LA Unified candidate says voters should apply restorative justice practices — how to make things right for all students — to the upcoming election
Tanya Ortiz Franklin | February 26, 2020
“What do we need to do to make things as right as possible?”
That’s the pivotal question we ask our students when practicing restorative justice in school, and I think it’s one we should be asking in the current Los Angeles Unified School Board elections.
In schools, restorative justice is an alternative to exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions and is comparatively focused on teaching and learning healthy behaviors and social-emotional skills, shown to improve school climate and student growth. After a lifetime in Los Angeles Unified, first as a student and then as a classroom teacher, my current job is to support educators, school staff and parents in helping students to work through conflict in safe and productive ways by teaching social-emotional skills and restorative justice.
Now I think we need to bring a restorative lens to running our schools, as well. These days, instead of being asked how we can make things as right as possible in LA Unified, the question I most often get as a candidate for Board District 7 is, “Do you support charter schools or the teachers union?”
This is a false dichotomy that only exacerbates polarization and stereotypes in a country that is already suffering from so much hate.
How does restorative justice work? Here’s an example: Recently two fifth-graders were playing basketball at recess when, at a certain point in the game, their expressions of confidence in their own skills led to unkind words about each other’s skills. That turned to words about each other’s families that then grew into pushes on the shoulder, which finally came to punches and kicks. It is important to note that a conflict like this affected the whole school community — there were also third-graders on the playground, who observed the interaction, and the students themselves were from two different schools — one district, one charter — who share the same campus and where relations had been tense between the two staffs.
In this situation, as the educators tasked with resolving this conflict, we did not pick sides or ask ourselves, “Which student, staff member or school do you care most about?” Instead, we asked, “What do we need to do to make things as right as possible?”
- Read more: Teacher Spotlight: KIPP Corazon’s Michelle Torres on preparing students to navigate the system better than she did, championing restorative justice and appreciating her trusting parents
After sufficient time to breathe, reflect and come up with solutions to heal the harm, we all sat in a circle with agreements to speak and listen from our hearts. We heard everyone’s experience, feelings and hopes. We talked about students looking for adults to support them when big emotions arise; we talked about adults adjusting recess schedules on shortened days to avoid too many students on the playground at once; and we talked about reading a prepared “lessons learned” letter to the third-graders who observed the altercation.
Most importantly, we valued our individual humanity and committed to make things as right as possible.
Things are not perfect every day for those students nor the staff, but they’re better than they would have been if we merely took sides, made assumptions and avoided honest dialogue.
In teaching and learning, which should always be the ultimate focus for our school district and for any candidate looking to create a better way forward, the questions must always help further the learning. The aim should always be to find solutions collaboratively, creatively, and in preparation for the next challenge that’s sure to come.
Similarly, on the LA Unified school board, things can be better for students, families and staff if we lessen the unnecessary and unproductive divisions of “us versus them” and open ourselves to the possibility of success for all of us. As traditional schools have shown, labor unions fighting for the common good and lifting up the needs of staff and families in every neighborhood can be powerful for our schools in Los Angeles. As charter schools have shown, philanthropy can be a great partner for increasing access to much-needed resources and school-based innovation can be helpful for our students in Los Angeles.
- Read more: As California Expands Ban on ‘Willful Defiance’ Suspensions, Lessons From L.A. Schools, Which Barred Them Six Years Ago
As the only candidate in our race who was an LAUSD classroom teacher and who has dedicated my entire career to educational equity in our Los Angeles public schools, I encourage us all to think about how to make things as right as possible for all of our students and our shared future.
Are we making things as right as possible when only half of our graduates are eligible for California’s public universities in a job market that increasingly requires college degrees? Are we making things as right as possible when only a third of our students are proficient in math and that number drops below 20 percent for African-American students, students with disabilities and students experiencing homelessness? Are we making things as right as possible when only 68 percent of our middle school students and 62 percent of our high school students feel safe at school?
I believe leaders who represent all of our public schools, all of our communities, and all of our diverse perspectives must do their absolute best to make things as right as possible for all students, especially for those who have been harmed by a public school system that has for too long failed to provide the educational opportunities they deserve. We must have a clear vision that all students graduate holistically prepared to thrive in the college and career of their choice. We must have a budget that is adequate, equitable and responsible, reflecting values that will truly support all students. And we must authentically engage with educators, school staff, parents, students and community members so that we can meet the unique needs of each student and each school community.
In the countdown to election day on March 3, 2020, let’s not revert to old battles and picking sides. Instead, let’s take a restorative approach to building up a public school system that makes things as right as possible.