Rethinking Discipline

Fits and starts: Inside KIPP’s school-by-school discipline transformation

PHOTO: Francisco Vara-Orta/Chalkbeat
KIPP Camino's Dean of Culture Curtis Bailey conducts a circle with ten fifth-grade students on a recent afternoon at a San Antonio campus.

It was the second meeting of a group meant to defuse conflicts at KIPP Camino, and there was plenty to defuse.

Whether a certain K-pop band was good or bad, who was friends with whom — it was all causing fights, sometimes with profanity thrown in. Students sitting in a circle took turns explaining what had gone wrong, and it quickly became obvious that one student was the common denominator.

“How did hearing that make you feel?” the school’s dean of culture, Curtis Bailey, asked her.

“Guilty,” she said.

“So what do you think can be done to repair the situation?” Bailey prompted.

“To say sorry and to never do it again,” she said.

Bailey surveyed the scene with a sense of pride: The previous week, all 10 students in the group were caught up in conflict, and it took nearly an hour to sort through the disagreements.  This time, they reached a conclusion in 30 minutes.

“We’re starting to whittle down what and who is at the heart of the conflicts,” Bailey said. It was a start.

The activity was part of the San Antonio KIPP school’s efforts to reduce suspensions by adopting “restorative justice” practices that aim to help students rethink and ultimately change their behavior. Inspired by changes in Bay Area KIPP schools nearly a decade ago, changes are underway at dozens of KIPP schools across the country. The initiatives are reshaping schools across the country’s largest nonprofit charter network, which was an early emblem of the “no excuses” movement that called for strict discipline to achieve academic gains.

KIPP is far from alone in reconsidering punitive discipline practices. Amid a growing awareness that harsh discipline can alienate students and could push them off track to graduate, many districts and networks have charged schools with reducing suspensions.

But unlike places where that charge has come via a top-down decree, KIPP is allowing each of its 32 local networks to decide how to make the shift. In some places, the transition happened quickly, while others have plans that will take years to roll out; a few places aren’t prioritizing restorative justice, choosing a different strategy altogether.

Network officials say patience is necessary if the changes are to gain the support they need to make a difference for students. But the strategy comes with costs: Some KIPP schools continue to suspend students at a high rate, while other school leaders say they’re no longer able to solely prioritize academics.

“We’re in the middle of a conversation as a network,” said Rich Buery, KIPP’s chief of policy and public affairs. “Some folks are far along in the process, and others are just starting, so we are still learning. … But we as a network are committed to examining our practices and that is what we are doing. This is not going to start in the national office. This one is going to have to start in the schools.”

In San Antonio, schools are making gains, but with tradeoffs

Bailey’s school offers one example of how KIPP’s evolution is playing out locally.

The school began reconsidering its approach to discipline in 2013, in part because it wasn’t getting the academic results it wanted. The school — where 96 percent of students are Latino and 89 percent are from low-income families — was on the brink of being labeled by the state as failing academically.

Then-assistant principal Juan Juarez said he thought suspensions were helping students learn about the consequences of their actions. When he analyzed discipline data at the end of that year, though, he realized that he was suspending the same students over and over.

“It was not acceptable that these dozen or so students were missing school and jeopardizing their academic potential due to behavior issues,” he said. “I knew we could do better.”

The school started small, introducing the new policies in fifth grade. When Juarez became the principal in 2015, he restructured the staff, building a team to help supplement the school’s restorative justice efforts that included Bailey and a social worker. That social worker represented a tradeoff: the alternative, he recalled, was another math specialist.

“Sometimes you have to prioritize the school culture over academics,” Juarez said. And they’re obviously intertwined, he said, with discipline issues getting in the way of students’ academic goals.

It took two years for the whole school to use restorative discipline. Suspensions fell from 731 two years ago to 451, a 38 percent drop; the campus also earned what would be a B+ under the state’s new accountability system.

Juarez is now helping train others at the six other KIPP schools in San Antonio, which are introducing the policies now. Bailey, who started at KIPP Camino as a math teacher before moving to his behavioral specialist position, says he sees the results at that school daily.

At the end of the recent circle he oversaw with the 10 students, two students agreed to sign contracts agreeing to corrective behavior. Another two students, the nucleus of the group’s conflict, signed up for a more intimate circle.

PHOTO: Francisco Vara-Orta/Chalkbeat
Abril Garcia and Fernando Rivera Rodriguez, both in the eighth grade, are conducting a “circle” in the hallway with one another as part of KIPP Camino Academy’s push toward restorative justice. The campus is in San Antonio.

In Denver, using local donations to build staff

Time helps, but so does money when it comes to introducing restorative techniques.

Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools, said a $100,000 grant from area donors has been crucial. The local network used that money to hire restorative justice coordinators to expand the work beyond a pilot at one middle school to all six area campuses. The network now includes those positions in annual campus budgets.

At KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, the first campus to use the techniques across all grades, suspensions fell from 99 to 31 over the past two school years. Meanwhile, another middle school in the network, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, saw them increase from 30 to 50 in the same time period, and is just beginning to introduce new policies.

At Northeast Denver Middle School, the school has tried to normalize the kind of circle used after a discipline incident by holding discussion circles for students during their morning advisory period.

“The circles can revolve around a challenge in the community, like a tragedy involving death, or that a house burned down, as way of creating a space for students to discuss what that means to them, in a social-emotional learning capacity,” Sia said. “We’ve learned it’s best to not have students’ initial interaction with restorative justice to be when they have been told they did something wrong.”

In Baltimore, change inspired by local tragedy

At KIPP Harmony Academy, principal Natalia Walter Adamson said her school’s change began as teachers looked for ways to help their elementary schoolers after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

“We could see the trauma in our students’ faces and hear it from what they said they were seeing on TV, or in their neighborhoods, and started to reexamine what are we doing when it comes to supporting them, especially through a racial equity lens,” Walter Adamson said.

Unlike Camino, where educators focus on intervening in conflicts between parties, Harmony’s teachers use classroom-wide circles to get students talking.

In Baltimore, suspensions at the Harmony campus have fallen by over 50 percent over the last two school years, from 229 to 103. KIPP’s other school in the Baltimore area, the neighboring middle school, has yet to adopt new policies, though network officials say it has shown interest.

In the Bay Area, phasing in change

In the Bay Area, which pioneered using restorative justice techniques, new KIPP schools use them from the get-go. Older campuses get a a four-year implementation plan, said Alexei Greig, the region’s head of school culture. Year one focuses on studying the data, then a year is spent training teachers. In the third year, an entire school adopts the practices, which are finessed in year four.

“We actually think this is now the best approach,” Greig said. “You can try to go by grade level, but if it’s not integrated well enough, then you wind up with pockets of success here and there that can lead to inconsistencies.”

KIPP officials credit the changes with helping cut down suspension rates, which have fallen from 8 percent of all students being suspended in 2013 to about 4 percent last school year.

Across the country, moving ahead

Research about restorative justice techniques is limited. There isn’t a critical mass of conclusive research showing that their use leads to better academic or other outcomes for students.

The scattershot approach that KIPP is using — four specialized staffers in some schools, none in others, for example — is helpful for understanding why, according to James Sadler, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill studying restorative practices at no-excuses charter schools. The practices can look really different from place to place.

What does exist, Sadler said, “Is enough qualitative research studying teacher voice that says it does seem to work, in at least lowering suspension rates, when there is buy-in from them.”

“The one concern I’ve heard is that teachers do feel at times they are losing control of their classrooms when this directive may come from a principal down,” he said, pointing to the problems Los Angeles faced after the district pushed schools to change. “Even if not from central office — it’s enough to dim some of the buy-in needed in the long run.”

Still, as KIPP’s evolution proceeds, some common practices are emerging.

In San Antonio, Colorado, Baltimore, and the Bay Area, officials said they have revamped the hiring process to screen out applicants who don’t agree with restorative practices or might not be prepared to carry them out. They now ask questions designed to determine whether educators believe that implicit bias exists and influences schools, for example.

“That helps weed out some people for us,” Juarez said.

Buery said the national leadership is working to put more formal support behind the efforts to change KIPP’s discipline, trying to strike a balance of being supportive but not micromanaging. So far, that’s taken the form of training sessions at the last three of the network’s annual summits, and encouraging school leaders to travel to see or train their peers elsewhere.

“I don’t think any school is averse to this, but it’s best executed from what we’ve seen when teachers and school leaders take the initiative,” Buery said. “That’s the benefit and challenge of being a network such as KIPP — the flexibility and autonomy.”

Charter Schools

Politically progressive charter advocates search for new strategy in wake of New York’s blue wave

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

Steven Wilson was thrilled.

It was the night of Nov. 6, and Democrats had just claimed some major midterm election victories. Wilson, founder of Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn, described the results as “an expression of revulsion of President Trump and his bottomless depravity.”

But that blue wave put Wilson and other left-leaning charter school supporters in New York in a tricky position. “I also, of course, want to desperately protect charter schools,” he said.

The state’s Democrats — including several progressives and a democratic socialist— took control of the New York Senate on election night for the first time since 2010, unseating Republicans and Democrats who had aligned with the GOP. The ousted politicians had supported increasing funding for charter schools, backed expanding the cap on the number of them allowed in the state and voted against certain oversight measures of the sector, which is publicly funded and privately managed.

In the wake of this sea change, what charter-school advocacy will look like is an open question. Little hope exists that state politicians will raise the controversial cap  — even as only eight slots for new city charter schools remain.

They’re going to get blown out of the water,” said now-Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan on Friday about 80,000 students on waiting lists for charter seats, according to a reporter who tweeted his comments. “The Gov. has never done anything to help them. We’re the only ones who did anything to help them.”

All of this follows the implosion of the charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools earlier this year, a group that many saw as leading the charge for building political support for charters in Albany. Its efforts included spending millions on lobbying, ad campaigns, and arranging massive rallies to drum up support.

Charter advocates were wary about sharing their specific political strategies ahead of the 2019 legislative session, which starts in January, beyond saying they’ll continue to support schools they believe in.

But several people — some of whom did not want their names to be published — say the strategy must involve more grassroots organizing, a cornerstone of progressive campaigns, to convince Democrats that charter schools are in line with their interests and more direct outreach to lawmakers as the message about charters is reframed.

A key part of that will involve energizing parents even more than in the past.

“Since 2014, the charter sector’s approach has been almost exclusively two strategies: large scale rallies and campaign contributions,” said Seth Andrew, a former Obama administration official and founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a group of charter schools in several U.S. cities, who still advocates for the sector.

“My belief is that we need long-term organizing and grassroots movement building to help elected officials understand why school choice and school quality should be core progressive and democratic values.”

Making new friends

Some charter advocates had been anticipating the flip of New York’s Senate since President Trump’s election two years ago, as his unpopularity grew in urban and suburban communities, and found themselves torn between their personal politics and wanting to protect charters.

“I think we were in the unusual position of wanting to see what would not work out in our favor,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of Coalition of Community Charter Schools, of himself and fellow educators who hoped Democrats would win seats across the country.

Now that the election has passed, Zimmerman sees the need to “make the progressive case for charter schools,” which means persuading new, progressive lawmakers that charter schools actually align with their legislative goals.

Like many others in his universe, Zimmerman likes to stress that charter schools are diverse in ideology, don’t all have a “no-excuses” model, a target of charter critics, and are rooted in progressive values: giving all families the opportunity to choose their school, no matter where they live or how much money they make.

“This is a huge opportunity for both sides to be able to make new friends,” said Bob Belliafiore, an education consultant who has advised charter schools and helped push for the state’s charter law in the 1990s. “It seems natural because the new progressive leadership in the Senate is about opportunity for people who can’t otherwise afford to make their own opportunities. Charters are about bringing public school options for those who can’t move to a great school district.”

Changing minds is likely to be an uphill battle. Some new lawmakers have already pushed back on charters, either during their campaigns or in the past.

Among them is Democratic socialist Julia Salazar, whose education campaign platform says she’ll support “maintaining the charter cap, making sure our school system remains publicly governed and controlled by all of us.”

A Queens newspaper described State Sen-elect Jessica Ramos, who unseated State Sen. Jose Peralta, as “adamantly opposed” to charter schools during a debate, when she called out the contributions Peralta received from pro-charter groups.

But charter advocates may still enjoy support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has historically backed the sector. And in recent days, charter advocates were heartened by Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, who told Newsday, “Senate Democrats care about providing a quality education for all New York’s children, including those attending charter schools.”

Wilson, the Ascend founder, pointed to his own schools as a part of what he considers a progressive model that might appeal to politicians wary of charters with reputations for harsh discipline policies. The schools are not co-located with other public schools (often a source of frustration for charter opponents). He emphasized Ascend’s liberal-arts curriculum and how it serves communities of color within lawmakers’ districts.

“When they see that, they will become believers,” Wilson said.

What does grassroots campaigning look like?

Andrew, the Democracy Prep founder, said the real key will be for charter schools to make personal connections between lawmakers and parents “that need to happen at barber shops and at church and at the bus stop.”

Parents, he said, will have to lead the charge. That means, even more so than in the past, that the charter sector must persuade families to get involved in reaching out to their lawmakers to have regular conversations about what they want in their neighborhoods.

“When I talk about grassroots organizing, I’m really talking about empowering families to make greater choices and have greater agency over their own civic engagement,” Andrew said. “It can’t be forced engagement; it has to be authentic daily conversations about what parents want and need in their child’s education.”

In the past, Families for Excellent Schools was known for its large-scale protests and big spending, such as a multi-million-dollar ad campaign that criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter school expansion.

In 2014, Families for Excellent Schools hosted an 11,000-person rally in Albany after de Blasio blocked plans for three Success Academy schools to open or expand. Success cancelled classes so that students and their families could attend the protest.

It’s not fair, according to one New York charter advocate, to say that charter supporters haven’t done any grassroots campaigning. However, that effort must now be “turbo-charged,” the advocate said.

We’re not just “about media buys and large scale protests,” Andrew said. “The way grassroots organizing is most effective is clear drum beats from constituents to their elected officials.”

“I think we have a lot of work to do to build up relationships with members of the Democratic Party, and you know, I would bet, if not 100 percent of charter parents, some number close to that are Democrats,” the advocate said. “And so I think it will be important this year those parents’ voices are heard, by their own legislators. And I think that will drive a lot of advocacy.”

Another New York charter proponent said of Democratic charter teachers and parents, “It was hard for the charter sector to back them fully in the way they are likely to do now, when our survival relied on Republicans.”

Now, Wilson said, effectively persuading lawmakers “is not about campaign donations and backroom deals” but more about getting them into schools.

David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center professor of education, thinks campaign donations will still play a big role in advocacy efforts.

There is certainly a new dynamic in the statehouse, he said in an email, “but charters are just part of a macro-political deal that still needs to play out with grassroots campaigning and personal interactions only effective at the margins.”

As charter advocates figure out a plan for the future, the applications to open charter schools won’t stop, despite the small and finite number of open slots for them with no clarity about whether lawmakers will even consider raising the cap in the future.

Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, one of two entities that can approve new charter applications in the state, said she’s heard of interest in a potential 35 applications for New York City for the next year, more than four times the available openings.

“Now will they all end up coming in the door? Probably not,” Carello said about those that may apply. “But it sounds like we’re going to have a pretty healthy number.”

parent support

Ignoring controversy, Noble Network backers urge renewing Chicago schools’ charter

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat


Virtually ignoring the drama that has enveloped the leadership of Noble Charter Network, a group of parents and some students passionately urged the Chicago school district Wednesday night to renew the group’s charter for 10 years.

They were the only voices at a public hearing before independent hearing officer Margaret Fitzpatrick on applications from 11 charter operators that run dozens of schools. Charters are publicly funded schools but privately operated with leeway to not follow some state education laws.

“We appreciate and respect the care and concern that our child receives at Noble,” said David Turner, explaining his son’s interest in academics blossomed after starting at Noble Street College Prep as a freshman this year.

Tina Williams told about her son entering Noble’s Johnson College Prep as a shy ninth grader four years ago. Now he’s talkative and excited about the future, Williams said.

“He is talking about college,” she said. “This school has been nothing but supportive.

Of 16 Noble high schools in Chicago, 11 received the top 1-plus rating in the latest district rankings. Only two received a rating lower than 1.

The hearing came the day after Noble President Constance Jones confirmed in a statement to the network’s  teachers that founder Michael Milkie was stepping down amid reports of “inappropriate behavior with alumni,” which included hand-holding and “an instance of slow-dancing.”

Despite the circumstances of Milkie’s departure, Turner and his wife, Jenny, told Chalkbeat they had not lost confidence in the Noble network.

“As parents this concerns us greatly, and we support the board and all of their efforts,” Turner said. “No network is perfect, but Noble offers a good quality education.”

Along with an outside law firm hired by the network’s board of directors, the Chicago Public Schools Office of Inspector General is investigating Milkie’s behavior.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of students, whether they are in a district-run school or a charter school, and the district will continue to collaborate to strengthen student safety and support,” the district said a statement. “The district is deeply concerned about these allegations and the OIG investigation will provide us with a clearer understanding of the allegations and actions that were taken to protect students.”

Milkie will retire at the end of the calendar year.

Noble network supporters, spoke mostly about how the school turned around their academics.

Alumna Diana Segovia said that she had little motivation to do well in high school during her first months at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep. But soon, extracurriculars like the debate team and strong relationships with teachers awakened her interest in education.

“Adapting to the school was very hard, but when I was ready to actually focus, my teachers were so excited,” she said.

Charter operators ask the district to renew their charter for any number of years, but the district usually gives renewals of two to seven years.

After district officials make their recommendation on renewing charters, the school board will vote on the applications Dec. 5.