This article is part III of a three-part story adapted from Give Magazine Summer 2018.
The Common Sense Discipline initiative, formerly known as Ending the School to Prison Pipeline, launched in 2013 with support from Denver Foundation donor-advised fundholders and donors. It is the cornerstone of The Denver Foundation’s work in education, reflecting the values of inclusion and equity as well as leadership and innovation in addressing some of the biggest challenges that face our educational system—and our youth.
Park Lane Elementary is one of 17 schools to partner with The Denver Foundation on Common Sense Discipline. Thirteen of those schools, including Park Lane Elementary, are within Aurora Public Schools (APS), arguably the most complex school district in Colorado.
APS extends over a huge area that includes concentrated pockets of poverty as well as staggering diversity: Its students include thousands of children whose families came to the United States as refugees and immigrants from over 130 countries. More than 35 percent of APS students are English-language learners. 80 percent are children of color.
Like many underresourced public school districts, APS has struggled with low rates of achievement and graduation. It also has high rates of expulsions, suspensions, and referrals to law enforcement. In APS and across the country, these extreme disciplinary measures are disproportionately invoked upon students of color in general, and African- American males in particular. African-American and Latino APS students are much more likely to be punished, and punished more harshly, than their white counterparts for the exact same offenses.
This phenomenon fuels a cycle that can put African-American and Latino students further and further behind, placing them at higher risk of dropping out and, statistically, of winding up in the justice system. At its core, Common Sense Discipline is an intervention meant to disrupt this cycle, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, by understanding why some students act out, and changing how teachers respond when they do.
The Denver Foundation works with schools to identify which elements of Common Sense Discipline are the best fit. In some schools, that’s support for teachers dealing with disruptive classroom behaviors. Other schools focus on planning curriculum that is culturally relevant and engaging to diverse groups of students. Some take steps into the bias and racial equity work like that underway at Park Lane.
According to Collinus Newsome, The Denver Foundation’s Director of Education, Common Sense Discipline takes place along a spectrum. Whatever a school is truly ready for, that’s where it begins.
“It’s one of the biggest questions we face: How do you talk about bias in a way that feels safe, where teachers and school leaders can be vulnerable in discussing and naming these issues,” says Newsome, who worked for APS prior to joining the foundation in 2016.
“There’s a significant amount of trust that’s been hardwon, between The Denver Foundation, the district, and the building leaders. So, relationship-building is part of the work at every level. It’s between teachers, and teacher and kids, and teachers and principals. Relationships are absolutely key.”
Five years into the program, disciplinary referrals in some Common Sense Discipline schools are down. In others, the use of restorative justice practice is up. Some teachers report that the increased focus on relationship-building and cultural responsiveness has influenced how they show up in their classrooms, particularly around issues of race and culture.
But as APS Superintendent Rico Munn notes, changing entrenched systems takes a long time. Munn, a former Denver Foundation Trustee who served as chair of its Education Committee, joined APS in 2013 and has led efforts to turn the district around.
“We’re always racing against the clock, because we only have these kids for a certain amount of time,” he says. “If we’re not making progress, we’re losing ground. So we have to constantly have that sense of urgency. But it’s culture shift, and it’s tough to put that on a timeline.
“What you want to see is that you’ve built a culture and a capacity so that your community says, ‘This is a place that we trust, and we have a relationship. We know these people.’ That’s incredibly important, and that’s something you have to build very intentionally.”
There’s no absolute measure of the value of building those relationships. Or of intentionally shifting how teachers and administrators in APS relate to their students. Of intentionally reframing what APS students carry into the school—cultural diversity, lived experience, street smarts, resilience, the ability to speak multiple languages—as assets that can unlock potential and learning. What happens when you decrease the long-term societal cost of bias against children of color? The answers are likely to come slowly, incrementally.
But there are indicators that the work is starting to take root. Over the past four years, academic achievement has increased and dropouts have decreased. Graduation rates within APS have improved by 15 percent. Superintendent Munn believes the district’s emphasis on relationships and school culture has helped bring about those changes.
“We believe that we are in a place where we have built something, which at the very least is momentum for positive things,” he says. “As in any human endeavor that’s as dynamic as this one, you never get to a point of completion. You can get to a point of consistency. That’s the next level for us, where there’s a level of consistency around what students and families can expect in everything that happens while they’re at school.”
For more information on Common Sense Discipline, please visit denverfoundation.org