Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Five years ago, Atrisco Heritage Academy High was a major pipeline to prison, not higher education.
The large, modern school on the southwestern edge of Albuquerque had the highest student arrest rate in New Mexico.
Antonio Gonzales, then a new principal, decided it was time to revamp the entire discipline process and try to get kids back on the right track.
He was inspired by the restorative justice movement – a shift in focus from punishment to rehabilitation that was having success in Florida schools.
“We began, with our team, to turn certain institutional components of our school on their head,” Gonzales said. “We changed the philosophy.”
At Atrisco Heritage, the In-School Suspension Room became the Student Success Center, an inviting space that connects kids to services like counseling or medical care.
The program, which launched in 2013, allows any adult to send a child to the center for a “Teaching, Learning and Caring” referral designed to address bad behavior before it becomes worse.
Severe offenses still call for out-of-school suspension or expulsion, but the main focus is offering support.
“If you ask kids one or two questions, you get a window into who they are,” Gonzales said. “For some kids, it is a one-parent household and mom, God bless her, is trying to work three jobs to bring home food for the three or four kids in the household. So, therefore, they are acting out on campus.”
The restorative justice approach has brought dramatic results: During the 2014-15 school year, 238 Atrisco students received an in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or expulsion, down from 404 in 2013-14.
Albuquerque Public Schools administrators are impressed and hope to open more Student Success Centers across the district.
APS by the numbers
Katarina Sandoval, associate superintendent for equity and access, considers school discipline an important social justice issue, particularly because it disproportionately impacts minority groups.
Last winter, she worked on an analysis of 90,000 school records from 2010 to 2015, which showed that Hispanic kids accounted for 74 percent of all suspensions, though they only made up 67 percent of the enrollment. African-Americans were a very small population – 2 percent of the district – but represented 4 percent of suspensions.
In contrast, Caucasians made up 21 percent of the student body and only 14 percent of suspensions.
Along with ethnic minorities, special education students were also prominent, suspended at twice the rate of their enrollment in the school population.
APS hopes to break out of these patterns with programs like the Student Success Center.
“Getting tough on kids and excluding them doesn’t give them an opportunity to learn,” said Rose-Ann McKernan, executive director of the APS office of accountability and reporting, and Sandoval’s co-author on the suspension study.
Students who receive an out-of-school suspension are twice as likely to drop out all together, and the risk increases by 20 percent for each successive instance. Even if students stay enrolled, they often fall behind on their work and struggle to make it up.
Roughly 11 percent of APS students had at least one suspension during the past five years – about 83,000 students in all.
The numbers combine in-school suspensions (confinement to a specific area), out-of-school suspensions (ban from school for up to a semester) and expulsions (ban from school for over a semester).
Expulsions are a tiny percentage of the total. Generally, APS only expels a few dozen students each year.
Overall, the most common infraction is general disorderly conduct, such as disrespect or defiance of authority figures.
McKernan said APS’ suspension rate is roughly in the middle for large urban districts, though comparison can be difficult because some schools report more student discipline data than others.
The U.S. Department of Education has reviewed data from across the country and also found racial disparities.
Nationwide, black students are almost four times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension and about twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested as white students.
Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American and multiracial boys represented 19 percent of out-of-school suspensions but only 15 percent of the student body.
“Many large urban districts and states are realizing that the national movement around zero tolerance for behaviors has really not been effective,” Sandoval said. “We are going to start to see more and more districts move toward restorative justice practices, where there is accountability on the part of the students who break the rules to that community, and they are re-engaged and brought back into that community in a positive way,”
Alternative programs like the Student Success Center offer a better approach, Sandoval said.
In July, more than 60 school principals and other school leaders attended a workshop on restorative justice practices, and a handful have visited Atrisco Heritage to experience the center firsthand.
Gonzales has since moved on to an administrative position at APS Central Office, but he still takes pride in Atrisco’s successes.
“It’s humbling to have people come and look at the program,” he said.
Irene Cisneros, Atrisco’s interim principal, feels that the restorative justice philosophy makes sense because it is simply better for kids.
“That’s our job – to think about the kids.”