This summer, CYC sat down with students who left school early to listen and learn from their experiences. Their insights were invaluable as we as an organization—and, going wider, as the educational sector—begin the work of rebuilding after COVID-19.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked a wide array of organizations across the country to publish statements that expressed outrage at the senseless deaths and the fight for racial equity that continues today. Colorado Youth for a Change also issued such a statement, which was informed by the fact that we as an organization must be committed to dismantling white supremacy in all forms in order to effectively and equitably support our students. The time has come to begin asking what comes after those statements of outrage and solidarity and what actions we have taken and will continue to take as an organization to do our part.
But first, how is the fight for racial equity relevant to the work we do? What does the data and our experience as an organization over the last 15 years tell us?
Receiving a disciplinary action remains one of the strongest predictors of students dropping out of school (receiving one action makes students twice as likely to drop out). When the Colorado Department of Education examined specific groups of students, this relationship was especially evident for Black or African American students and Latinx students. Graduation rates last year for these students of color were 11% less than their white peers, showing that the gains in overall graduation rates across Colorado don’t tell the whole story. These discrepancies are not because of a lack of interest or ability; rather they tell a story of the equity work that is as urgent as ever.
Many young men of color we talk to have been pushed out of school and made to feel that they can’t come back. Even though they’ve never officially been expelled, they feel that school is no longer for them. In fact, our staff member working with youth who are involved with the court system shows that 20% of her caseload have never actually been expelled, even though they need help getting back into school.
All individuals have implicit biases and educators are no different. Implicit bias refers to “unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes, and categories that affect behavior understanding.” (Poorvu Center at Yale University) So, what are some examples of how implicit bias impacts our students?
- When a student transfers you can see their student file; if there are any disciplinary actions in their file, the staff member risks reinforcing any biases that might exist towards that student.
- Often times, staff and teachers do not represent the students they are serving. Despite making up only 13.2% of the student population, Black students made up 30% of all referrals to law enforcement in DPS last school year. Unlearning the bias that exists within each one of us is an essential part in creating more racial equity in schools.
So, what has CYC done to show commitment to racial equity within our organization and within education?
At CYC’s Futures Academy program over the last 11 years, we adopted a power with approach that was the foundation of the restorative practices that drove our work with students. Many of our students had left school due to extreme mistrust in educational institutions and adults within them, so we knew that we had to be different. A power with approach is relational and collective; it is a partnership, and it is reciprocal. Together with our students we built a restorative community where our diverse perspectives gave rise to our collective wisdom. It was a paradigm shift that was truly transformational for both staff and students. We built the school our students told us they needed: to be seen, to be trusted, to be respected, and to feel as if they were part of a community.*
*Read more about the Futures Academy work by scrolling to the end of this blog.
CYC created an internal Inclusivity Action Team comprised of a diverse group of staff members who were paid a stipend for the additional time commitment on top of their traditional position duties. These staff members created, facilitated and implemented an equity training that is required for all CYC employees. This training gives staff members the opportunity to examine their privileged and marginalized identities. CYC’s Inclusivity Action Team also created a platform for “community conversations” where on-going discussions related to systemic oppression and equity took place both in-person and virtually.
CYC sent a letter to the DPS School Board citing our support of removing police officers from schools. As mentioned above, we recognize the presence of police in schools as an issue that disproportionately impacts Black and brown students.
What are our commitments as an organization moving forward?
While we are proud of the work we’ve done in the realm of inclusivity, we know there is so much more to do. Here’s our commitment:
- Organizational training on restorative practices and reinforcement through onboarding of new staff (i.e. when working with students: focusing on the harm done vs. the rule that’s been broken and how the student can be accountable and repair harm)
- More in-depth training around checking biases while reading student files
- Joining Systems Impact Institute cohort – will give CYC the opportunity to push on systems and create grassroots partnerships with other education institutions in order to create systems-level change
- Utilize our relationships within schools and school districts to encourage leaders to look at different ways of recording information on students (i.e. not only disciplinary record; what are the students’ strengths? What are their hopes and dreams?)
- Revisit hiring process and recruitment strategy
- Focus on Board of Directors recruitment
[i] Gary Sweeten, Who Will Graduate? Disruption of High School Education by Arrest and Court Involvement, Justice Quarterly, 2006.
More about CYC’s Futures Academy Power With Approach
If we truly listened to the voices of our students, we would hear them asking for a place where they can be accepted for who they are. A place where they could be part of a community and feel a sense of belonging. A place where they can make mistakes and be safe. A place where they could trust the people in positions of power. A place where they are powerful, too.
For many students, their experiences at school are starkly different than what is described above. When you hear their stories, one element becomes glaringly obvious. Authoritarian, power over structures that many schools have in place are often at the heart of the difficulties students experience throughout their educational journey. This power dynamic creates systems designed to work against many students and lessen the chances of success, and the data shows that students of color are impacted the most. They are often the ones caught in the crossfire of the power struggles that are inevitable when authoritarian structures are used for control and by its very nature require enforcement. This comes as no surprise as more and more data tells the story that students of color are called out more than their white counterparts. Power over makes school unsafe for many students who historically have held little power in institutions not created for them.
At CYC’s Futures Academy over the last 11 years, we adopted a power with approach that was the foundation of the restorative practices that drove our work with students. Many of our students had left school due to extreme mistrust in educational institutions and adults within them, so we knew that we had to be different. A power with approach is relational and collective; it is a partnership, and it is reciprocal. Together with our students we built a restorative community where our diverse perspectives gave rise to our collective wisdom. It was a paradigm shift that was truly transformational for both staff and students. We built the school our students told us they needed: to be seen, to be trusted, to be respected, and to feel as if they were part of a community.
There were times we had to work with students to come to resolution around conflict or harm to the community. But with a restorative approach you look at each situation within the context of the individual. You spend the time getting to the “why” behind what happened. It is not a one size fits all approach which is inherent in power over structures and so often unfairly detrimental to students of color. When you work together to find ways to heal harm, it is more powerful than handing down discipline from above. Students who have felt powerless in the past now have a voice and a sense of their own capacity and self-worth. It is more work to be restorative; it is much easier to be one size fits all, but we have to move away from those approaches if we want to stop the patterns emerging in the data that demonstrate the inequities that live within our education system. Restorative practices in schools take training, constant development and reflection, and being willing not to do something just because it is the way its always been done. It takes vulnerability and courage.
This firsthand experience of shifting expressions of power to better serve the needs of our students -many who are marginalized within systems designed to work against them- shows that schools can do things differently. They do not need people walking the halls who are strictly there to enforce. They do not need one size fits all discipline approaches designed to control and create fear. They do not need one individual or group making sole decisions that affect others that have to no say. They do not need to take students’ power away.
The past few months have made it clear that old, inherited, harmful systems must change. It is time to reset and put our energy into understanding and creating restorative structures and practices so that when students return to school, they see and feel a difference. It can be done. And now, more than ever, our students will need it. They will need to come back to a school that, like all restorative communities, has empathy as the foundation. They can not heal in a place where they do not feel safe.
Shifting power dynamics and adopting restorative practices can move us in the right direction, but it must be more than a set of things we do as an alternative to “punishment.” It has to become the framework for everything and become part of the DNA of the school. What does that look like? It is building relationships so that we may respond to others in a way that strengthens and empowers rather than tearing down, marginalizing or isolating. It is caring about both our individual and collective well-being as a community. It is recognizing our shared humanity. At our Futures Academy program, we saw the impact of this type of learning environment. It’s real, and it’s powerful, and it changes lives. It is time to become the schools our students need us to be.