivid article about how special education is playing out in Providence. Contains some good ideas and hard realities
- A National Geographic article about how to support Autistic children at home — helpful for teachers too
- An article by NSVF describing three technology-based tools for supporting student mindfulness and reflection
- Icivics offers games and lessons on civics
- For teachers, Morningside Centers has tips and lessons for adults to engage kids in SEL content and ReThink Ed has some good tips and lessons for adults to engage students; there is some content for kids directly (particularly teens)
- Also, Headspace, is now offering free services for K12 — this in everything from guided meditations, morning rituals, on-line counseling, and other mental health supports.
- A Trauma-Informed Approach to working with students right now from Teaching Tolerance
- The most popular class in Yale’s history on The Science of Happiness and Well-Being is now free
- A checklist on how to keep kids social and emotional needs front and center by the surge institute
- 10 ideas for keeping kids engaged who have diverse learning needs by The Ability Challenge
- Two places to find virtual tours of the world’s greatest museums, here and here. This one is called the ultimate guide to virtual museums.
- Kid-friendly news articles can be found about on just about every topic
- Liberty’s Kids: A fun-filled and age-appropriate cartoon that first aired on PBS decades ago. This is a fantastic narrative account of the American Revolution, spread over 40 episodes, 23 minutes each.
- Extra Credits Extra History: Boasting over 200 videos, this channel offers history lessons complete with compelling narration and cute animations. Each episode is around 10 to 15 minutes.
- Crash Course: This channel offers a huge library of videos across most major disciplines, including playlists of 48 videos on U.S. history, 72 on world history, and 50 on U.S. government and politics. Each episode is generally 10 to 15 minutes long and features John Green talking about the subject, mixed in with some humor and animations
- Coding content for kids
- Digital literacy for kids — and resources for parents to keep kids safe by Common Sense Media
- Fun activities at home by Fordham
- A comprehensive tool-kit for parents in setting up school by greatschools.org
- The Library of Congress is hosting an on-line series with author and youth writing ambassador Jason Reynolds aimed at engaging young people in creative writing and storytelling ideas on Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Making the most of this time by the 74
- Staying resilient right now by Harvard Business Review
- Summit Public Schools parent video link (in multiple languages) so students and families could get set up for in-home, on-line learning
- This article for families includes practical tips and a list of top and user-friendly on-line tools
- How bad times bring out the best in people by the Harvard Business Review
- A data visualization from The Washington Post is good for explaining why social distancing is so important
- A Trauma-Informed Approach to working with students right now from Teaching Tolerance — a MUST read
- Be A Learning Hero has a roadmap to help parents keep their children on track while school is closed
- Dreambox Learning is giving parents a 90-day free trial of Dreambox so children can learn at home. Sign up by April 30th.
- The Kennedy Center is offering art lessons called “Lunch Doodles” everyday at 1:00pm ET
- Reading Rockets has free resources for young children to read, write, and explore while they’re at home.
- ReadWriteThink has activities and projects, tips and how-to’s, printouts, and more to focus on reading and writing for K-12 students
DISTRICTS AND CHARTER MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATIONS
Districts and Charter Management Organizations are putting their plans online; following are links to various plans:
- KIPP DropBox contains everything from instructional recommendations to operations templates and family communication
- Summit Public Schools Virtual School Handbook for Teachers
- Summit Public Schools Virtual School Handbook for School Leaders
- Esperanza CMO — High Quality and useful “lessons learned” piece from one charter management organization’s work to go virtual
- Chiefs for Change is summarizing the approach of all of their members’ districts and states on their website. Select exemplars include:
HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE ONLINE TEACHER
- The Chronicle of Higher Education compiled strategies about how to be a better teacher on-line
- Resources and tips for teaching remotely by MIT
- Short and sweet article with clear and useful tips about teaching on-line
- A comprehensive article about planing for and executing distance learning by ISTE
- Zoom 101 for teachers by We Are Teachers
- A thoughtful and practical resource with tips about how to balance synchronous and asynchronous learning in Education Week.
- Own The Room is hosting free zoom classes on how to use the platform to be an effective, engaging teacher — I recently took one of their master classes and it was awesome
- Mastering remote teaching and more by Doug Lemov
- Feedback and accountability on-line by Doug Lemov
- Taking a student-centered approach by Facing History and Ourselves
- PBS resources walking you through the brass tacks of virtual learning
- How to be effective on-line by the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Going on-line in a hurry by the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Advice for first-time remote teachers by Ed Surge
- Tips for online learning by ASCD
- Teach for All’s top 12 tips for online learning
BUILDING ONLINE CONTENT
DAILY OR WEEKLY CONTENT
- The Robertson Center will be sending out daily emails to interested educators and parents with a “Thinking Job of the Day” for students who are learning remotely. This will include a math activity that students can work on at home. Link to sign up to receive these resources here.
- The New York Times is publishing a daily set of learning activities for students and updates for adults — they have also taken down the paid firewall. It has writing prompts and kid-friendly articles.
- Jarrett J. Krosoczka, whose book Hey Kiddowas a National Book Award finalist, is going to have live, daily drawing lessons on Youtube starting March 16th.
- Ed Navigator is sensing a really helpful daily parent email
- Harper Collins: HarperKids is having storytime at noon ET on Facebook
- Weekly activities for little kids by Tinkergarten
- Weekly math activities by Stanford-based You Cubed
I bring John, David, Ana and Sally into every training, strategy session and decision-making room I occupy. Well, actually I bring their stories, to remind myself and others of the students we are still failing and the significant work we still need to do to ensure excellence for all students.
John’s family immigrated from the Dominican Republic and he was assigned to a bilingual class where his teacher spoke only English. He’s Black, so in his mostly Latino school, adults often singled him out for being disruptive even when he acted similarly to his peers. Daily, he dealt with awkward and misguided questions about his identity: Are you Black or Latino? Despite the language barriers between John and his teacher and classmates, it was clear he was functioning several grade levels above his peers in pretty much every subject. His family lived in abject poverty, using a camping stove to cook dinner and rationing money for gas and electricity.
Mark appeared to be Brown and, because he was adopted and spent time in group homes, no one seemed to know his race or ethnicity. He’d been in multiple homes by the time he was 8, experiencing immeasurable trauma. He suffered from a degenerative hip disease—and had experienced significant physical abuse—that resulted in over a dozen surgeries and made it hard for him to walk. His school had meticulously spelled out all of his defects and problems and special education needs, in what educators call an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But nothing in that document got at the root causes or pointed out his innumerable strengths, including his deep conviction about right and wrong, and his seemingly endless kindness and positive attitude.
Ana was raped when she was 14 by a family member whose father spent the better part of his childhood incarcerated. When her demons caught up to her, she tried to tell her story only to be put out by her entire family and their extended friends. With nowhere to turn, she ended up on the streets, living in a friend’s car and dropping out. Ana found her way to an alternative school for over-aged and under-credited youth where she also came out as a lesbian questioning her gender identity. No one at either of her schools knew her secrets: that she was the victim of a terrible act of sexual violence, or that she didn’t have a home. She was a good student, after all—compliant and quiet.
Sally’s family isn’t wealthy, but they don’t struggle economically. It became clear early in her life that she wasn’t growing, physically or emotionally, at quite the rate of her peers and she suffered from bouts of extreme exhaustion and frustration. Eventually, she was diagnosed with diabetes and also dyslexia. The process to obtain the medical services necessary to manage her diabetes was, simply put, a nightmare. Her parents were sent in circles and Sally spent as much time out of class checking her monitors and navigating bureaucracy as she did learning strategies to manage her emotions and learning how to read. And, when she was in class, Sally became increasingly frustrated as she fell further behind. Few at school seemed to connect the dots between her physical challenges, her learning struggles and her outbursts.
THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS
We have names for students like John, Mark, Ana and Sally. We identify them as belonging to a “specialized population.” By this, we might mean English-learning, special education, LGBTQQ, court-involved, homeless, over-aged, under-credited, medically fragile or Title I. God forbid you belong to any of these groups and are also Black or living well below the poverty level, which makes your chances of excelling in school almost non-existent. In that case, we label you “at-risk”—for struggling in school, dropping out or worse. We count the number of “adverse childhood effects” (ACEs) you have and record them in databases.
In other words, we spend lots of time describing the defects of students and very little time diagnosing the systemic issues that make their odds of success even longer.
Many traditional schools struggle to support students with these labels. Even our best and highest-performing schools, including those in the charter sector, are struggling with these very same students. When we disaggregate data, we see tremendous gaps in academic achievement between students with disabilities and their general education peers. We see huge gaps in achievement between Black students and their White peers. We see that students who are homeless, in foster care or involved in the court system master grade-level material at much lower rates than their peers.
For years, education advocates called these “achievement gaps.” Recognizing this term could imply that students are the problem, many have recently embraced the phrase “opportunity gaps.” Proponents in favor of this framing point out that students with particular risk factors have fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers and this makes it harder for them to master academic content.
Most school systems not only fail to provide students in need of it with extra support, but actually implement policies and practices that make their chance of success even slimmer. Worse, some implicitly or explicitly suggest “we need to sacrifice the 20% to ensure the success of the 80%.” (I’ve heard this, multiple times.)
We need to stop finding labels for the students and start identifying the systems that make it damn near impossible for them to achieve. By using words that better reflect what the real problem is, we will start to shift our attention to the source of the fire instead of complaining constantly about the smoke.
STUDENTS WHO SYSTEMS FAILED THE MOST
I think we need a new way of talking about students who face barriers erected by adults and sustained by broken systems. So, I have taken to describing students like John, David, Ana and Sally as SSFMs—Students who Systems Failed the Most.
John’s family moved because of lack of economic opportunity and they were left even poorer by a broken and biased American immigration system. He faced racism, lack of support for learning English, and low expectations in a school and system that added roadblocks to his success. David was trapped in the child welfare system that created trauma and was transitioned into a special education system that piled on by further pathologizing him. Ana’s struggles were a result of someone else’s action and she was ignored by schools because she was compliant. Sally started failing in school because of the poor systems to support students with specialized medical and learning needs.
But John, David, Ana and Sally are not outliers or students we should consider around the edges of education policy and practice. They are our students, our friends, our family. John is my former student, who eventually did succeed despite our school and the broader system. David is my own brother, who survived school and is now an amazing dad and change agent in his community. Ana is a student I met as superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City—she excelled in her transfer school and went on to thrive in a prestigious university. Sally is like the children of so many of my friends who, despite the advantages of racial or economic privilege, struggle every day to advocate for their child’s basic learning needs.
It’s time we embrace a new mindset about these students. By calling them SSFMs, we are forced to grapple with how we must change our approach in pursuit of excellence for all students. It’s time to stop admiring that we have a problem and start addressing it.
My column, In The Room, has given me and my readers a front-row seat to important and poignant lessons on leadership. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the first and only female president of Harvard University, the first and only African American woman to run the American Civil War Museum, the chief information officer of the CIA, the head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young, and a national best-selling author and world-renowned psychologist.
I realized, though, during a recent run (where I do my best thinking), that everyone I’ve featured so far is American and either my age or older. Enter 31-year-old phenom, Larisa Hovannisian, founder of Teach For Armenia. Last month, Larisa co-hosted the Teach For All Global Conference in Armenia, which gathered 450 members of their community. Teach For All is a global network of independent organizations in 53 countries, whose shared mission is to develop collective leadership to ensure all children have the education, support and opportunity to fulfill their potential. We met for coffee to talk about leadership, lessons learned, and love.
‘Armenia Needs You Too’
While Larisa went to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and taught in Phoenix, Arizona, she spent most of her childhood in Russia. She shared vivid memories of her birthplace, Armenia, where she returned every summer to spend time with her grandmother. Her poignant stories about her early life reminded me of the challenging history of the region during that time.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia became an independent country. As the fledgling government struggled to become a self-sustaining country, the region suffered a devastating earthquake that killed thousands. The conditions, in part, led to Larisa’s parents moving to Russia to build a “more stable” life.
But Russia, too, was reeling from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Relationships with former satellite states of the USSR were naturally tense and the country was in a deep financial and economic crisis. Terrorism was spreading, and children were being abducted for ransom money.
“This sounds like a lot,” I exhaled. She admitted that her parents were very protective, and she had very little freedom growing up. She was grateful that her father was able to provide a comfortable life because of his work as a lawyer for an international firm. But, she was well aware of the broader context and strife. Many of her friends lacked access to basic services, like education and food.
“I knew I would come back to do something to help someday,” she said of her home country. “I just wasn’t sure how or when.” When she decided to join Teach For America she remembered her Mom saying, “You know, Armenia needs you too.” The seed was planted.
Discrimination in Many Forms
As an Armenian in Russia, she was considered “dark” and “other”—and she felt the effects of this regularly. The unstable financial situation in Russia led to a lot of finger-pointing and resentment. “Armenians are taking our jobs,” she and her family would hear on a regular basis.
She was incensed by the inequities and the scapegoating, and it helped her develop a deep commitment to “justice and fairness.”
We talked about what it was like to attend a mostly white college in the United States. Many people “could not figure out what I was,” she recalls, because she was, literally, the only Armenian on campus. Luckily, she found a band of other women who became her best friends and a personal support group. “The token people of color bonded together,” she joked, but adds, seriously, that the tight-knit circle helped make her college experience. “People didn’t mean to be offensive, so we had to take it with some humor.”
She also felt a responsibility to educate Americans about the Armenian genocide (which was recently recognized as a genocide by the House of Representatives on October 29, 2019) and other aspects of her culture and country. “I ended up [engaging] in activism whether I liked it or not because no one else would.” In a way, she explains, she was grateful because her college experience thrust her into a leadership position.
I asked how she would compare conversations about race here with those in Eastern Europe. “It’s not that there is less or more in different countries,” she reflected, “but at least we live in a country where people can talk about it. In countries like Russia, it’s tough for this to be even acknowledged.”
Having lived in multiple countries, she is deeply aware of how discrimination shows up in so many different forms. “Discrimination [happens when one group considers another] to be ‘other’ or different or minorities…this includes race but also religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”
Focus on Being a Good Teacher
Larisa and I are both proud Teach For America alumnae, having joined the corps right after college. We were both called by the two-part mission: do everything possible to provide students in schools with a game-changing education, and take the lessons learned from the classroom to fight for equity more broadly. Being a classroom teacher and joining a mission-driven organization had a profound impact on my trajectory, so I wanted to know if it was the same for Larisa.
She initially was overwhelmed by the stories of her students, many of whom were living in abject poverty. For some, “the only hot meal they got was school lunch…so I started bringing bags of juice and sandwiches just to make sure my kids weren’t hungry.” Some would describe violence they witnessed in their neighborhoods in great detail. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she told me, because her heart would break a little every day.
“One day I talked to my dad,” she remembered gratefully. He gave her some simple and yet profound advice: “Focus on being a good teacher.” He helped her see that she was expending a lot of energy on things she couldn’t control, as opposed to investing in the one thing she could. “I had to reframe my mindset…and that is when I started having an impact.”
We talked about what a critical leadership lesson that was on two levels. First, it is important to focus on what is in your control and your own efficacy in fixing it. Second, the ability to shift your own mindset can, in fact, produce different results.
Her eyes lit up when she told me about her former students. One boy in particular had severe autism and entered kindergarten having not spoken any words other than reciting lines from cartoons. Within six months of being in her class, he started talking in short sentences and could hold a conversation. His mom told Larisa, “You’ve given my son an opportunity to talk to me and our family—and that is always something I’ll love you for.”
Asking Men to Be Allies
Shortly after her two years in the classroom, Larisa decided to start Teach For Armenia. She wrote a business plan, started assembling a Board of Trustees, and looking for money—at the ripe age of 23.
It turns out this was even more audacious than it sounds. “Back in 2013, not a lot of young women started companies in Armenia,” she tells me. “The idea of a young entrepreneur and underdog is an American thing…[Armenia] is very patriarchal and ageist.” But her own childhood adversity, college, and teaching experience gave her confidence, drive, and leadership skills. She laughed and shared, “Being young and naive—not arrogant or overconfident—I thought ‘the sky is the limit, why not risk it.’”
She tells me about many “nasty” attempts to prevent her from succeeding—from usurping her intellectual property to attempting to discredit her in key circles. She recalls plenty of meetings where prospective donors, policymakers, or powerbrokers cut her off in mid-sentence, posed questions to her male colleagues even though she was the CEO, or didn’t acknowledge her presence at all.
I got mad just listening to her, remembering my own battles. Like me, she learned how to advocate for herself. “I’ve gotten good at saying things like, ‘you cut me off, I need to finish my thought or it’s going to be tough for us to have a productive conversation,’” she tells me. “This may come off as me being curt or even mean, but we have to do things to make our voices heard.”
She also shares the important role others have played in addressing inequity. “I am lucky to have male colleagues who are real partners in the work…in one meeting, [my male colleague] said, ‘Actually I’m going to have my boss answer that for you.’”
Personally, I was struck by this example. I am hard-pressed to remember many times when a male colleague was this overt of an ally. Larisa reacted to my surprise. “Sometimes I have to ask or explain,” she said. “The men in Armenia often only shake the hands of other men. I now tell the men I work with that I’d like for them to shake my hand. They weren’t aware it was a problem.”
This exchange makes me wonder if I have been explicit enough with male colleagues about what allyship looks like—I always just felt it was my responsibility to figure out a way to be heard. “Maybe this is a sign of progress,” I remarked, “both that men have been such clear allies for you and that you are so clear about how they need to show up.”
Embracing Meditation and Love
I can’t help thinking about how much is on her shoulders, so I asked her what she likes to do outside of work and how she takes care of herself personally. She shared that for her first few years starting and running the company, she didn’t think much about this and she felt like she paid for it.
“At one point, it caught up to me,” she admitted. Like others I’ve interviewed for In The Room, she started to struggle with anxiety, and eventually experienced full-blown “panic attacks that would come out of nowhere.” They were so profound that the first time it happened, she actually called the doctor because she thought she was having a heart attack.
She came to cherish and prioritize people in her life who gave as much as they took. She embraces and understands the importance of sleep, which she said she took for granted when she was younger. And, she found transcendental meditation. She said she tried yoga, mindfulness, and other things—but meditation was what finally worked for her. It’s become an integral part of her day.
Our most intimate moment came when we talked about our respective life partners. Larisa married someone she describes as her soulmate, who deeply inspires her. She was “introduced” to him on the shelves of a Phoenix bookstore, where she spontaneously purchased a memoir he had written about his family.
Moved by his story—and the cute photo of him on the book jacket—she connected with him briefly online, but they never met. (I admit this highlighted for me the generational divide between me and Larisa!).
Three years later, while pitching a funder, she ran into him at a coffee shop in Armenia. The rest, as they say, is history.
They make time for each other, by scheduling calls and date nights, even it if is just 30 or 45 minutes. They make it a point not to get disconnected even as they are both working on literally solving the country’s biggest problems. “Like me,” she says, “he doesn’t distinguish work and life. It’s not one and then the other—just one big thing.”
Larisa makes me hopeful that the next generation of leaders is up for the task of solving big things.
By Layla Avila, Evan Stone and Cami Anderson
As education leaders, we take our commitment to students and families very seriously, not only to provide them with an excellent education that affords them access to the fullest range of life’s opportunities but also to ensure they are emotionally and physically safe and supported.
That’s why we are dismayed at the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle protections for our most vulnerable students by repealing much-needed federal guidance guarding students from discriminatory discipline practices. This damaging move was announced just before Christmas, even though thousands of teachers and more than 100 educators, advocates, district and state leaders, charter school operators, unions, and other education leaders called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Justice Department to maintain the guidance protecting all students — particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning. Educators are not alone in our concern: DeVos also received letters from a wide swath of groups on this issue, such as state attorneys generaland the civil rights community.
Over the past year, DeVos met with teachers from across the country and promised to listen. But the concerns of families and educators clearly fell on deaf ears. Rescinding the guidance without putting forward a concrete plan for schools to end unjust discipline practices is another baffling example of how the Trump administration is abandoning students and families.
The problem: Too many of these practices are the exception, not the rule.
While there has been progress, a steady drumbeat of data reveals we have miles to go. A study by the bipartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office last year found persistent racial disparities in student discipline. And the 2015-2016 federal Civil Rights Data Collection showed the same trend. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended from school than their white peers — often for the same behavior as their classmates. Latino students also saw troubling disparities compared with white students. Students with disabilities, who make up about 12 percent of public school students, account for nearly a quarter of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident or suspended.
The consequences of inaction are dire. Students who’ve been suspended just once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later on. Continuing to use biased and harsh discipline with students from historically underserved communities — students who probably already have a mountain to climb to succeed in school and beyond — limits their trajectories in life.
The good news is that some schools are pioneering innovative practices — rooted in research — that point the way forward on school discipline:
- Training can help educators build empathy when it comes to student discipline and form productive partnerships with families before incidents occur.
- Schools can build positive cultures that include rigorous academic work in which students hold one another accountable.
- School staff can help students learn social and emotional skills, such as self-management and conflict de-escalation.
- Administrators can focus on hiring and retaining staff members who build strong, inclusive classroom cultures and who reflect the diversity of students.
- States and systems can provide mental-health professionals, counseling staff and other support systems.
- Schools can introduce alternatives to suspensions — such as restorative circles and in-classroom interventions — that address student behavior and help them learn to make better decisions without excluding them from school.
We believe the federal government has an important role to play in safeguarding students’ civil rights, which can be accomplished without stifling state and local decision-making or teachers’ autonomy in their classroom. Without federal action, it can be easy for systems to lose sight of these disparities and their long-term effects. Or schools and systems may choose what’s politically easy and expedient over what’s best for students. Despite this setback, our coalition will continue working in cities and states across the country to effect change — and the federal government must continue to enforce laws that ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.
We can and must do better. Our students’ futures hang in the balance.
Cami Anderson is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project.
Layla Avila is CEO and executive director of Education Leaders of Color.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.
By Laura Faith Kebede
As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.
This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.
Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)
Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?
Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.
The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.
Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?
A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.
Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.
I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.
Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?
A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.
I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.
I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.
Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?
A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.
There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.
Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?
A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.
You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.
By Cami Anderson
Anyone who has attempted reform work knows that there is a vast difference between community engagement and local politics. This critical nuance is completely missed in Dale Rusakoff’s assessment of the progress made, and still being made, in the quest to improve Newark Public Schools in The Prize. While the book is part of an importation conversation about equity and education, it simplifies matters for the sake of a dramatic narrative about school reform and attempts to villainize those working to fix inherently broken systems.
When I arrived in Newark five years ago as superintendent, less than 30 percent of the student body was reading and doing math at grade level. Ineffective teachers received job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district lost students to a growing charter sector. Administrators abused power and funds. Graduation rates were terrible. Buildings were crumbling, enrollment was done through pen-and-paper transactions, transportation options were limited, and most schools were not Internet-wired. With a $1B budget, Newark Public Schools was the largest local industry in a town where the average income is about $17K. Politicians and local powerbrokers coveted contracts, grants, and jobs that weren’t’t delivering results for kids. Families were on waiting lists for charter schools and polls showed the community was deeply dissatisfied.
Despite these stark realities, our efforts to meet this mandate for change evoked defensiveness, intimidation, and worse. Groups and leaders that should have been allies resisted anything that would upset the status quo because they benefitted from trading favors. Education reformers worked against each other to advance competing priorities rather than banding together around a unified theory of change to spur innovation and ensure equity. Unions fought to keep ineffective staff members, who in some instances verbally or physically abused students, and formed alliances with public officials they help elect. Ugly politics injected money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that spread misinformation and fueled mistrust. Community members who dared to voice support were targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying.
In the face of these challenges, we made substantial progress. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to completely reimagine their school, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested millions to upgrade facilities and technology. The majority of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited low performers because of our new and nationally-recognized labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped adults better reach struggling young people and reduced suspension rates. We created unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector to bring transparency to how we measured progress and equity to enrollment. Test scores improved. Enrollment increased thanks to One Newark, a groundbreaking approach to working with charters to transform an entire system. Graduation rates rose by 12 percent.
Despite these clear successes, The Prize insinuates that the jury is still out on whether we had an impact. Some changes will take years to fully materialize. But others couldn’t be clearer. To the students who avoided suspension and the devastating repercussions of juvenile detention thanks to our social justice programs, it’s the difference between two very different futures. To the students who graduated instead of dropping out, it now means that college is a possibility.
Engaging families is different than managing politics. The forces for status quo are currently better at politics than those of us who believe we must deliver different outcomes for kids. The Prize trivializes and ignores our persistent, though perhaps imperfect, efforts to find new and creative channels for dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people in schools, at big public meetings, and also at the grocery store, in small roundtables, and at local hang-outs. In these intimate discussions, we heard and felt support and enthusiasm for change.
A version of this article appeared on The Hill
Interview with Amanda Kocon, Chief Strategy Officer, The New Teacher Project
After her long tenure as a teacher, social entrepreneur and district superintendent, Cami is now undertaking a very different kind of challenge: She’s launching the Discipline Revolution Project, a coalition of education reformers, from district and charter schools, who want to come together to consider how to change our approach to school discipline and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
What brought you to this issue? Why do we need a “revolution” when it comes to school discipline?
First, just look at the data. Fifty percent of school-based arrests are of African-American kids, but African Americans make up 15 percent of all students. Students with disabilities are between three and four times more likely to be suspended for the same offenses as their peers. LGBTQ students are disproportionally punished. In addition to being grossly unfair, this also has long-term consequences for kids and for schools: Students who are suspended are three times more likely than their peers to drop out of school, and three times as likely to be incarcerated. And that’s just the beginning of a life with limited options—in some cases spurred by well-meaning but completely misguided and inequitable school discipline policies and practices.
Despite these hard facts, changing school discipline hasn’t really been on the radar of education reformers. Collectively, we haven’t seen it as a priority or acknowledged our urgent responsibility to stop committing civil rights offenses, like those we lament in biased and life-ending juvenile and criminal justice systems. We’ve failed to see the connection between effective school discipline practices, improved and culturally competent school cultures, and—combined with rigorous content and great talent practices—radically improved student outcomes. We haven’t confronted the terrible consequences of punitive discipline, as well as the potential upside of doing things differently. We haven’t seen the shift away from antiquated discipline practices as mission-critical to our broader mandate to ensure excellence and equity for all kids.
This is also very personal for me. I was the superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City for five years. Among many things, my portfolio included schools for kids who were incarcerated, as well as the one-year suspension centers. It was pretty hard to ignore the stark fact that we were serving almost exclusively African-American and Latinx boys, as well as a few African-American and Latinx girls—even though that does not represent the demographics of the city.
I would look at the kids’ files to see why they were there, and would see things like a three-month suspension for “using a rubber band as a weapon.” I also saw that these young people don’t tend to graduate. The idea is that they’re supposed to go to the suspension centers to get all these services and then come back to school. But they don’t get the services and the stigma is impossible to overcome, so they come back behind. I saw the same kids on Rikers Island that I saw in the suspension centers, all the time.
What’s the plan for the Discipline Revolution Project? How are you trying to help?
I think there’s growing recognition in the education community, both from charter and district leaders, that we’ve helped create the school-to-prison pipeline and it is up to us to dismantle it. But we can’t just be against biased, punitive discipline without articulating what we are moving toward. We’re in a moment when many leaders are eager to tackle this issue, but they don’t have easy access to resources or practical ideas to figure out where to start. So I think there’s a real opportunity to push the conversation forward and do so in a way that helps people embrace practical, albeit difficult, new approaches.
We’ve created what we call a “discipline equity framework,” which summarizes the best of what we know in anti-bias, culturally responsive work, trauma-informed work, and social-emotional learning and supports. The Discipline Revolution Project is about much more than changing discipline policies—it is about empowering and inspiring young people to develop healthy habits and be their best selves by ensuring they connect with empathetic, skilled adults who personalize their approach to student support and learning. It’s also about helping adults respond to incidents in ways that help young people learn from their mistakes and build strong peer cultures of accountability with love.
We’ve summarized complex research and promising practices we’ve seen in action so principals, district leaders, CMO leaders, funders, advocates, and other school-based partners can download all of it in one place. We’re learning that there’s a lot of need for ongoing support and technical assistance. We’re in the process of building more infrastructure so we can do more research and provide deeper training and technical assistance at the local level. I really think education reform leaders are eager to get out of the finger-wagging space to work across traditional lines that divide us—particularly charter versus district—to solve problems around equity that plague us all.
Do charter schools have a particular role to play in this revolution?
100 percent, no question. Charters and charter networks are critical to this dialogue because they have more flexibility regarding staffing, money, and ability to move quickly. For example, there are at least three networks I can think of that are completely re-thinking their approach to school culture. They’re thinking deeply about all the things they have done around schoolwide rituals and rules, and how they might be missing the mark. They’re working to encourage students to take ownership over their actions, and are asking students about whether they feel loved and understood by their teachers.
Now, we should be clear that traditional district schools need to grapple with this problem every bit as much as charter schools do. And just like in almost every other aspect of running a school, some charters do a better job than others, just like some districts do a better job than others. So it’s not an issue of culpability. But I do think the charter sector is uniquely suited to try new, innovative approaches to discipline and student supports that we need, and that’s why I think it’s so important they’re at the table and leading.
Based on all the research and promising practices you’ve seen, what’s the basic shift you think schools need to make on discipline?
With discipline, our instinct is to admonish or punish a kid if they’re not compliant. Punishments can be big things like suspending a kid for a week, or small things like checkmarks and verbal reprimands every time a student steps out to the right or the left.
We want to move toward thinking of discipline as a way of practicing something until you master it—more like a disciplined athlete or artist. In that context, “disciplined” means someone who tries and works hard in a structured, focused way that shows perseverance and commitment.
We want adults to teach kids purposeful habits, as opposed to teaching compliance. At a macro level, that’s going to push us to do all sorts of things differently—not just discipline. It’s going to force us to think about how we support adults in schools to build deep, trusting, and empathetic relationships with kids. Empathetic relationships between adults and students have been proven to be one of the best indicators of success for children. This requires adults to deeply understand what makes each kid tick, what triggers them, and what motivates them to change and grow.
Frankly, shifting away from punitive discipline will force us to get better at encouraging kids to build the skills they need to succeed in the long term. We have to acknowledge that kids are going to challenge authority; that’s sort of their job. We have to respond with developmentally appropriate, purposeful actions—so the kid is held accountable in a way that helps them learn and grow, as opposed to just learning that they should continually buck authority, or that compliance is the only way to be in good graces with adults.
So this is as much a shift in philosophy as a change to any particular practices.
Right, that’s where the “revolution” idea comes from. We need to change the way we’re thinking about discipline 180 degrees, not 10 or 20 degrees.
Can you talk more about what restorative practices are, and how they fit into this?
Originally, restorative practices were rituals that brought together the person who perpetrated a crime with the victims of that crime. Restorative practices were leading to pretty amazing results in terms of recidivism rates, but also in terms of the well-being of both the victims and perpetrators of crimes. Some police departments started experimenting with these practices, and eventually some schools.
There are schools in Newark that use restorative practices, not just with young people, and not just in classrooms, but also at community forums. In our high schools, we brought in proctors, school safety agents, student leaders, teachers, administrators and others together to be trained on restorative circles and restorative practices, so that everybody was singing from the same songbook in terms of how they were approaching the work. It had a tremendous impact on more than the obvious things like violent incidents and reduced suspensions, but also on some of the intangibles, like how people treat each other.
Having said all that, it’s only one part of what needs to happen for us to move away from punitive discipline. There’s a whole host of other things, like how teachers build relationships with students. And of course, the best way to prevent misbehavior in the first place is high-quality, relevant, and engaging lessons.
Can you give some examples of positive changes you’ve seen?
I’ve seen several schools, charter and district, form student support teams with adults with different skill sets, like social workers, teachers, administrators, and peer coordinators. These teams create a safe place for kids to talk before they reach the point of crisis.
There’s also an increasing number of schools doing culture and climate audits, asking students about their experiences and using that data to make changes. Districts are also rethinking the language they use to recruit teachers, to ensure that they’re sending the message that teaching is about building deep and trusting relationships and coaching kids on their non-academic skills as much as their academics.
I’ve also seen some great therapeutic learning centers, which are safe spaces where kids can go and participate in affinity groups, counseling, and student-led discussions. I’m optimistic about what we can achieve in this area because I’ve seen the needle move already.
But again, this is much bigger than implementing any specific practice. When you take a hard look at the data on school discipline, you see that it’s an overlooked symptom of a familiar problem: There’s a whole group of kids that, despite our best efforts, we are not serving well at scale. They tend to have one, if not all, of the following characteristics: They’re students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students living in extreme poverty, students who are growing up in foster care, students who have a parent who is incarcerated, or they’re connected to the child welfare system in some way. We like to say we’re working for “all kids,” but we don’t always act in ways that are inclusive of our student populations or that help all students excel.
Even the best among us—the best superintendents, the best charter operators—if you just look at the data, that’s the reality. I believe that while we’re calling this the Discipline Revolution Project, it’s really about School Reform 2.0. I think it’s going to show results with a group of kids that we continue to fail.