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Chicago schools' big experiment with a different disciplinary tool: empathy

Chicago public schools are pivoting from heavy reliance on expulsions and suspensions to a focus on social and emotional learning and restorative justice. Here's what that looks like at one school.

Weston Williams/The Christian Science Monitor
Amundsen High School in Chicago lifted attendance rates and slashed the number of student misdemeanors resulting in suspension between 2012 and 2016 by focusing on reforming its school culture under, April 6, 2017.

Gigi’s freshman year at Amundsen High School started with a bang, for all the wrong reasons. She snapped at teachers, got into fights, was often late to class, and was a regular in detention.

Before, just one of those transgressions at the 1,200-student school on Chicago’s North Side would likely have gotten her what it got most kids across America’s third-largest school district: a no-questions-asked 10-day suspension.

But when Christian Pederson, the school’s restorative justice coordinator and her swim team coach, heard that Gigi's closest friend had recently died, his response to her behavior was very different. Mr. Pederson went straight to her physics class, pulled her out, and offered a few simple words: “So, I heard what happened. You're part of the swim team; we're a family.”

“Those words actually helped me open up because I used [to] just keep to myself,” recalls Gigi, now in her junior year. “Opening up made me have hope at least someone in this building cares and is willing to help.”

Compassionate efforts to get at the root cause when students start acting up, and then to help them work through it, might sound pie-in-the-sky to some. But that approach is now the norm at the school, staff and students with similar stories say. Amundsen has nearly halved its number of out-of-school suspensions since 2012. That's when its new principal, Anna Pavichevich, began leading the school in a cultural 180, transitioning from a disciplinary system that Ms. Pavichevich says “used to be about kicking kids out,” to one that emphasizes social and emotional learning (SEL) and restorative justice.

The turnaround at Amundsen is the ripest fruit of an overhaul of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) discipline policy. For years – in Chicago and throughout the US  – "zero-tolerance" policies ruled the day at public schools.

Community groups frequently complained that the suspensions and expulsions handed out in that era were disproportionately given to students of color. Nationwide, doubts grew about the efficacy of zero-tolerance policies, as more educators looked at research suggesting that punitive discipline is often to the long-term detriment of students.

So in 2012, the Chicago district schools scrapped zero-tolerance discipline, making it much harder for teachers to suspend kids or call the police for minor offenses. It later banned any suspensions in K-2 classrooms.

At least on a statistical level, the new approach appears to be working: CPS data show suspensions were down 67 percent between the 2012-13 and 2015-16 school-years. Expulsions were down 74 percent over the same period. Over the last three school years, suspension of African American males dropped by 68 percent, and expulsions by 74 percent. (The district's 125 charter schools are not required to report suspension numbers.)

At Amundsen, an improved climate saw attendance rates jump from 82.4 percent in 2012 to 91.8 percent in 2016, and the percentage of misdemeanors resulting in suspensions are down 95.2 percent to 22 percent. At the core of this change, some Amundsen students say, is that they have at least one open, candid relationship with a trusted adult. 

Some rare good news

Good news often seems in short supply in the Chicago public schools – a district beleaguered by lawsuits funding crises, and high numbers of departures by school principals. In addition, some observers find it hard to fully trust CPS data after a media investigation found that between 2011 and 2015, the district had miscounted around 2,200 dropouts as “transfers,” making graduation rates look higher than they were.

For Mike Klonsky, a lifelong educator and researcher who focused on urban school reform, particularly in Chicago, the numbers don't tell the whole story. “I’m not sure that the truth can be got at from just looking at numbers, but, I will say this ... I think the reports about the declining suspension and expulsion rates are at least indicators of some improvement, and I’m happy to see those improvements,” he says.

But some observers don't believe teachers and principals are getting the support they need under the new system.

The new policies leave many principals unable to suspend kids who deserve it, says Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, who CPS removed as the principal of Blaine Elementary School last year. He adds he's all for restorative justice when it's done properly. But, he says, principals are not being given the training or resources required to successfully work with restorative practices – practices he estimates could be effective in about 95 percent of disciplinary cases, if applied properly.

CPS is committing significant resources to the new policy, says Janice Jackson, CPS’s chief executive of education. In recent years, she says, CPS has increased spending on SEL resources from $8.4 million a year in 2013 to $11.2 million in 2016, and has been deploying extra SEL specialists to the districts that need them most.

'Man, I've got to stop'

Some of the success stories at Amundsen testify to what the program can look like when it works.

At the high school, as teachers and students dug in to shift the climate, it performed an unprecedented turnaround. In two years it went from having spent the previous 11 years as a probationary Level 3 school – meaning it required intensive district support – to Level 1, the district’s highest ranking.

As teachers, faculty, and five students – each of whom has faced significant disciplinary problems in the past – sit around a table, they talk about the new environment of caring and mutual respect.

Kenneth, a junior, says he got into a serious fight in school that would have certainly resulted in a long suspension under old policy. Instead, he ended up having a series of talks with staff based on the principles of SEL and restorative justice.

“I wasn't thinking straight, and then it took me sitting and really listening to Miss P., Mr. Pederson, Mr. Rosen, and Mr. Javier, and they really made me open my eyes like, 'Man, I've got to stop.' They really try to make you understand that there's the right thing, and then there's what you think is right,” Kenneth says.

Pavichevich tells of a time, when after a fight between a girl and boy, the girl spent 2-1/2 hours screaming in her office. But when her principal opened up about her own experience in an abusive relationship, the girl immediately calmed and began listening.

Many other schools across the city, including some of the toughest neighborhoods on the south and west sides, are currently adopting their own SEL and restorative justice practices.

Pavichevich says she has principal colleagues who think it’s all too “touchy feely.” Many say they don’t have the patience amid the enormous budgetary and other pressures they face. Some see the policy change as a major blow to their disciplinary arsenal.

Nationwide shift

Dr. Jackson, who started as a social studies teacher in the tough South Shore neighborhood and used to be a principal, admits that she was highly skeptical when the district first abandoned zero-tolerance.

But she changed her mind when she saw the data showing the disproportionate discipline of black and brown children, and the results from the program.

“The SEL work, although I didn’t start it in the district, and probably wouldn’t have, it converted me,” she says. “I remember being a principal and I remember using suspensions as a way and a form of discipline. Some principals and teachers probably initially looked at [SEL and restorative justice] and thought, 'Oh, are we lowering our expectations for behavior, is this all about kumbaya?' But very quickly we saw the success.”

Chicago is not alone in its embrace of the new policy. Similar discipline reforms have taken place in school districts across the country, including Syracuse, Baltimore, Broward County, Fla, Berklee, Calif., Oakland, and Los Angeles. That doesn't mean, however, that there is always widespread buy-in.

Schools and unions are often in favor the policy on a theoretical level, but resist implementing it because they aren't getting sufficient training or funding, according to Dan Losen, director of Center for Civil Rights Remedies UCLA. 

"Usually when you unpack that, you find that they’re not against the policy change at all, they’re really saying we need what was promised, which is the training and supports for us and for the kids to do this the right way," says Professor Losen, who recently co-authored two state-level reports on the negative effects of suspensions in Massachusetts and California.

It can also be hard for teachers to jump on the bandwagon of a new program when they're worried about a slew of other system-wide challenges, says Mr. Pederson of Amundsen. "One of the hardest things we're dealing with right now [is] morale," says Pederson.

Tightrope between hope and despair

Looking at Chicago at a systemic level, it's easy to get caught up in the district's many challenges, but zooming in often reveals a different picture, says Marv Hoffman, former associate director of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago.

“When I was … preparing teachers to work in these kinds of conditions, I always said this was a tightrope walk between hope and despair that you’re always engaged in, in this environment,” says Mr. Hoffman a former teacher. “Sometimes ... I need to be reminded that there are good things happening.”

Which is why he finds it encouraging to hear about what's happening at Amundsen.

“It’s always the case in large institutions that are beset with problems, the closer you get to the ground – the individual classrooms where teachers are working – you discover that there are a lot of good things going on.”

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