Dr. John King lost his mom at an early age and not long afterwards his dad to un-diagnosed Alzheimers. The trauma in part led to his being tossed out of school, more than once.
His life was literally saved, he said, by the compassion and interventions of teachers in the New York City public schools he attended.
Now he is U.S. secretary of education. (For a few more weeks.)
Senior Joseph Albarran didn’t have a support system at home when he entered Wilbur Cross High School, and, though intelligent, immediately began getting very poor grades.
Enter all the resources and interventions of New Haven’s Youth Stat program — ranging from alternatives to suspension and expulsion to basic family supports to mental health counseling. Now Joseph has a 3.8 average, speaks of the joys of learning, and is headed off to Mitchell College in London to major in psychology.
The two beneficiaries, albeit across generations, of compassionate programs to reach disengaged young people, as opposed to punishing them, met and shook hands at Wilbur Cross High School Monday morning.
“Mr. Albarran and Mr. Brooks [another of the presenting students], congratulations. We’re really proud of you,” said King at the conclusion of a round-table discussion in the lobby of the high school.
King, accompanied by Gov. Dannel Malloy, Connecticut U.S. Sens. Murphy and Blumenthal, Mayor Toni Harp and a bevy of officials from the city’s education and youth engagement departments were on hand for a swan song-cum-victory tour highlighting what the city and state have done to promote programs reaching out to at-risk kids. The event included a policy roundtable.
Those include providing alternatives to expulsion, training teachers in social and emotional learning, and and restorative practices on the eve of a new U.S. president and new secretary of education arriving in D.C. with other ideas.
The specific aim was to celebrate New Haven’s recent innovative programs such as Youth Stat, Youth Court, the School-Based Diversion Initiatives, a new emphasis on social-and-emotional learning for both kids and staff. These programs identify, reach out to, and turn around disengaged young people in trouble instead of ostracizing, criminalizing, and then tossing them in jail.
Roundtable participant Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, New Haven public schools’ chief of youth, family, and community engagement, said the schools in town have seen a 25 percent decrease in suspension and expulsions within the last year.
While other factors could be involved, that achievement dovetails with the establishing of Youth Stat. Begun in April 2014, the program puts under one umbrella all the kids showing early signs of problems — like chronic absenteeism — and coordinates a tailored intervention, and uses data to make a difference in the tracking and the services. Youth Court is a network of about 30 high schoolers across the city who receive training as judges, lawyers, and jurors to come up with non-expulsion solutions as they adjudicate their peers’ cases. The ALIVE program, in partnership with Youth Stat, does training and interventions for kids who have had relatives killed, or suffer within other traumatic or PTSD conditions.
There’s also the little known but crucial work of someone like Cameo Thorne, a 16-year veteran English teacher and now the director of restorative practices for the district’s teachers.
Under a grant from the American Federation of Teachers, she has been able to offer two-day training thus far for 267 city teachers in restorative practices for the classroom.
That means, for example, “You use circles to build empathy in a classroom. It builds relationship. You’re more likely to do something for someone when you’ve talked about it: How does it make you feel when someone is talking aloud in class, for example?”
Then, if a student understands through this process, the next step, in the case of an egregious instance, is to make a contract to repair it.
Thorne was thrilled that King was at Cross because “Dr. King has spoken out for restorative practices in the past,” she said, and he has been a high school history teacher.
“Mentors and teachers saved my life,” said King.
Thorne said she is concerned about President-Elect Donald Trump’s proposed new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. “How can you put something in perspective when you’ve never been a teacher?” she asked.
After a tour of a classroom, where ALIVE Assistant Director Elizabeth McAdam was conducting “Colombian Hypnosis,” a confidence-building activity for a group of Cross kids devising their own program to intervene in addressing their peers’ problems, the politicians gathered for a brief question-and-answer session.
“What’s going on in New Haven is being shared, ” Malloy asserted “although we have to see what you have to say in New Haven so we can reach a little higher” for “our disengaged and disconnected kids.”
One questioner asked how the programs can be sustained.
“The task is to build on that progress. The investments pay off with better outcomes,” King said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal went further and threw down a gauntlet. “This kind of program is fact-based. We know it works,” Blumenthal said. “Any secretary of education who fails to follow this model is betraying the public trust.”
“There are schools around the country who look at expulsion as a way to get kids out. This [New Haven’s programs] looks at suspensions and expulsion data as a way to bring kids back in,” said Sen. Chris Murphy.
Blumenthal called Youth Court, which was new to him, “a real innovation, enormously creative,” an example of programs that are a genuine investment. “Either invest and pay now, or pay later.”
Both senators and King tried to assure their interlocutors, including Cross and city staffers, that the reforms in place will continue through recurring legislation including the newly passed bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Education Act. which contains language supporting mental health services and training for teachers in social-emotional learning.
“The president-elect is a businessman. He should understand that it’s an investment, a good deal,” said Blumenthal.
Lumpkin was a little less optimistic, although no less enthusiastic about what has been achieved and the importance of the recognition embodied in the occasion.
“We’re bringing attention to restorative practices and away from zero tolerance. I’m hopeful the new administration will see this as a viable approach to reducing violence and strengthening educational outcomes for our students,” she said.
She added that all the programs under the general Youth Stat umbrella, deriving from various government levels, cost about $1 million a year. “If there’s a substantial federal reduction, then the state [reduction] follows, a domino effect. I’m concerned.”