Students in Aurora schools are less likely to be expelled or suspended than they were five years ago, but despite years of work to change inequities, black students are still more likely to be disciplined than their peers.
“That’s a continuing point of frustration for all of us,” said Rico Munn, Aurora schools superintendent. “We are happy to see our practices have gotten stronger, but the kind of consistency of that gap is a challenge.”
It’s not a particularly unique problem, but in the school district of Aurora, one of the most diverse cities in the state of Colorado, the impact from the disparity can be magnified and can have an effect on academic achievement, something the district is trying to improve.
Aurora Public Schools has slowly made changes for years in an effort to close the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Some of the district’s more in-depth work has been done with the Denver Foundation at 13 schools starting in 2013. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). The foundation has connected schools to nonprofits, including some that help school leaders use restorative justice.
But this year, in a new effort to curb those persistent gaps, instead of just helping schools use restorative practices, the foundation has recruited a well-known teacher training group to help teachers in one school incorporate restorative philosophy into their classrooms.
The foundation is also bringing together school leaders and other educators to have “uncomfortable” conversations about how a student’s race affects how educators perceive their behavior.
Collinus Newsome, the director of education for the Denver Foundation, said that the work to reverse these trends could take a lifetime, but said it’s important enough to try.
“What we’re seeing in our schools is mirroring exactly what’s happening in society,” Newsome said. “There’s all these things that impact how our kids experience school.”
Since Munn took leadership of the district in 2013, district officials have tried to integrate discipline changes — or changes to how educators connect with students, as Munn calls it — into many parts of school systems. It’s meant to be part of how classroom teachers are evaluated and coached, how curriculum is selected and used, and how educators intervene when a student is having problems.
The district has also helped schools start using restorative practices, in which students are taught to examine their actions and the consequences, and to commit to solutions. These practices often serve as an alternative to suspension and expulsions. There are approximately 25 Aurora schools using the model.
In revamping the initiative at the 13 schools working with the foundation, foundation administrators say that while the work helped decrease discipline that sent students out of classrooms, they also found that bias in the system was not being discussed enough, and a lot of students and teachers needed more help than was being provided.
“School partners have become notably more comfortable discussing issues of race and equity, though discomfort is still noted especially for teachers who fear that their evaluations may be adversely affected by authentic conversations,” a private report evaluating the work states.
One of the biggest challenges identified by the foundation and by educators in Aurora has been teacher turnover. In 2016-17, state reports show Aurora had a teacher turnover rate of 21.44 percent, which represented more than 500 new teachers. The foundation also found that schools need better communication with the district, that staff need to feel safer discussing issues around race, and that time to have those conversations is often limited in schools.
Districts across the state and country have been adjusting discipline policies for years, trying to find a balance between keeping schools safe but not punishing students so harshly that they may end up on a track to prison. Research has shown that black students are more likely to be disciplined for similar behaviors than other students, and many efforts to change discipline practices have hit challenges.
Despite the ongoing efforts since 2013, in 2016-17, black students represented 18.1 percent of Aurora school’s population, but 35.3 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. That gap is slightly larger than it was in 2012-13. Hispanic students and white students have been underrepresented in out-of-school suspensions districtwide.
As in every large district where data wasn’t suppressed for privacy reasons, state numbers show Aurora schools also disproportionately suspend black boys in kindergarten through second grade. This group made up 9.2 percent of the K-2 population in the district last year, but received 27.7 percent of the suspensions. The same disparities were not seen for Hispanic boys.
As part of the foundation’s work in Aurora this year, officials bring together the principals and leadership teams of the 13 schools four times a year for a training outside of school.
At the latest meeting in early March, the group heard from Adeyemi Stembridge, who talked about research and the importance of how students perceive the responsiveness of adults. He also prompted educators to think about what he called cultural capital — different assets that students might have, such as self-advocacy, and ways that those strengths might be misunderstood in the classroom. A student who has strong self-advocacy skills, he said, could be seen as defiant or disrespectful in a classroom, for instance.
He told the group that there would be moments in the discussion where they may feel awkward, but assured the group that meant they were learning.
At one point, one woman raised her voice to question a discussion about the merits of black teachers for black students. Couldn’t that lead to segregation? she asked, admitting that she was uncomfortable.
Others in the group voiced their support and applauded her for the vulnerability she had shown in asking the question.
Stembridge said segregation is something to be cautious of, but regardless of a teacher’s color, he or she “has to be willing to put in the work.”
East Middle School is one of the 13 Aurora schools putting in work with the Denver Foundation.
Biaze Houston, principal of East, said the school has seen a 36 percent reduction in referrals, and this year, the restorative practices are now increasingly being initiated by students themselves.
“The biggest thing is we want students in the classroom learning,” Houston said. “But then there is also another piece that when something does happen, they see there is an opportunity to repair it, so it’s not an end of the road.
“With us you get a chance everyday, sometimes you get three or four chances in a day because it’s just part of growing up and becoming a young man or woman. It’s part of learning. We make mistakes.”
Earlier this month, two sixth-grade boys got that opportunity with help from a restorative liaison. The school has one liaison for each grade level.
One of the boys had pushed the other on the basketball court during recess. The boys had taken a week apart, doing some work to reflect on their actions, and had come back to sit in front of each other with the liaison. They apologized, each took responsibility for their role in the altercation, and then the boys shook hands and committed to not letting it happen again.
Houston said the school’s officials are also getting better at tracking patterns in how discipline is used and in what students are doing to get in trouble. The goal is to help teachers, with help from other educators and support staff, anticipate and deal with more problems in the classroom.
At Park Lane Elementary, the foundation has enlisted PEBC, a Denver-based organization that provides teacher training and residencies across the country, to work with teachers on strategies to do that on a more in-depth basis. The school and organization leaders looked at data and identified some of the students that were having the most behavioral problems, then they selected their teachers to start the work this year.
They get side-by-side coaching and help with lesson planning, they see role-playing of how to deal with students who aren’t engaging with the lessons, and they talk about ways their students can be celebrated for their success.
Jocelyn Stephens, the organization’s executive director of education, said six of the seven students have already shown improvements in their behavior.
Some of the organization’s work is also helping teachers work with students dealing with trauma, a large issue for Aurora students — including refugee students coming from war-torn countries or students dealing with ongoing trauma from the Aurora theater shooting in 2015.
Other schools are focusing on work with Aurora Mental Health Center, including helping teachers process their own stress and trauma that they often take on as they work with students who have trauma. Some of that work has included giving teachers strategies for decompressing and starting book clubs among teachers.
Those initiatives aren’t consistent districtwide. Officials from the Denver Foundation want to push Aurora Public Schools to consider making some of these efforts apply to all schools soon. And new school board members elected in November, including two who work with children in the criminal justice system, seem eager to take on more of that work.
One districtwide strategy that has shown some improvement is around expulsions. While black students are still more likely to be expelled than Hispanic or white students, the gap between them was cut almost in half.
In 2016-17, Aurora expelled 60 students total, down from 159 students expelled in 2012-13.
In 2012-13, the rate of expulsions for black students was more than nine expulsions for every 1,000 black students compared to 1.43 expulsions for every 1,000 white students. In 2016-17 the rate for both dropped. It was a little more than 3 expulsions for every 1,000 black students compared to less than one for every 1,000 white students.
“The toughest part of my job is expulsions,” Superintendent Munn said. “You don’t take this job to tell kids they can’t go to school.”
Shortly after Munn became superintendent in Aurora, he revamped how the district handles expulsions. In the past, if a student did not get a hearing for their expulsion, that student’s file ended up in the superintendent’s office.
Now, if a principal wants to recommend a student for expulsion, and that student doesn’t get a hearing, the principal must have a face-to-face meeting with Munn to make the case. After the superintendent makes a recommendation, it goes for final approval to the school board.
“What’s important to me is we know the student, and that it’s clear we know the student, and that we have worked through a process where we have tried to identify other alternatives first,” Munn said. “You can’t really figure that from a file.”